Paul opened his letter to the church in Corinth with an admonition: Be united. It seems cliques had formed in the church. There were divisions within it as some members expressed allegiance to different leaders within the church – to Paul, to Apollos, to Peter, to Christ.
Some claimed, “I follow Paul.” This makes sense. Paul founded the church. Paul came to Corinth, a powerful center of trade in the Mediterranean world, and began the work of evangelism. He came alone to this pagan city that worshipped Greek gods. But Paul wasn’t alone for long. His work bore fruit (Acts 18:1-18).
A church was started. And it is no wonder why some of the members there said, “I follow Paul.” They owed their eternal life to this itinerant preacher from Tarsus. They had been living in the darkness of sin and death and then suddenly saw the light of salvation in the gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. All of this was thanks to Paul.
And so they said, “I follow Paul.” But why would they say this? There was no reason to make a declaration like that unless others were saying something different. And others were doing just that. Some claimed, “I follow Apollos” – the gifted preacher from Alexandria. Some claimed, “I follow Cephas (Peter)” – the disciple of Jesus and the “rock” of the church.
And some claimed, “I follow Christ.” I suppose this was their way of saying, “Who needs to follow human leadership anyway? We’ll just go straight to Jesus himself. He’ll tell us what to do!” That’s a fine-sounding argument, but Paul rejected this clique as no better than the others.
There was something wrong with all of this. These divisions in the church had spawned disunity. The brothers and sisters were not joined in one mind. They were separating from each other in various ways – much like our Protestant denominations have done since the 16th century and much like the Catholic and Orthodox churches have done since the 11th century.
Schism can be our way as Christians. And Paul found something wrong with all of this.
I wonder whether the problem lay in the very claims being made: “I follow Paul.” “I follow Apollos.” “I follow Cephas.” “I follow Christ.”
Maybe the problem is in the “I” that forms the foundation of these statements. The Corinthians had found something to distinguish themselves as individuals from other individuals in the church. The Corinthians had put their individual preferences over the church itself. So much of this mirrors the problems that threatened the Roman church that we just examined (Romans 14:1-15:7). Something was blocking church harmony.
At the end of the day, it was pride. Pride steps in when disagreements arise. Pride plays defense. It is not possible, we say, that we could be wrong. And so we counterattack. For the Corinthians, their defensive measures were to claim allegiance to a higher authority – an authority that enabled them to put distance between themselves and others in the church. And by doing so, they risked fracturing the church itself. Even those who proudly claimed allegiance to “Christ” risked damaging the very family he came to create.
Instead of pride and argumentation, Christians are called to gratitude. Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” This comes from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Here’s the full quote from Jeremiah 9:23-24:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
In the church sometimes, we do disagree about things. Some of those things are frivolous, and some of them are quite serious. The error creeps in when we allow these things to fracture the body unnecessarily. The error creeps in when we boast in things that we have acquired – wisdom, might, riches – instead of in the fact we worship a loving, just, and righteous God.
We can boast about our own ideas (our really good ideas) rather than in the Christ who miraculously brought together this ragtag group of believers in the mountains.