Human sin will worm its way into our Christian institutions until Jesus glorifies us all. Churches, conventions, fellowships, colleges, universities, seminaries, mission agencies, networks, associations—all of these institutions require people, and people sin from time to time. When they do, their sin brings reproach to Christ and the institutions that bear his name. Some sins are so significant that they threaten to destroy these institutions altogether, something like what beset the Corinthian church in the days of Paul.
Paul dealt with sinful division in the church. In writing to the Corinthians, he introduced the matter with an imperative: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). Factions of people were jockeying to follow one Christian leader over another (cf. 1 Cor 1:11–13), so Paul would more narrowly command, “Let no one boast in men” (1 Cor 3:21).
This division brutalized the church with quarreling, jealousy, strife, and pride (1 Cor 1:11; 3:3; 4:6), corrosive elements that Paul feared would destroy the work of God (cf. 1 Cor 3:16–17). Godly people sent word to Paul to ask for help (1 Cor 1:11). The problem was so severe that Paul ended this section of his letter with a threat to come to Corinth wielding his shepherd’s staff, a contrast to coming “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21). Paul deeply desired his spiritual children to follow Jesus Christ, not act as arrogant fools by pledging allegiance to one of his servants (cf. 1 Cor 4:14–20). They were not being “spiritual people” but “merely human,” void of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:1, 5). Instead of living according to the gospel and wisdom of God, they were living for the flesh and wisdom of men (cf. 1 Cor 1:26–3:5).
Interestingly, it was the people creating these factions and not the leaders. They were pledging allegiance to Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or (perhaps piously) Christ (1 Cor 1:12). Knowing the problem at hand, Paul addressed the matter at length (cf. 1 Cor 1:10–4:21). Apollos wanted no such following and even avoided Corinth for a time (cf. 1 Cor 16:12). Peter traveled through, and then he traveled on (cf. 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). Like Paul, these men knew that a following for themselves or anything else other than Christ was wood, hay, and straw meant for fire in the day of judgment. There is no commendation from Christ for men who follow men, and there is no reward from Christ for men who gather followings unto themselves (cf. 1 Cor 3:10–15). Only work built on the foundation of Christ lasts both now and forever. Reward comes to servants who preach Christ and not themselves.
So, wanting God’s commendation (cf. 1 Cor 4:5), Paul downplayed himself and other leaders, even calling each one a “what” instead of a “who” (1 Cor 3:5). Whatever success Paul and others had seen in Corinth, it was granted and governed by God (1 Cor 3:6–9). These leaders were not celebrity superstars but servants of Christ and stewards of truth (1 Cor 4:1). Paul did not care what they thought of him or anyone else as all would be judged by God alone (1 Cor 4:2–5). He simply cared that everyone looked like Christ, whether they heard the Word from him, Timothy, or anyone else among their “countless guides” (1 Cor 4:15–17). That alone would please God in the present and draw his delight in the day of judgment.
If we could learn something from Paul and his words to Corinth, friends, please don’t pledge your allegiance to one leader alone, however godly and effective he may be. Some leaders plant, some leaders water, and God will give the growth (1 Cor 3:6–9). God spreads his work among many and does not save it all just for one leader. Every true Christian leader simply wants you to see past himself and give glory to God alone.
Christian leaders, please don’t call for allegiance to yourselves. As you are faithful, respect and love may come (cf. 1 Thess 5:12–13), but as enjoyable as these affirmations may be, they are not ends unto themselves. Moreover, crowds can be fickle, and, as they did with Christ, they will cast you down as quickly as they propped you up. Build your work on Christ alone, and you will receive wages according to your labor (1 Cor 3:8). The best “well done, thou faithful servant” comes from Christ and Christ alone (cf. Matt 25:21, 23).
May God deliver his church from division, and may God help us all to pledge allegiance to Christ alone.