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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: The Perils of Popularity
1 Corinthians 1:10 - 1:17
September 19, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
The temptation to draw lines and form cliques around certain leaders is as old as the church itself. Why does this issue continue to exist after thousands of years? Why are we continuously drawn to charismatic personalities? In this sermon we discuss the underlying cause of schisms within the church and analyze how reorienting our focus on Jesus enables us to be a stronger, healthier, more united church.
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The cultural and political analyst Yuval Levin has argued that what makes our time uniquely challenging is not necessarily the strength of the pressures that we are experiencing, but rather the weakness of our institutions to help us stand up underneath them. Whether you’re talking about the federal government, big business, the news media, the universities, or the church, it seems that in recent decades, we have witnessed a startling collapse in confidence. There’s a variety of factors involved, no doubt, but Levin suggests that at least one reason for this loss of faith in our institutions is because we’ve taken our institutions and we’ve turned "molds" into "platforms." This is what he means by that: Our institutions, at least in part, are supposed to serve as "molds." They’re supposed to shape our habits and our character. Metaphorically, we often use language along these lines. We might say that we pour ourselves into a particular role within our community, our school, our workplace, or our church. As a result of that, we take on that institution’s shape. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but more and more, we see that people aren’t really interested in the norms or the principles that are meant to guide our life together. As a result of that, increasingly, people are using the institutions where they serve as a "platform" in order to gain greater prominence for themselves or to build their own personal brand. Whereas institutions were supposed to be molds, we’ve turned them into platforms. Though they were supposed to be formative, we’ve turned them into something performative. That in essence is the heart of the problem.
What I find so helpful about this insight is that it rings true. You can see it across the spectrum. Clearly politicians do this. They take the institution of the government, the institution through which they are meant to serve, and they use it to leverage their own platform, to build their own personal brand. But it’s not just politicians. I’m here to tell you that pastors do this too, and that is one of the most damaging things affecting the church today. I’ll leave it to others to address the collapse of confidence in those other spheres because my focus is on the church. You might think that this is a uniquely modern problem, but that’s where you would be wrong. This temptation to draw lines and then to form cliques around certain leaders is in fact as old as the church itself. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul addresses this very issue and recenters us on what matters most.
We’re in the midst of a new series in which we’re going to engage in a close study of the opening four chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. What I love about the section that is before us today is that it presents the church not as we might wish it were, but as it actually is, in all of its weakness and frailty. Through this letter, Paul seeks to cultivate the kind of leaders we need so that the church can become healthy and strong and fulfill its God given task in the world. I’d like us to diagnose the underlying cause of the church’s problems, and then analyze Paul’s prescribed cure. We’ll look at the cause and the cure that is splitting the church. If you’d like, you can open up your Bible to 1 Corinthians 1 or follow along in the program. I’ll be reading v.10-17. Paul writes,
"10I 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. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so 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.) 17For 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."
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
Recap Of The Previous Week
If you weren’t here last week, I encourage you to go back and listen to the previous week’s sermon because in many ways, it serves as an introduction to the series as a whole. But let me set the context for this sermon. The Greek city of Corinth was the original "Sin City." What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth, so you can think of this as Paul’s first letter to Vegas. Without a doubt, this massive, cosmopolitan city that controlled the trade routes in every direction, was the largest and most intimidating city that Paul had yet encountered in all of his travels. He was intimidated so much that he thought he might just throw in the towel and quit. When he arrived there around the year 50 AD, he faced some initial opposition, but despite that, to his own surprise, large numbers of people became Christians. They put their trust in Jesus, and so Paul ended up staying for 18 months—longer than he had previously stayed anywhere else. Then after that year and a half, Paul travels from Corinth, to the city of Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, in what is now known as Turkey, and that’s when all the trouble sets in. As soon as Paul leaves Corinth, the church falls apart.
Diagnosing The Underlying Cause
While he’s in Ephesus, according to v.11, Paul receives a report from people attached to a woman named Chloe, perhaps these were business associates of hers. Through these people, Paul learns that the church in Corinth is now an absolute mess. Where there was once unity and love, the church is now being ripped apart by competing factions and power struggles. In v.12, we read that some were claiming “I follow Paul,” others saying “I follow Apollos,” still more saying “I follow Cephas,” the Aramaic name for Peter, and then fourthly, people claiming “I follow Christ,” which just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back then people talked about Paul or Apollos or Peter, but we could just substitute those names for our favorite celebrity pastors today. People today might say, I follow Rick Warren or Andy Stanley. Or I’m with Tim Keller, or T.D. Jakes, or I’m with John MacArthur, John Piper. This news must have hit Paul like a ton of bricks. He must have been aghast upon receiving this report. There’s no question that this was extremely painful to Paul. Everything that Paul had worked so hard to build in Corinth over those long 18 months was now in danger of a complete, total collapse.
