Corinth and Sects

(Richard Holden)

What was the Assembly in Corinth Like in the Days of the Apostles?

In Corinth there existed, in the apostles' day, a company of people who had believed the Gospel, been born again of the Holy Ghost, baptized by Him into "one body", gathered out by Him from among Jews and Gentiles, and gathered to the name of JESUS.

Every Lord's day (not to speak of other occasions) these were, by the same Holy Ghost, "gathered together" unto His name (Matt. 18.20; 1 Cor. 5.4); for He had promised, when so "gathered", He would be in the midst; and, as gathered by the Holy Ghost, they assembled, or came together, to meet with Him Cor. 14.23, 26; Heb. 10.25).

They did not meet as a voluntary society of man's creation or device, but as the church, or assembly, of God (1 Cor. 1.2) an association, or body, of His forming — in their respective places, in which they had been set, not by their own choice, but by Him (1 Cor. 12.18). They had neither option, choice, nor selection in the matter, and there was yet, in that day and city, nothing else under the Christian name to tempt them into any other position.

We know, from Acts 18, that the Apostle Paul had been the Holy Ghost's instrument for the original calling of that assembly. We know, from passages in his letters to them (1 Cor. 12.8-11, 20, 30; 14.13, 23, etc.) , that they had, in the midst, gifted persons of some, at least, of the classes of which the apostle declared to them that God had set such in the assembly. (1 Cor. 12.28).

It does not, however, appear that they had among them anything like what is now known as "a stated" or "settled ministry". There is no hint, either in Acts or in the epistles, of anything like a "minister", or "presiding elder", or other officer, conducting or regulating "the services" in their assemblies, or presiding at the Lord's table. The absence of any such person is evident, first, from the absence of any allusions to him either in the apostle's reproofs, instructions, or salutations; second, from the fact, evident in the whole tone of the apostle's admonitions and instructions in chapters 11-14, that the freedom of ministry in their meetings was wholly unrestrained by the presence of any one in authority.

What Were the SAINTS in Corinth Like?

It is further evident, from the epistles, that though these persons were, by the Holy Ghost, denominated "saints" (Chap. 1.2) , there was still existing in and among them an evil element, known in Scripture as "the flesh", which "flesh" made known its presence by some, at least, of the works described by the apostle in Galatians 5.19-21 as peculiar to it; for in Chapter 5 of his First Letter the apostle had to tax them with one of its ugliest works, and to warn them against several others. In 11.21, he had to blame them for another of these — drunkenness, under the most atrocious circumstances, at the Lord's table, and in company with gluttony; in 1.11, he had to reprove them for "contentions": in 3.3, for "envying, strife, and factions"; in 4.19, for being "puffed up"; in 6.1, for "going to law"; and in Chapters 11 & 14 for such abuses of ministry and the Lord's supper as made their coming together "not for the better, but for the worse," inasmuch as there were "divisions" among them. (Ver. 18). Women were being allowed to take part in the meetings; display in the use of tongues was allowed to usurp the place of edification, and such unseemly disorder in the exercise of prophesyings prevailed as proved that they were not acting in the Spirit, since "God is not the author of confusion".

What About DIVISIONS in Corinth?

It further appears that the presence of these carnal "contentions", "factions", and "schisms" began to take the form of cliques, grouping themselves together under different names, as Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and even the sacred name of Christ was made among them a party-name.

It is pretty evident, from the silence on the subject in the second epistle, that the apostle's admonition took effect, and suppressed, for the time, at all events, the development of this sectarian spirit into open rupture, which was well.

We may, however, picture to ourselves the state of things which must have resulted had this been otherwise, as by so doing, we may find help in seizing on certain important principles bearing on our own position.

Let us imagine that the factions in Corinth had run so high that on some given Lord's day each of those named by the apostle had concluded to separate itself from the others, and had secured a separate place of meeting; so that on that Lord's day morning, instead of the one original assembly we have thus far been occupied with, there were found also in Corinth four other meetings, each in its respective building, under its respective name of Paulites, Apollites, Cephites, and Christites, or, Christ-ians.

