Divided loyalties

Many families have experienced the problem of divided loyalties, even if they never speak of them openly. Couples who constantly bicker, who can’t get on the same page, will often draw one or more of their children into the conflict. Mom complains to one of the kids about Dad. The implicit message is, Side with me; tell me I’m right. Dad may do something similar with the same child, or possibly a different one. 

But this is an impossible situation for the children, who by rights should love and be loyal to both parents. The tug-of-war for a child’s allegiance does nothing to resolve the conflict between the spouses, which in itself can be stressful for the child. When children do take sides, it can cause a rift between siblings that lasts for decades. And all of this may come at the cost of the children’s emotional well-being.

Sound familiar? I hope not. But sadly, the pattern is all too common.

Imagine with me, then, that church families can suffer from a similar problem of divided loyalties.

As I suggested last week, Apollos came to the church in Corinth at what may have been a crucial time in the life of that congregation. The simultaneous departure of Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila likely left something of a leadership vacuum, and the arrival of Apollos helped fill the void.

Like Paul, Apollos had the gospel fire burning in him, and was ready to debate any Jew who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. But unlike Paul, he had a  more eloquent delivery. He made an immediate and positive impact on the life of the congregation.

But all was not well.

Of all the many and varied problems Paul later had to address in First Corinthians, the one he tackled first involved Apollos, and he devoted nearly a fourth of the letter to it. He had heard from friends that the Corinthians had divided themselves into “rival groups” (1 Cor 1:10, CEB), and were quarreling over leadership. Some were claiming to follow Apollos as their leader, while some remained loyal to Paul. Others claimed to follow Peter, who may have visited the church. Still others claimed to follow Christ (1 Cor 1:12).

And lest we forget: by the time Paul wrote the letter, Apollos was not even at the church any longer (1 Cor 16:12). Why? We can only guess. But it may have had something to do with the divisions in the church that swirled around him and stirred up dissent against Paul.

Theological disclaimer: what follows below is pure speculation. But I can’t help but think of this situation in terms of what can happen in congregations going through a pastoral transition. There is bound to be tension in times of change. Even in the best of congregations, people don’t always handle the tension well.

Some will try to resolve the tension by remaining fiercely and defensively loyal to the founding pastor. Some, stung and perhaps confused by the pastor’s departure, will find a reason to transfer their loyalties to the new person: Ooh, have you heard this guy preach? He’s good. Paul was okay, but Apollos is really good. By virtue of their cultural biases, the Corinthians had a taste for rhetorical eloquence and worldly wisdom; to many, Apollos must have seemed like the real deal.

Some of the Corinthians, perhaps seeing the transience of both Paul and Apollos, hitched their spiritual wagon to Peter, a celebrity pastor with street cred who made an impression when he visited. Still others claimed the moral high ground: Y’all can follow a mere human being if you want. Me? I’m following Jesus, and Jesus alone.

But wait, you might say. Aren’t the people in that last group right? Shouldn’t we follow Jesus rather than mere mortals? Yes, of course. But the context suggests that “I follow Christ” was being said in a divisive and arrogant way, leading Paul to exclaim, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13).

We don’t need to imagine that there were actual card-carrying rival fan clubs in Corinth. People were simply dealing with the tension in a way that showed that they were still locked into a worldly, us-versus-them mindset. Paul spends nearly four chapters dealing with the problem, trying to correct their thinking. Apollos and I are both servants, he insists. We’re on the same team. Please stop acting like know-it-alls.

Unlike the squabbling couple with which I began this post, there’s no evidence of any conflict between Paul and Apollos. They were not competing for the loyalty and affections of the Corinthian people. They were not the cause of the division.

But they were the occasion for division just the same. The departure of Paul and the arrival and departure of Apollos may have been difficult for the church. We have many ways of dealing with difficult situations, and one is to try to feel better by thinking of ourselves as on the winning side of some unhelpful dividing line. Right versus wrong. Those who “get it” versus those who don’t. 

Where there’s tension, conflict often follows. And everyone wants to be on the winning team. It’s us versus them.

Unfortunately, for families and church families alike, that’s a losing game for everyone.