What went wrong? What was the cause of these splits? Last week, I was reading the 16th century reformer John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians and he offered a rather intriguing insight. He says that in almost all of Paul’s letters, including the shorter ones, Paul is very, very quick to address any heresy, any false teaching. He’s not going to let anything slide if a message that is antithetical to the message of Jesus is being proclaimed in one of the churches that he’s helped found. But in 1 Corinthians we come to a relatively long letter. Throughout this letter, Paul systematically addresses one issue after another, but interestingly, heresy is not one of them. The problem in Corinth is not really false teaching. No, everybody is committed to the same gospel more or less. The problem in Corinth is that cults of personality have been built around some of the leaders who are prominent within the city. There’s nothing wrong with their theology. This isn’t a theological controversy, but rather what is affecting the church is a power struggle.
How did this happen? Well, like New York City, Corinth was a very competitive, consumer oriented, status obsessed city. It seems that many of the Christians there in Corinth were infected by that same disease, and they wanted to attach themselves to certain prominent leaders because that was a way to elevate their own status. This runs rampant throughout the community. So who were these groups? How did these groups form? Paul says that there was one group who claimed that they followed Paul. Now, almost certainly this Paul fan club would have only emerged after these other groups had formed, so it’s not hard to see how this all could have come about. Before those other groups entered the scene. Presumably all the Christians there in Corinth would have been supportive of Paul and of his message because he was the one that had planted the church. Later in this letter, Paul refers to himself as their "spiritual father." They were especially devoted to him. Maybe one of the things that they love most about Paul was his humility, but once these dividing lines were drawn, these people may have become even more intense in their commitment to Paul. They were especially devoted. They thought that Paul walked on water. He could do or say no wrong. They appreciated the way that Paul articulated things best—everybody else was secondary. If anyone were to question Paul, his message, his authority, they were going to defend him to the death. Have you met people like this? You question their favorite human leader and you receive a massive reaction and response. The issue here is not so much with Paul as a person, but rather the group that has formed around him. People were drawn to his position and his status within the church.
There’s this Paul group, but then there’s those who say, “I follow Apollos.” Who is Apollos? We’re first introduced to him in Acts 18. Apollos originally came from Alexandria in Egypt, where there was a very strong, vibrant Jewish community, and the university in Alexandria was perhaps the most creative and the most respected university in the Mediterranean world at the time. That is where Apollos received his training. Apollos was absolutely brilliant. He was a thoughtful person who was deeply versed in the Scriptures, and he was an incredibly gifted communicator. He was famous for his speaking ability. Paul meets Apollos in Ephesus, and there in Ephesus, Apollos proves that he’s a bold and charismatic leader. He makes a courageous case for Jesus. The only thing is that he was a little bit uninformed about some of the finer points of Jesus’s story, especially as it pertained to baptism. But no problem because two of Paul’s colleagues from Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila, traveled to Ephesus, perhaps on business. While they’re there, they lead Apollos to a fuller understanding of the way of God. At some point after this, Apollos makes a trip back to Corinth. There he helps build on the foundation that Paul had laid. He encourages the church there, but apparently he must not have stayed very long, because by the time Paul writes this letter, Apollos is now back in Ephesus. Even though he wasn’t there for a long time, people attached themselves to Apollos. He gained a great following. Though he probably didn’t do anything to encourage this group that lined themselves up with him, it’s very likely that he inadvertently had created something of an intellectual elite within the church because he was so famous for his speaking ability. Of course, Paul didn’t lack in intelligence or in his knowledge of the Old Testament, but by Paul’s own admission, Paul said he wasn’t eloquent. He wasn’t an eloquent speaker. We all know how people can get sucked into a cult of personality around someone who is articulate, who is a great speaker, especially if that person has had a particularly significant impact on your own life.
