Responding to his commission to be the Lord’s “chosen vessel”, the Apostle Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ fearlessly and consistently and in doing so founded numerous ecclesias throughout the Roman Empire. There is no doubt that his vision for those ecclesial lampstands was that they would become bright beacons in a dark Gentile world, shining forth the one hope, steadfast in the one faith and animated by sacrificial love – thriving, vibrant and unified!

This vision was challenged in the ecclesia of Corinth. Here was an ecclesia in which a multitude of issues arose, not the least of which was quarrelling and disunity to the extent that discernible factions arose in its midst.

Paul’s first epistle[1]in which he responds to a letter written by concerned parties in Corinth was written with the intention of demonstrating the absurdity of the situation that had arisen, and was calculated to remind the brethren and sisters in Corinth that a spirit of unity was to characterise their ecclesial life.

In order to do this Paul began his epistle with the assertion of a truth which the ecclesia had either forgotten or in their relative infancy had not as yet fully appreciated – the fact that they were part of a wider ecclesial body that stretched far beyond the little isthmus upon which they were situated.

This truth is emphasised throughout the epistle, and begins from the moment Paul took up his pen in chapter 1:

1 Corinthians 1:1–2

“From Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother, to the (ecclesia) of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints …” net bible[2]

The careful wording Paul chooses here seems significant. He does not write ‘to the ecclesia of Corinth’. Rather, he writes to the ecclesia of God in Corinth. This represents an eloquent start to the epistle when one considers what the ecclesia of Corinth still had to learn. Two points arise from it immediately.

Firstly, the clear implication of the phrase is that the ecclesia of Corinth was only one branch of the ecclesia of God. It was only one of many locations where the ecclesia was to be found. “The ecclesia of God”, intimates Paul, meets in other places too – Philippi, Lystra, Antioch, just to name three. Paul is reminding the Corinthian brothers and sisters that they are not alone.

Secondly, Paul is settling once and for all the issue of ownership. The ecclesia belongs to God. It is His ecclesia. Once this is established, it is easy to see that the natural corollary of this fact is that it then ought to reflect His character, His values, His thinking.

In one masterstroke, Paul has used a phrase in his opening words, which if meditated on, holds the key to solving so many of the issues the ecclesia of Corinth faced. Paul well knew that he was writing to an ecclesia which, though relatively new on the ecclesial scene, was fast developing its own culture and its own unique practices. Every ecclesia will do this to some degree but with the ecclesia of Corinth the issues were such that, if left unchecked, would render the ecclesia in serious danger of becoming unrecognisable as an ecclesia of God, founded by Paul the commissioned apostle.

Careful reading of this epistle demonstrates to us that these two points are part of Paul’s intention in writing. He responds to their questions, providing them with directives and advice in such a way as to remind them of their place in the body and their relationship to the wider ecclesial world.

He does this immediately in the rest of verse 2:

“to the (ecclesia) of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” net bible

Again, the message reminds the Corinthians that they are not alone. They “called on the name of the Lord” in the city of Corinth just as their brothers and sisters in “every place” did in their respective locations, and just as Christ was the Corinthian ecclesia’s Lord so he was also theirs.

A consistent message not unique to Corinth

This is not the last time that the apostle returns to this  theme of the ecclesia of God being of larger breadth  and scope than just the local Corinthian ecclesia.

1 Corinthians 4:17

“For this cause have I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every ecclesia.

In this passage, Paul advises that Timothy will come to Corinth with the express intention of reminding the Corinthian brethren of Paul’s ways in Christ. He makes the seemingly redundant point that the teaching they will receive will be no different to that which he ensures is taught in every other ecclesia. Paul is again reminding an ecclesia which is manifesting a tendency to ‘do things its own way’ that it is not alone. All the other ecclesias (with which it is connected in Christ) have been taught similarly.

In the context of addressing the questions regarding marriage and commitment, Paul again finds it expedient to remind the Corinthians of this fact.

1 Corinthians 7:17

“But as God hath distributed to every man, as  the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk.  And so ordain I in all ecclesias.”

In the context of instructions for brothers and  sisters regarding head coverings, Paul finishes  his outline of the relevant principles and their  appropriate application by again appealing for  recognition that his directives are not unique to the  Corinthian ecclesia.

1 Corinthians 11:16

“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the ecclesias of God.

This passage is made clearer by recourse to other versions and is found to be consistent with what is now a familiar refrain throughout this epistle:

“I acknowledge no other mode of worship, and neither do the (ecclesias) of God” (Moffatt).

“This is how things are done in all of God’s (ecclesias), and that’s why none of you should argue about what I have said” (cev).