Five Assemblies — What Then?

What, now, would be the position of affairs? and what the respective merits of the five assemblies?

First, there would be four distinct meetings, each with a name adopted for the express purpose of distinguishing it from all the other Christians in Corinth. It is not that they had renounced the Christian name, for they still called themselves Christians; but it is that Christians want now to distinguish themselves, and whom they desire to exclude from their fellowship, unless they be willing to identify themselves with their attitude and position. Christians having divided, would now need other names beside that of Christian to mark them out. Before, they only needed a name to distinguish them from Jews or heathen, and Christian was enough for that. They now want to distinguish Christians from Christians. They are Christians still, but they are now Christians of a peculiar kind, — they are Paulite Christians, and Apollite Christians, and so forth.

And then, as they have now divided, and got their separate places of meeting, these also receive the name of those who assemble in them; and there would have sprung up the Paulite meeting-house, the Apollite or Cephite church or chapel. or whatever else they might call it.

What Does "Ground of Gathering" Mean?

The ground of people's gathering together into any place of assembly is, their reason for their being there. So long as all the saints or brethren in Corinth assembled in one place, they do so because they had all one common object, one common name, one common centre. Their object was Christ. That name, object, and centre drew them out, and marked them off, from Gentilism on the one hand, and from Judaism on the other.

Once they had divided; the reason of their being each in their respective places, instead of all in one, or on one common ground, would have been quite different.

If a Paulite had been asked on a Lord's day morning, as he was seen turning into the Paulite meeting-house, why he went there, instead of going where he had been wont, his honest answer must have been, that he was going thither because he was a Paulite, and that was where the Paulites met. They were meeting now as Paulites, gathered in the name of Paul. They had not cast off their Christianity — they would still have insisted on being owned as Christians, but they had added something to their Christianity. Supposing it to have been nothing more than a name, it still constituted a new kind of Christianity — a new ground of gathering. It is not that which was from the beginning. It was not, therefore, the Christianity of Christ on the ground of God. Had these Paulites been satisfied with Christianity as God gave it, they would not have needed either a new name or a new place of assembly. They would have been content to have gone on with the old name and the old place. It is the new thing — the new attitude toward their fellow-Christians — the new ground of meeting together, that called for the new name.

What Attitude Would the Paulites Have Towards Other Christians?

The attitude of these Paulites toward those still on the original ground, and toward the others, would have been this: —

They would have maintained toward both, We are as much Christians as yourselves. We meet in the name of the Lord as much as you, and we come together for the very same object as yourselves; only, we withdraw from you, who most unreasonably insist on calling yourselves only by the name of Christians, because we believe it good to introduce some little changes into our church-order and ministry, that we feel quite sure that Paul would approve, though he may not have prescribed them. And as you will not have it in the meetings, and will not have fellowship with us in doing it, we think it best to leave you to yourselves; and so all of us who are agreed about it say "good-bye" to you, and meet now where we have liberty to please ourselves about it. And in order to distinguish us from you, and from others who have gone out on different grounds, we choose to call ourselves Paulites — Paulite Christians remember; for we are as good Christians as you, only that name is hardly enough now to "denominate" us, — it would confound us with you. Then, as to you others who call yourselves Apollites or Cephites, while we fully acknowledge your liberty to please yourselves as well as we, yet we think that the changes you have added to the old thing are not nearly as good as our own; and so, though we have less objection to you than to those other narrow-minded people who will not budge an inch from what they find written down for them, still, you see, we couldn't get along with you either. So we must agree to differ, and meet apart, each in our own place, and under our own "denominational name." At the same time, we do not want to be illiberal; and so, since we still own you as Christians, we will allow any of you that like to come occasionally and sit down at our table, and we may some of us occasionally come to you in the same way, so as to show the world that though we are divided we are still one. We would be willing to do the same with those other people too, only they will not interchange such courtesies with us, strait-laced and narrow-minded as they are.