What’s interesting to me is that it’s important to note that Paul never sides with the group that was associated with him. He doesn’t defend this group, nor does he say anything negative about Apollos because again, there’s no theological issue here. The problem is not the people, Paul or Apollos, but rather the groupies. It’s the cult of personality that is the issue. So in addition to the Paul and Apollos groups, there’s some who say, “We follow Cephas,” the Aramaic name for the word, Peter. It’s possible that the Apostle Peter made a visit to Corinth, although we don’t know that he did. Or perhaps people who were followers of Peter made the trip to Corinth and filled in the Christians there on Peter’s distinctive teaching, but whatever the case, this had enough of an impact that some people claim that they belong to Peter.
Finally, there’s one last group, unlike all the others. These people say, “I follow Christ.” You follow Paul, Apollos, Peter? I follow Christ. That sounds good, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what we should say? I follow Christ. But more than likely, this is also just one more power play. At first glance, it sounds good. It sounds very spiritual, but I can tell you from experience that people often try to one-up everyone else by demonstrating how much more spiritual they are—that they’ve got the inside track on Jesus. We can imagine people within the church there in Corinth saying, Look, everyone else is following this leader or that, but not me. Oh, no, I’m not caught up in all that hero worship. They may give excessive attention to human leaders, but no, I listen to Jesus. Who needs leaders anyway? We don’t need leaders. All I need is me and my Bible. I can tell you what Jesus has to say. This is what Jesus is saying to the church.
If Apollos had inadvertently created something of an intellectual elite, it’s very possible that this faction developed something of a super spiritual elite. There are always people within the church who want to impress others with their spirituality, but whenever someone says, “The Lord spoke to me and said…” more often than not, you can bet that that’s some form of manipulation. It’s very hard to argue with someone who says, “I’ve received a message from the Lord,” is it not? How do you push back on that? Oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes, that is just spiritual manipulation. This is how one commentator puts it,
“The net result of their presence in the church is that most others feel spiritually inadequate: ‘We do not get clear messages from the Lord; we have no comparable sense of immediacy in prayer; we cannot match such unswerving certainty about the will of the Lord.’ There is always a faint, but discernible, air of spiritual superiority when members of this group are present. It is not easy to cope with comments such as ‘The Lord has told me that…’”
Don’t you just love human beings? We always seem to find a way to create popularity contests. Thankfully, Paul is not interested in winning a popularity contest; in fact, he’s trying to drive the celebrity culture out of the church together. It’s amazing to me that people were creating these splinter groups within the church before the early Christian movement was even 25 years old. Isn’t that shocking? Yet, as we scroll forward to the future, we realize that nothing has changed. It’s a different day, but it’s the same story.
Some of you may have recently listened to the podcast put out by Christianity Today entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” I should warn you at the outset that this is a controversial podcast for a variety of reasons about a controversial church called Mars Hill, based in Seattle, that was centered around an even more controversial pastor named Mark Driscoll. For the record, I was critical of Driscoll from the very beginning when I heard of him in the early 2000s for all the reasons that the podcast describes. I was concerned about his misogyny, his narcissism, the way in which he created a sexualized culture within his church, and a toxic work environment because of his domineering attitude and his bullying behavior. The podcast takes a retrospective look back on this church. It’s the story of a church that began with a handful of people in 1996, and then grew dramatically in a short span of time to the point where there were 12,000-13,000 people attending, but then the church experienced a collapse almost literally overnight in 2014. In the first episode, in this podcast, which is entitled “Who Killed Mars Hill?” the creator, Mike Cosper looks into all the factors that led to this spectacular collapse of an internet age megachurch. I’m personally not really all that interested in the specifics around Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill. What concerns me is what this story reveals about a much wider problem affecting the church in America across the country. This is what Mike Cosper says at one point, during that first episode, “Who Killed Mars Hill?” He says,
“The sad truth is I’m sure there are plenty of other names that come to mind when this topic comes up: Bill Hybels, Perry Noble, Tullian Tchividjian, Ravi Zacharias, Ted Haggard, Carl Lentz, James MacDonald—and those are celebrity names, but this is far from just a celebrity problem. I know of at least a dozen more pastors of small-to mid-sized churches who were removed from leadership. It seems like it’s an epidemic. And that raises one more question about who killed Mars Hill? If this is so widespread, if it just keeps happening, if it’s not just about Mars Hill isn’t there a bigger cultural issue at work? If it just keeps happening, isn’t there something broader to look at—like ourselves? When we ask why this happens, shouldn’t we ask why we keep doing it? Why we seem to like charismatic figures whose character doesn’t align with their gifts—giving them platforms and adulation?...This is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Why do we keep doing this?...Why are we regularly platforming people whose charisma outpaces their character and who leave devastation in their wake? Something attracts us, we buy in, and then we watch the collapse like spectators at a demolition derby.”