Paul seems anxious to ensure it is understood that his advice to the Corinthian brothers and sisters is the same advice that he would give to “the ecclesia of God” wherever it met. Paul is appealing to the fact that due to there being only one ecclesia, there was to be unity of mind and practice regarding what he presents as being core issues.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul concludes a flow of thought in verse 33 with the words: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” The latter half of verse 33 really commences a new thought, resulting in verse 33b and verse 34 reading thus: “As in all the ecclesias of the saints, the women should be silent in the (ecclesias), for they are not permitted to speak.” [3]net bible2

One can see that Paul is making clear to this ecclesia that as an ecclesia of GOD they did not have the liberty or prerogative to depart from the principles and practical ordinances he had been setting down in all ecclesias. In fact, the apostle commended the Corinthians because they were minded to do just this: “Now I praise you brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [‘traditions’ – margin] as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2). He then goes on to speak of two examples of apostolic ordinances, the covering of sisters’ heads in ecclesial meetings and the uncovering of the brothers’ heads; then the propriety of the bread and wine at the table of remembrance. Paul was having to check a growing spirit of ecclesial autonomy taken to an extreme that would have had them acting independent of the rest of the Christ body.

By now it is a familiar refrain.

1 Corinthians 16:1

“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the ecclesias of Galatia, even so do ye.”

Paul’s words in the examples we have shown seem specifically designed to remind the Corinthian brethren and sisters that they were part of a worldwide inter-ecclesial body stretching from Rome to Jerusalem. There was a common hope and common walk that unified and characterised them all.

In an age which emphasises individual selfexpression and the celebration of diversity, it is well to remember that the Apostle Paul anticipated unity of mind and practice to bind “the ecclesia of God” together wherever it met. Though it is true that there may often be stylistic differences between ecclesias on non-essential issues, with regard to issues upon which the apostles provide clear guidance and commandment, no ecclesia has a mandate to act independently of the founding principles of God’s ecclesia.

A call to unique fellowship

The need for unity in the ecclesial body may seem obvious, and yet Paul took nothing for granted in his epistle, explaining very early on why ecclesial unity is important.

What is the reason for it and to what extent is that unity to be seen and demonstrated? The reason for unity has to do with the nature of our calling. Paul describes it thus:

1 Corinthians 1:9

“God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

We are called by God unto the “fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ”. The nature of this fellowship is expressed beautifully by the Lord himself in John 17, where he prays that his disciples may share in the oneness he experienced with his Father.

“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one” (v21,22).

This is the nature of the fellowship Christ’s disciples are called to participate in and it provides the reason why unity should be striven for in our midst. It also answers the question as to the desired extent of our unity – “as we are one”.

Given this is the nature of the unity we are called to, it is little wonder that Paul goes to great lengths in the very next verse to describe the effort that should be expended in order to maintain that unity.

1 Corinthians 1:10

“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

It has to be acknowledged with perhaps not a little awe that Paul sets the bar rather high here. There is to be no schism. Zero. Nil. The unity amongst us is to reflect the unity that the Father shares with the Son.

The niv renders it this way: “that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

The challenge we have in ecclesial life is not to maintain our diversity, for this is very easy to do given we are by nature diverse. The challenge in our ecclesial life is to attain unity despite our diversity. The struggle in ecclesial life is to overcome our diversity to the end that we do speak and emphasise the same thing, so that we do think the same and act the same.

Governed by his thinking

There is a special thread that we all agree constitutes the only means by which we can be bound together in unity.

In both 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, Paul draws upon the analogy of a body to express ecclesial unity. He makes the crucial point that the head of the body is our Lord Jesus Christ. For a body to move effectively in a coordinated fashion, it needs to be connected to the head and clearly taking its cue from the thinking mind.

It is on this basis that our diversity can merge and find expression in unity. Unity can occur when we all accept and yield to the glorious truth that our Lord Jesus Christ is our head, and his thinking is fully expressed in the record of his life and in the guidance left on record by his chosen apostles.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:37, after providing clear and ample guidance on a whole variety of issues – many of which still rise in our midst today:

“If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (v37).

Thanks be to our God and His Christ for not leaving us without a clear record of their mind.

Let a man examine himself

As members of “the ecclesia of God” in our respective localities, are we walking together with the same mind and purpose? As members of “the ecclesia of God” in whatever place we meet, is our “body” walking in a purposeful, co-ordinated fashion? Are we walking in step with our Lord and maintaining our constant connection with our Head and his thinking? Are the collective decisions we make in our ecclesias, made with an acute awareness of our responsibility to the wider ecclesial body we are all a part of?

If our resolution as individuals can be “not my will, but thine be done”, if our resolution collectively can be ‘not our will but His be done’, if our every thought and action can take its cue from him, our unity will be maintained. More than that, our unity will be enhanced. Indeed ultimately, our unity will have no end.

References

[1] Or ‘second epistle’ to be more precise. See 1 Corinthians 5:9.

[2] http://bible.org/netbible

[3] By far the majority of translations this writer has recourse to structure verses 33–34 in this way, including NET, ESV,

GNB, ASV, NIV, JB, NEB and RHM.