Such would of necessity have been, more or less, the attitude toward the others, of each of the new "denominations."

What Must Be the Attitude of the Original Body?

And what of the attitude of the original body? It must have been this: They would have said to these seceders, We have in our hands Paul's letter in which he warns us against names and factions and divisions; in which he tells us that "the body is one", and that it is the mind of God "that there should be no schism in the body," since He has formed it Himself by His Spirit, and "tempered the body together," and "set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased Him;" and we cannot consent to attempt improvements on what God has done. If He had judged those things to be needful or good which you have adopted, He would have appointed them, and in some part of His Word we should have found it mentioned. As long as we had Paul here we could appeal to him, but though he is away we have his writings and those of the others, and we cannot consent to changes outside of these, for to do so would be to depart from God's ground on which He set us. You may be quite well-intentioned and sincere in what you have adopted, that we do not deny. We have to own to our sorrow and shame, that the disorders that have, from time to time, crept in among us, from want of self-judgment and from indulgence of the flesh, are very sad; we own most fully that it is shameful work that drunkenness and such like disorders should intrude themselves at the Lord's table; we own that you have good reason to feel deeply about it; but when you adopt as a cure a mere invention of your own, that has not a bit of warrant in the Word of God, and elect a person to "preside" at the table and administer what you are pleased to call now a "sacrament", you see, dear brethren, we cannot possibly go with you in this, or have the least fellowship with you in it; it is not a thing of God's appointment, and without His orders we cannot act; to do so, were to leave the ground on which He set us, and to cease, therefore, to be the thing He made us — the Church of God. The moment we begin to let our wisdom or our wills give shape to our organization, we should become a mere voluntary society, a place for the will of man to act in; whereas, as God's assembly — a society of His forming, whose organization is of Him, we can own and follow no will but His in any thing that touches our order or ground.
(The "assembly of God" is not either an "organization" or a "society": it is "the body of Christ": a "body" is an organism, rather than an "organization". Editor)

Will Not an Educated and Trained Minister Help to Keep Away Abuses?

For similiar reasons; when some of you adopt the opinion that the best way to check abuses in the ministry of the Word, keep out ignorance or rudeness of speech, prevent jealousies, and so forth, is to educate and ordain a class of persons for the purpose, to whom all ministerial functions shall be restrained, we do not doubt you mean well by it, and we see a certain plausibility about it on grounds of human expediency; but then we have no word of God for such an institution, and we dare not go beyond and substitute human expediency for divine order. We tremble to go beyond the mind of the Lord. We cannot forget that in a former day these evils you seek to correct had already begun to show themselves, and, as you know, in Paul's First Letter to us, he dealt pretty roundly with us about them. Now, surely, if the plans you have adopted had been the wisest, or according to the mind of God, he would, by the Spirit, have been led to establish among us what was needful, but as he did not do it, no more can we. And though we are very sorry you should separate yourselves from us on such grounds, we feel that in it you greatly dishonour the Lord, yet we dare not purchase even so precious a thing as unity at the expense of truth, and of the very foundations of our character as "God's assembly." Your newly invented organizations are a practical denial of God's own organization, who has organized the "one body" as it has pleased Him, and left us, in His Word, the complete record of His mind about it. In setting yourselves apart in bodies of your own organizing, you give the lie to God's Word, that the "body is one", and we dare not have either part with, or own you in any such position. You call us narrow and exclusive because we decline to have fellowship with you at these tables you have set up, but we must be faithful to our Lord, no matter what reproach it may bring on us.

What About the Differences in Interpretations of the Word of God?