So why do we keep doing this? In that same episode, Cosper interviews a counselor named Diane Langberg, who specializes specifically in spiritual abuse, and she says,
“I think in our country we as Christians have ceased to think that the most important thing that we do is be like Christ, who serves the least of these. That’s not what we’ve been doing. We’ve been garnering fame and numbers and money and alignment with secular power that makes us look good and baptizing the whole darn thing. And I think that’s been going on most of my lifetime, and I’m 72. It’s become more and more obvious I think—and clear—and it’s ugly—and it’s divisive and it’s really not about Christ at all. And it breaks God’s heart.”
It breaks God’s heart. She’s exactly right. The reason why this keeps happening, the reason why we keep doing this is because we’re more interested in attaching ourselves to fame, to celebrity, to money, to status, to power, to influence, because somehow that makes us feel more important. We want to attach ourselves to figures that are prominent and who are distinguished because of their charisma or their gifts because that helps elevate our own status in the eyes of other people. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but the fundamental problem then is that we have lost sight of Jesus. The irony, of course, is that there’s no greater movement, nothing bigger that we could be a part of, than the kingdom of God, but we seem to settle for lesser kingdoms of our own making. Years ago, I thought about writing an article. I never actually wrote it; I was too busy, but I came up with a title. The title of the article was going to be “Church Planting as the Tower of Babel,” because it seems to me that so often, pastors and church leaders seek to build up a church not in order to make Jesus’ name great, but rather to make a great name for themselves. It’s just the Tower of Babel all over again.
Analyzing The Prescribed Cure
If that’s the cause of the splits within the church community, what’s the remedy? What’s the cure? Paul addresses his readers as brothers—and that’s literally what the word means. But in New Testament Greek, that word was inclusive of both men and women. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really carry that same sense today, so a better translation of that Greek word might be "brothers and sisters," or better yet, "my dear Christian family," because that’s what Paul is really trying to get at when Jesus calls you into a relationship with himself. You become part of one single family. So he addresses us as brothers and sisters, my dear Christian family, and then he makes his appeal in v.10, that we agree that there be no divisions among us, that we be united in the same mind and the same judgment. But the only way we can do that, is if we put our focus back on Jesus. I love the way that John Chrysostom, the early church theologian from the fourth century put this. He says that the Christians in Corinth keep dropping names of famous leaders that they want to be attached to, but Paul, in his response, keeps "nailing them to the name of Jesus.” We see that especially through the rhetorical questions that Paul asks in v.13. He zeroes in on the person of Christ, the cross of Christ, and the name of Christ.
The Person Of Christ
First, Paul focuses us on the person of Christ. People are claiming to be Christians, but then they’re drawing lines and forming these cliques around certain leaders. That’s why Paul then says, “I appeal to you that there be no divisions.” That word division literally means schisms; that there be no schisms. The word schism means to cut up. If you’re committed to Jesus, there’s no place for schisms because you can’t cut up Jesus. You can’t cut up this one single family of Jesus. When you’re united to Jesus by faith, then he gives you the greatest thing that he has to give, which is himself. You can’t just have a part of Jesus. No, if you have him, you have all of him. It’s not as if you can get a part of Jesus over here, a part of Jesus over there. That’s why he asks, “Is Christ divided?” Can Christ be divvied up? The answer is no. Their divided loyalties are dividing the church, but it cannot stand. It cannot be because no faction can claim to have a monopoly on Jesus. No one can lay claim exclusively to Jesus. If you have him, you have all of him. So the question is not really whether or not you have all of Jesus, but does he have all of you, wholeheartedly? Or will your loyalties remain divided between Jesus and some other human leader?
