Divisions in the Church
10I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."
13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
A few months ago, my wife, my oldest son, and myself were all traveling to South Africa. We got all settled on our plane that was traveling from London to Johannesburg. It was a fairly full flight but there were a few empty seats. We were seated in the middle column of seats on a plane that had three seats on each side and a middle aisle of four seats. My son was seated on the aisle seat to my left while my wife was sitting to my right, and then on her right, on the other aisle seat, was someone that we did not know. The flight attendant was, no doubt, confused by the fact that my son and wife are a different skin color than I am and made the assumption that we were not together. She came up to me and offered me a chance to move to another seat where I might be “more comfortable.” I won’t speculate as to her inner thoughts that day, but the mistake she made was in thinking that I could be separated from my family. I simply was not willing to do that just so I could be a little more comfortable. Of course some people might be willing to do that for a mere twelve hour flight, but the incident points to a deeper truth. You just don’t split families up. Families, by definition, stay together. They are not something that should split up or be divided lightly. This is true of biological families as surely as it is true of church families.
Many churches have suffered through the sort of thing that Paul is dealing with here. Members of the church begin to split off into factions, following one man or another, or splitting over a belief of doing things a certain way. Issues like this usually don’t arise over serious doctrinal issues, but rather over issues of faction and preference. Nearly all of these type of splits have one thing in common, they have lost sight of the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If not dealt with, these factions will get more pronounced and tear a church apart. This is the type of thing that Paul was facing here in Corinth. Paul had been the first one there in Corinth, telling them about Jesus Christ, and many were bent on following Paul and his brand of teaching. After being converted in Ephesus, Apollos had come to teach for a time in Corinth. Apollos was learned in the Scriptures, and was a powerful and effective teacher. Many people obviously preferred Apollos and the way that he taught, and began to identify themselves as Apollos’ disciples. To add to that, many others began to identify themselves as followers of Cephas (Peter). It is not clear whether or not Peter ever actually went to Corinth, but many felt that they were his followers. Then there was the group that said they followed Jesus. Everyone else was with this leader or that leader, but they were just following Jesus. This is an-all-too-common power play in situations like this: “Thanks for your little opinions, now let me tell you what the Lord’s opinion is, that’s what I’m going to follow.”
Many people think of the early church in overly romantic terms. They have a picture of a church that is a near-perfect community, happily carrying out Jesus’ words to love one another. The reality is not that simple. Right from the start, it’s clear that the churches had to struggle to become the type of people Jesus called them to be. In verse, 10, however, Paul states his entire purpose for writing this letter, and lets us know what the primary problem had been: divisions were arising in the congregation over issues that Christians shouldn’t be dividing over. Paul had, evidently heard oral reports which let him know that the situation was a bit more serious than the Corinthians may have let on in their letter to him. Paul is wise enough to know that these sorts of ideological divisions are serious and can lead to more serious and permanent physical divisions in the family of Christ.
In verse 13, Paul confronts them squarely with how silly it is, if their factional arguments were carried to the full extent of their logic. Can the Christ be split up into little pieces? His obvious point is that the Church is the Messiah, they are the body of Christ, and cannot be split into pieces anymore than the person of Christ could have been. Then he asks them if he was crucified for them. Again, the answer is obvious because the statement is absurd (Note that Paul wisely does not mention Peter or Apollos here, although he easily could have, so that it does not appear that he is attacking them in any way). Nor, he points out, were they baptized into the name of Paul. They have forgotten that the central, unifying theme of their community was Jesus Christ. They are the body of Christ not a bunch of little bodies following other teachers. The fact is that Christ did die for them and they were baptized into his life. That’s exactly the problem. They were arguing over differing viewpoints and favored teachers but they were baptized into one body to become one entity. They all shared in the one life of Christ. It by nature is something that should not be divided.
Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. They were quite proud of being a very Roman city on Greek soil, and were equally proud of their reputation as a city with a lively and superior intellectual life. Particularly popular in Corinth were a group of traveling teachers called sophists. Sophists would come into a town and teach their philosophy, gathering disciples for themselves in each town. Once they left, the disciples of various sophists would argue with one another over whose teacher was the greatest.
The Corinthians had clearly allowed themselves to fall into this worldly way of thinking. They were not thinking as a new community of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were behaving like the culture around them. They had been caught up in their world of eloquent oratory and zealous followings of those great speakers. Paul will quickly address the value of this sort of wisdom. He is going to explain to them that they must choose between the wisdom of the world and the power of the Messiah.
Paul completes this passage by downplaying who baptized them. This is not, as some groups have argued, proof that baptism is unnecessary. Quite to the contrary. It was Paul who said that we are clothed with Christ at baptism (Gal. 3:27). Paul assumes that they have all been baptized and understand the significance of it (see 1 Cor. 1:13 and Acts 18:8). Paul actually shows in this passage that two things are necessary for a person to call himself a follower, in the Christian sense, of another person. First, Paul would have to die for that person; and second, they would have to be baptized into the name of Paul. This parallels quite perfectly with the Christian teaching that Christ died for us, and we clothe ourselves with him at baptism. Baptism is a vital part of the Christian gospel and community as the point where our faith and God’s grace intersect, but Paul was called to preach. There is no special significance in who actually does the baptizing. Paul is not speaking about baptism here, but about their attitudes about who baptized them.
Finally, it is common in the NT language where “not” doesn’t negate one of the two items but prioritizes them. For example, Paul tells Ananias in Acts 5:4 that he has not “lied to men, but to God. He had, of course, lied to men, but lying to God was the most important thing. Paul, then is arguing that preaching and baptism are both important, but that faith and repentance that accompanies preaching is a prerequisite for baptism.
What is your attitude when it comes to the leaders of your church? Do you view them as fellow servants of King Jesus? Sometimes we have the tendency to base our experience in our Christian community heavily dependent on our positive or negative feelings about the leaders in our church. When we do this, we are guilty of the same thing that Paul is bringing up concerning the Corinthian church. It means that we have lost site of the centrality of Jesus. In what ways do you tend to put too much praise or too much criticism on the shoulders of the leaders in your church? What do you need to do to put Jesus back at the center rather than men?