Then, as to those of you who make doctrinal interpretations of the Word your ground of separation from others, and of association among yourselves, we can just as little go with or yield to you as to the others. We own how evil it is that we should be of different minds as to the meaning of God's Word. We acknowledge that as the Word can have but one meaning, there must be sin and the blinding influences of the flesh at work somewhere, on one side or other, where diversities of judgment prevail. We give full weight to the apostle's solemn admonition to us, that we should "all speak the same thing", that we should be "perfectly joined together in the same mind, in the same judgment;" but then we also bear in mind that this very Word was given not in order that we might divide into sections, where we could be mutually agreed in our respective thoughts or judgments, but in order that there should "be no schisms among us," and to allow our zeal for like-mindedness on difficult points of doctrine or interpretation to lead us to do the very thing for the avoidance of which like-mindedness was enjoined, seems rather a contradictory mode of procedure. Where the Word of God speaks plainly in distinct affirmation, we have no hesituation; but where it is a question of lifting a man's inferences from the Word to a level with the Word itself, that is what we must decline. We see two parties among you separating from each other and from us, and organizing yourselves into opposing bodies, under your respective party-names, on the ground of your strong convictions as to the soundness of your respective inferences from certain Scriptures. You hold these opinions of yours as very important, no doubt, and are very strongly persuaded in your own minds that you are right, and that your way of it is God's way; but you seem quite to overlook the fact that in your zeal for inferred truth you are trampling on plainly-stated truth, for God has plainly forbidden division and you are dividing. Now, to our sorrow, we have to own that we are at present unable to be all of one judgment on these matters, and have among us those who hold with one, and those who hold with the other of your parties; but we cannot, dare not, attempt to remedy this evil by seeking to force the consciences of our brethren; there are, assuredly, inconveniences arising out of our want to unanimity on these points, but we dare not take matters into our own hands, as you have done, and make it more comfortable for ourselves by organizing sects, and allying ourselves with only those who think with us. This is man's remedy, not God's, and in taking it, you, dear brethren, have made yourselves "sects", and have departed from. God's ground, so that we cannot, in faithfulness, have anything to do with your organization, since God's word by Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 16.17), bids us mark them which cause divisions, and avoid them.

No, dear brethren; to one and all of you we must say it; we own you individually as our brethren in the Lord, and follow-Christians. We shall rejoice to welcome you again to your respective places in the assembly of God, and at the Lord's table; but we can neither own, nor meet, you on the ground of your new organizations, bodies, names. We shall remain ourselves steadfastly, by the grace of God, where He has set us, in the unity of the body of Christ; shall introduce no changes, but adhere closely to the written Word in all that concerns our assembly-action; leaving liberty to our brethren, where God has not expressly prescribed, as He Himself has taught us to do in Paul's letter to the Romans. (Rom. 14.1-5).

As to the failure among us, we will not either extenuate it or deny it, but will seek to humble ourselves about it before the Lord, looking up to Him for grace to deal with it in terms of His own divine instructions. If it take on it at any time the form of heresy, affecting the foundation-truths of the doctrine of Christ, we shall deal with it as John has directed in his second letter. If it assume the character of any of those things Paul pointed out to us in the fifth chapter of his letter to ourselves, we shall seek grace to deal with it as he there directs, and as we already did on the occasion he referred to. In inferior matters, we will endeavour, by prayer and mutual faithfulness to each other, and by self-judgment in ourselves, to restrain the flesh, and correct its evil workings.

Here, then, we have, according to supposition, in the city of Corinth, five distinct Christian assemblies — one of them adhering to the name, the ground, and order on which they were set by God at the first; the other four being divisions or sects cut off from the original ground for the purpose of maintaining each some distinct order or view of doctrine, to which it has attached sufficient importance to make it a ground of communion — a fence to include on the one hand, or exclude on the other, from full fellowship and association, those who agree with or those who differ from them.

Divine, or, Sectarian, Ground

Such is the difference between divine and sectarian ground. Divine ground includes all that God has appointed to include, viz., all true children of God who are not mixed up with heretical doctrine (2 John) , or defiled by unholy living (1 Cor. 5). It excludes all who are not God's children, and also such of His children as may contaminate themselves with evil — doctrinal or moral.

