Here’s a hypothetical question. Think of a Christian “celebrity” you admire, someone with instant name recognition in your social circle. If that person were a friend of yours, would you ever sneak that fact into a casual conversation? You know what I mean: “Yeah, funny you should mention that. I was talking to Billy the other day, and he said… What? Oh, sorry–Billy Graham. As I was saying, I was talking to Billy…”
Or if you were arguing with someone (well, all right, having a polite difference of opinion) about some point of doctrine or matter of biblical interpretation, at what point might you slip in the name of some authoritative source? What the source has to say, of course, may be both important and relevant–but do you drop the name to cover your own uncertainty and to make the other person back off?
In reading Paul’s letter to Corinth, I suspect there are some things about human nature that haven’t changed much in the last two millenia. He receives news that seems to surprise him, so he writes to them about it:
My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” (1 Cor 1:11-12, CEB)
We don’t have to take the passage to mean that there were actual factions in the church (though that may be possible); these may have been things individuals said to each other. And in all likelihood, the habit predated the formation of the congregation itself.
The Corinthians would have been used to listening to sophists, people who made their living by public displays of rhetorical skill. Today, the equivalent might be critics and public intellectuals whose careers live or die on the basis of their popularity. Many Corinthians, no doubt, had their favorites, leading to puffed-up arguments over who was best.
The problem may have begun with the arrival of Apollos, a well-educated Jew from Alexandria (we might think of it as a university town). Though his knowledge of the gospel was incomplete, he was an obviously gifted speaker. In Ephesus, Apollos met Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila, who tutored him further in the gospel and gave him a letter of introduction to the church in Corinth. Once there, Apollos wasted no time putting his skills to work, teaching Christians and successfully debating the Jews on the matter of Jesus’ messiahship (Acts 18:24-28).
The Corinthians, apparently, were impressed. But their admiration of his rhetorical skill had a dark side: Hey, if this guy is so good, why should we listen to Paul? Some already had doubts about Paul, and Apollos’ comparative polish gave them all the reason they needed to attach themselves to a new leader.
I can imagine what might have followed. Some continued to back Paul, out of a sense of virtuous loyalty to the founding pastor. Some cast their vote for Peter’s apostolic authority as the head of the Jerusalem church and as one who had been with Jesus. Still others claimed the moral high ground by professing to follow Jesus as opposed to mere men.
Does any of that sound familiar?
To be clear, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with admiring a preacher’s eloquence, or being loyal to your pastor, or valuing clear apostolic authority, or insisting on putting Jesus first. But if any of it becomes the basis for thinking or implying “I’m better than you,” that’s a problem.
Paul’s response will be the subject of the next post. For now, here’s something to consider: in what ways do we trade on the reputation of others to bolster our own sense of significance?