We human beings can take ourselves way too seriously.
Sometimes, our natural need for significance becomes distorted; we begin to crave superiority instead. In our quest for status, we can get overly attached to material things, or even to people whom we treat like celebrities, implicitly hoping to bask a bit in their afterglow.
I suspect that this is the emotional core of what happened in the church of Corinth, whatever issues may have been debated on the surface. When he heard the news that the church was divided between people declaring allegiance to different leaders, Paul could have given them a simple directive: “Stop it.” But pastorally, he wanted them to understand what was wrong with their whole way of thinking, including the way they thought about ministry and the church.
Having brought them up short by telling them they were acting like babies, he began the work of reshaping their attitude:
After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9, CEB)
Whatever rivalry there may have been between the followers of Apollos and the followers of Paul, there was none between the two men. They understood themselves not as celebrity leaders, but servants to a greater cause. Each had a God-given role to play: Paul planted the church; Apollos came behind to water what was planted. And those roles were important, deserving of reward.
But–and Paul says it twice for emphasis–the miracle of growth itself belongs only to God. That’s what matters. Paul emphasized the unity between himself and Apollos: “work together” is literally “are one thing.” And their unity is in the service of growth in God’s field, the church.
That’s the irony of the rivalry in Corinth: their disunity, fueled by the desire to be spiritually superior, was stunting their growth instead. They were working at cross-purposes with God.
Does our own personal need for status, significance, or even superiority ever divide us from one another in the church? And how does this get in the way of the spiritual growth that it would be God’s pleasure to give?