Sectarian ground includes all whom man chooses to include, to wit, those who agree to accept the peculiar tenets or order: it excludes all who decline to accept of these. (Not perhaps, from occasional fellowship, but from full and acknowledged fellowship). The degree in which God's own marks for communion are respected may vary. Some might insist on having in only true children of God who accepted the tenets, others might admit all accepting these, without discrimination; but in every case where sectarian ground is taken up, not the Christianity, pure and simple, of the associates, but the agreement in the principles of the sect, or acceptance of its "standards" is the ground of gathering, association, or union.

Let us now suppose the apostle to have visited Corinth some Lord's day when this state of things was in existence. How would he have acted? where would he have gone to break bread? You will not hesitate a moment, I am sure. He would have gone to the original assembly, which he had himself founded, and addressed as "the assembly of God which is in Corinth". Would he in any way have owned these dissenting bodies at all? I trow not. Had they come around him and claimed fellowship with him, or invited him to their assemblies and their tables, I can imagine with what energy he would have declaimed, against their wickedness, and how unflinchingly he would have maintained the ground of God. Had they pleaded with him, as they might, that in refusing to own them he was wanting in charity, and bringing in question, their Christianity, and refusing the fellowship of numbers of God's dear children, I can imagine how he would have turned on them and said, Your Christianity, I deny not, God's children I doubt not you to be; but you are naughty children, disobedient children, self-willed children, presumptuous children. You have deemed yourselves wiser than God, and, presuming yourselves able to improve on what He left perfect, have trampled on His order, and violated, in the most flagrant manner, that charity and Christian fellowship you profess to claim, and to blame me for with-holding. Know you not that I wrote to you by the Spirit of God, that "charity rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth"? And you, who have iniquitously departed from the truth of God, would have me, under the name of "charity", forsooth, to wink at and have fellowship with your iniquities. No brethren, I have learned "charity" better than that. The truest, the broadest, the holiest charity I can show you is to protest, as I now do, against your departure from God — to stand aloof from you, as I now do, until you turn from your evil practices, lay aside every one of your inventions, and return to the simple ground of God and of His Church. Till you do this, I love you too well, and I love my Lord too well, to meet you. Yourselves, as individuals, I rejoice to recognize as "brethren in the Lord," though erring ones, but your organizations I will neither own nor have aught to say to. Away with them!

But is it not different now?

But perhaps you will be ready to turn on me and say, Well, I own all this is true. I have no doubt it would have been pretty much so in the case you have supposed, but then the case is not parallel to that to which you want to apply it. You brethren say that the whole Church has departed from God's ground, and when you began to meet, there was no assembly still standing on the ground. So long as there was, the matter was easy and plain enough, but now it is quite different.

Well, I am quite ready to admit this feature of difference in the cases, though that does not, in reality, affect the principle. However, if you will give me leave to carry the supposition a little further, I shall be able to show you a true parallel.

We will resume our supposed case as we left it, viz., Corinth, with one genuine and four sectarian assemblies in it. We will further suppose these sects to be really earnest people, with a zeal for Christ after their fashion, and a true love for souls. Their zeal leads them out in earnest missionary enterprise, and they spread the truth of the Gospel, and are blessed to the saving of souls, whom they, of course, indoctrinate also in their special tenets, and organize into bodies, churches, or congregations, after their respective forms, and under their respective names. We will suppose that in a certain town in a certain country afar off from Corinth, where Christianity was unknown before, the whole four have established themselves, and that among them they number some seven or eight hundred converts. These converts, as is natural, have taken their ideas of Christianity from those from whom they have received it; and though the Scriptures have been put in their hands, have received the interpretations of them that their teachers have presented, so that they get along happily in their respective "denominations", with perhaps an occasional bit of controversy as to points on which they differ.

