“The Main Thing is the Main Thing” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

My favorite professor in Bible College was not generally the favorite Bible/theology teacher with most of the other students. He was decent on covering the meat and potatoes of whatever book of the Bible/doctrinal class he was teaching through, and everyone appreciated the basic clarity. But he had a habit of getting really wound up about certain subjects that would take him down one rabbit trail after another of passionate proclamation, replete with screaming and yelling and pounding the lectern. Clearly, he had lived through some debates with people of a variant theological persuasion, and he was fully convinced that he was correct and that they were in error. I agreed with him, as I continue to do so to this day.

These rants were totally awesome and full of fantastic information. But most students were frustrated by them and would drop their pens (yes, long before computers were invented) and wait for it to pass and for him to return to the subject at hand. Frankly, the best stuff he delivered and the most important teachings I came to understand were in the rants … and they tied into the subject at hand in important ways that were not immediately obvious.

I really loved this guy so much, and a large part of my desire to ultimately attend Dallas Theological Seminary was because that is where he had gone to grad school. If you made an effort to get to know him, he was actually a wonderfully kind person that was not at all like the lectern-pounding prof that most merely knew in that way.

Diana and I had him perform our wedding nearly 42 years ago. I’ve often said, “I’m of McGahey.”  (His last name)

There was another professor who was much-loved because of the organization of his materials. He would pass out notes that were very clear, and then he would teach through them in a methodical and likeable way. You never got lost. It was predictable. If you failed his tests, it really was your own fault. And though I liked this prof and his teaching just fine, and while there was much commendable about it, I found it to also be a bit mechanical. But many students would identify themselves as “I am of Showers.”  (His last name)

Yet another theology professor was very deep, and, very old. He certainly knew the Scriptures and had apparently been at the college even before the Apostle Paul was saved on the road to Damascus (or so it seemed). Every student was required upon entrance in the college to purchase two large notebooks of his Bible and theology notes – whether you were going to be in his classes or not. He talked like he personally knew every theologian since Martin Luther (and looked like he might well have).

Not a particularly cheerful fellow (think of Bernie Sanders as a theology teacher – yes, that’s a stretch), he was rather intimidating in class. He would randomly call upon some student to pray, which was a terrifying experience – that is because he would critique your prayer when you were done. He might say something like, “Don’t pray like that ever again and stop telling God over and over who he is; HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!”

Yet some students especially liked this professor because of his deep roots into the history of the school and the history of American theological education. And they could say, “I am of Mason.”  (His last name)

So, who was correct of those students?  Who was the best professor to follow?  Well, the answer would be, of course, that each of these professors brought different perspectives and variant strengths to the classroom. It was not so much that one was better than another; they each had a role to play in making the Bible/theology department excellent. There were fantastic things to be learned from the passions of all three (and a collection of other instructors not included in this already-extended illustration).

But that is not how the Corinthian church appreciated their varied leaders. Instead of seeing diverse strengths and shades of gray, they only saw their leaders in complete black and white, right and wrong, strong and weak. And they also wrote off people who would not follow and join their assessments and viewpoints.

In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul addresses the first of a host of problems in the church – confronting the various divisions that arose in the church community. Imagine that! Divisions in a church!  Yes, churches old and new can be known to have such challenges. And so much of the problem is that we have divisions because we have diversity; and we allow the diversity to be seen as a weakness, when in fact it is a strength!

Paul writes …

1 Cor. 1:10 – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

When Paul makes his appeal here that they “agree with one another,” the original wording has the literal sense that they all speak the same thing.

And when he writes of his desire that they be “perfectly united,” this has the literal Greek meaning of restoring something to its proper condition. It was the word used in Matthew 4:21 when Jesus came upon James and John “mending” their nets. So picture a tangle of ropes needing to be sorted out. And that is what the Corinthians needed to do about this division in their midst.

The story that had filtered to Paul was that they were essentially divided into four camps around four teachers/viewpoints … Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, Christ. We’ll speculate in chapter 3 about how they may have perceived these teachers and divided in this way. But Paul goes on to say …

1:13 – Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Paul asks a series of three rather ridiculous questions… to which the answer for each was “of course not!”  Christ is not divided; Paul didn’t die on the cross for the Corinthians; baptism is not in the name of Paul (or any other mere preacher).

The further remarks that Paul writes might seem to indicate that some of these faction followers aligned themselves particularly around who had baptized them. And Paul says he was glad that he himself had not done that much baptizing. To show that this was not the big thing, he tells them that he couldn’t really remember who he had baptized (I can relate to that forgetfulness!).  The big issue was their salvation from darkness to light by the power of the gospel, and that was accomplished only by Christ – the same fact for ALL of them. This is the big common denominator.