One day, however, an earnest Scripture-reading Cephite, in the course of his reading, begins to discover that it is not all such plain sailing as he had been taught to suppose. He finds in Scripture that the body of Christ is one, and that schism is sin. He meditates, he reads, and he prays, and the conviction deepens that things are out of joint. He looks into the different church-systems, and discerns that the things that divide them are things not found in the Word of God at all; that about the things really in the Word there is not so much difference of opinion as about things that have no place there. He begins soon to talk about this with others, but he is only poo-pooed, or laughed at. Some think it is alright as it is; others admit the wrong, but think it is past remedy. None seem disposed to meet the question by inquiring after the right, and acting on it. The man's conscience gets uneasy and troubled. The more he reads and prays the worse the thing looks to him, till at last he stumbles, one day on Paul's second letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 2.19) , where he bids every one that names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. He cannot doubt that it is iniquity to do what God forbids, and so he feels as though he must depart from his present associations, which are formed on what he now recognizes fully as wrong ground. But then, what is he to do? where is he to go? He has never heard of anything else; doesn't know if there be any of the original churches still standing firm, or if all have gone the same way. He is sorely puzzled and perplexed. The Lord's-day comes, and he has to decide whether he can go again to the place against which his conscience has at last decidedly pronounced. He feels he cannot, and so remains quietly in his own room, alone with God and the Word. (Acts 20.32).

What is the Next Step?

Next morning, as he walks in the street, he meets a Paulite with whom he has had some previous acquaintance but has not seen for some time. Knowing him as a godly, Christ-loving man, though of another denomination, he greets and stops for a word with him. He broaches, with some hesitation, the subject which has brought on him so many hard words from those of his own sect, and, to his surprise, is met with hearty response. He finds that his friend has been passing through similar exercises to his own, and, like him, had absented himself on the previous day from his accustomed place, and had spent the time alone in the summer-house of his garden. The question arises, Is there any real reason why they should not meet next Lord's day, and remember the Lord together according to the simplicity of the Word? They know no reason, and it is agreed on. Before another Lord's day comes, each has found another friend in similar case, so that four of them are gathered that morning simply to the name of the Lord; and having laid aside all that pertained to their respective sects, they looked to the Lord for guidance through the Word, and find it. They have got on to God's ground. The Spirit has led them thither through the Word.

When this is known a terrible hubbub is raised; they are rated as self-righteous, as presumptuous, as schismatics, as formers of another sect, as despisers of God's order, and what not. Still, their stand has led some to reflect and to search the Scriptures, and by and by one and another own that they are right — that they are following the written Word, without addition or subtraction, and so are on the ground which they now recognize as that on which the Scriptures show the Church to have been originally set. From four, they have grown to about twenty persons.

Suppose Paul Now Visits This City?

Let us now suppose the apostle Paul, in his journeyings, to have reached, at last this country, and to find himself, one Lord's day, in the town where these things have been happening. Where will he go? Will he go to the assemblies he condemned at Corinth? Will difference of locality make a difference of principle for the apostle of Jesus Christ? Not at all. He would have inquired, and on learning that there were assemblies of the sects there, would have turned away with a heavy heart. When first mention was made of "another new sect," that had come out from among the rest, he might have feared that it was only some aggravation of the fleshly evil; but as the particulars of their action were recounted to him, his eye would have brightened, and rising, he would have said, I must see these people; and on seeing them, and finding that, though in great feebleness and with much failure, they were seeking out the old paths, and treading in them, he would have rejoiced to own them, insignificant in numbers though they might be, as the only true representatives of the assembly of God in that place.

If he had found them tolerating known evils among them, however, such as God has made ground of excision, he would assuredly not have so owned them but though he might have found much failure — want of harmony, jealousy, and envy, and discord, or the like, while he would have spoken loudly against such things, and laboured and prayed for their extinction, I feel assured he would not have made them a reason for preferring one of the schismatical sects, even if he could have found among them one entirely free from the evils complained of as existing among those on God's ground. Do you think he would? Do you think he could have acted otherwise than I have supposed, owning as God's church that which had returned to God's ground, and disowning all that was off it?

Let the name of the country be America, the name of the town your town, the epoch the twentieth instead of the first century and let us suppose that instead of the apostle Paul it were my reader who had to make the selection, what would he do?

I leave it with him before the Lord.