Paul finished this section by affirming that the calling to preach the gospel is not a call to the best eloquence and (alleged) wisdom. This does not diminish the value for excellence in style and communication, but the real issue is the substance. You don’t have to click around the radio or TV dial long to find preachers with great style, but little substance!  And the Corinthians were too focused upon style, personalities, diversity … all rather than on the gospel message.

It is inevitable that we may all like one preacher or style of presentation over another. That’s rather human. But forming alliances around one or another would be wrong and a focus upon the wrong value. And we’ve thankfully never had much of this sort of thing at TSF, even while being the unusual church that features a variety of speakers. The primary teaching here is the reminder that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing = the gospel message.

In the mood to be led? (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

Leadership can be a tricky thing—especially for those who are asked to follow.  In NBC’s hit sitcom The Office, the characters had differing reactions to the search for a new office manager.  Ryan Howard, the former temp, had high expectations for the new boss:

“I got away with everything under the last boss and it wasn’t good for me. So I want guidance. I want leadership. Lead me… when I’m in the mood to be led.”

Ryan’s sentiments resound with the kind of ambivalence we have toward those in leadership.  We know it’s good for us, but we also want to make sure our leaders do what we think is best.

Paul was dealing with something like that in the church at Corinth.

10 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

Basically the church was being split by their competing loyalties.  It was becoming fashionable to identify not with Christianity in general, but with favorite teachers in particular.  Even those who “follow Christ” show a disdain for the God-given authority bestowed on the early apostles.


To fully understand this, we have to understand the ways that leadership was changing in the early church.

In the Old Testament, we might look to Moses as sort of the model of Godly leadership.  He served in many capacities—sometimes even unofficially.  He served as prophet by brining God’s word to Israel and Pharaoh (Exodus 3—11).   He served as judge by hearing Israel’s complaints (Numbers 27:1-4).  He led the nation from Egypt (Exodus 12:31—15:21).  He ran military campaigns (Exodus 17:8-16).  He officiated at the first Passover (Exodus 12).

After the law was established, many of these roles became even more organized in a series of prophets and priests and judges and later, kings. True, priests had existed before this time, but it was now that the priests were performing their duties in a localized spot—most notably Israel’s temple.

Jesus changed all that.  Remember when he cleared the money-changers from the temple?  Jesus told them, “do not make my Father’s house a house of trade… Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:16, 19).  And John helpfully adds, “he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21).  Then, in the upper room, before his death, Jesus tells his disciples that “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).  Now, it’s natural to connect this verse to the promise of heaven, but in John’s gospel “my Father’s house” had previously referred to the “temple of his body.”  So Jesus is also saying that his death secures our place in the body of Christ.

Therefore the temple system—with all its priests, etc.—has been replaced by the body of Christ.  This is a source of great joy, because it gives us free and direct access to God.  But apparently it also gives rise to some confusion regarding leadership—both then and now.


Actually, we might point out that even in non-Jewish religions there was a movement away from temples and toward individuals.  Peter Brown writes:

“Previously the classical world had tended to think of its religion in terms of things.  Ancient religion had revolved around great temples…the gods had spoken impersonally at their oracle-sites; their ceremonies assumed a life in which the community, the city, dwarfed the individual, as a ‘man of power,’ came to dwarf the traditional communities….In the popular imagination, the emergence of the holy man at the expense of the temple marks the end of the classical world.”[1]

What Brown is talking about is a shift in authority.  Max Weber, the 20th century sociologist of religion, spoke of authority in three capacities.  Traditional authority comes from a ruler, a king, or even a holy book, like the Bible.  Rational-legal authority derives from human reason or the government of the state. But charismatic authority comes from the power of the individual.  In the ancient days, as we’ve said, there was a tendency to gather around a favorite leader.  But now, I wager, we’re seeing a return of charismatic authority—especially when it comes to spirituality.  Whose voice do we listen to on matters of faith?  Chances are, we’re less interested in their specific credentials; we’re now pleased by how many Twitter followers they have.  In Ross Douthat’s recent book Bad Religion, he quotes a recent analyst who says:

“A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers…Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers…But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated.” [2]


Paul lived in an age where people chose their leaders based on preference–when they were “in the mood to be led.”  And so do we.  But Paul understood that the solution was not social, but theological.  We need leadership within our church (including shared leadership, which we’ll get to later) because the sheer diversity of people and ideas demands structure and guidance.

Let’s admit that this doesn’t always go well—sometimes even tragically.  Leaders fail.  Some even become abusive to members of their congregation, including the most vulnerable.  That should rightly sicken us.  But this is no reason to jettison our commitments to Christian community including its leaders.  In the days ahead we’ll look at some of the layers of leadership within the church, and what that means for each of us.


[1] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: A.D. 150-750, p. 102-3

[2] Mark Lilla, cited by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, p. 177