The Cross Of Christ
Secondly, he focuses us on the cross of Christ. He follows up with a second rhetorical question: “Was Paul crucified for you?” Paul tells us repeatedly in his message to Corinth, that when he arrived in the city, he had a singular task, and that was to preach Christ crucified. That’s it. That was the message that initially attracted them. That was how they first became Christians. That was how they experienced new life. They put their trust in Christ crucified for them. He is the one to whom they owe this brand new life, but now, they’ve taken their eyes off of Jesus. They’ve set it on other people because of their charisma, their personality, and that will inevitably lead to disunity. Do you see how this works? Jesus is the only one who can unite men and women and the way in which he does so is through his cross. Despite all the differences that exist between us, he unites us through his cross. No human leader can do that. The next time you find yourself dropping the name of some prominent Christian leader, you should stop and ask yourself, "was that person crucified for me?" No. No matter how gifted, no matter how talented, no matter how much you love them, no matter how much your life has been personally impacted by them, they didn’t die for you. Jesus did. Jesus was crucified on your behalf. If you’re more excited about knowing some other leader than Jesus, then clearly your heart is not in the right place.
The Name Of Christ
Finally, Paul directs us to the name of Jesus when he asks in v.13, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul knows it’s not about him. Upon first glance, when you read this section of the letter, you might think that Paul takes a dim view of baptism, because he says that God didn’t send him to baptize, but rather to preach the gospel. But in fact, Paul took baptism extremely seriously because baptism is the formal outward sign that you belong to God. That’s why you are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through baptism, God places his name on you. You no longer belong to yourself, you belong to him. But Paul clearly didn’t care very much about who performed your baptism. He’s glad that he actually only performed a few baptisms himself in Corinth. He remembers that he baptized Crispus, the former ruler of the synagogue, and a man named Gaius. Then almost as an afterthought as he’s in the flow of writing, he remembers, "oh, wait, I baptized some members of the household of Stephanas as well." Other than that, he can’t even quite remember if he baptized anyone else because that wasn’t the point. What really matters is not the manner of your baptism or who did it, but the meaning of it. Through baptism, you have died to your old life. You’ve been risen to new life in Christ, and Christ places his name on you. You belong to Him.
Paul seems to be very concerned about gathering his own disciples, or his own groupies. That is not what Paul wants. He’s not trying to make disciples or students of Paul, but rather disciples of Jesus, all of which suggests that we should be very careful about the way in which we use the word "disciple." Some people are very glad to say that they are disciples of so and so—some Christian leader. Others might desire to disciple others because they see themselves as being more mature and more advanced in the Christian faith. But there are no gurus in the Christian life. Do you realize that? There’s no gurus in the Christian life. Of course, as Christians, we’re called to share the message of the gospel and to make disciples of all nations, but we’re not making disciples of ourselves. We’re not the disciplers. We simply point people to the source so that they too might become fellow disciples of Jesus. In the Christian life, Jesus is the true master, and we are merely apprentices. We’re all just fellow students. Even leaders, and perhaps especially those who think they are leaders, need to continually be discipled by Jesus himself. To his credit, I have to say that I know of one prominent pastor who resigned, who stepped down from a flourishing church from all accounts, because he became increasingly disturbed by the fact that his name, rather than the name of Jesus, was more often heard on the lips of people within his congregation.
What’s the cause of the problem in the church, not only in Paul’s day, but also in our day? The problem is that we’ve taken our focus off of Jesus, and we have fixated our gaze on ourselves. It’s ugly. It’s divisive. It doesn’t have anything to do with Christ. It breaks God’s heart. What are we going to do? We have to put our focus back on Jesus and Jesus alone. We have to be zeroed in on the person of Christ, the cross of Christ, and the name of Christ. There’s only one Jesus, and no one has a monopoly on Jesus. You can’t carve Jesus up into pieces in order to feed your ego or to fuel your ambition. Jesus is not the head of your faction or the head of your group. He’s the head of the church. If you have him, you have all of him. There’s only one Jesus, and there’s only one cross. No other human leader died for you. Jesus is the only one who went to the cross in your place despite your sin, and was crucified in order to reconcile you to God. There’s only one name. There’s only one name under heaven by which we must be saved, only one name into which we are baptized. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the name of Jesus. He places his name on you. You belong to him. He doesn’t just want part of you, he wants all of you, which is why he has to become all to us. If we’re going to save ourselves from going off the rails, if we’re going to get back on track, well then we need to recenter our heart, our mind, our wills, our thoughts, our affections, and our ambitions on the only thing that matters—and that’s Jesus.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we recognize that we human beings have a tendency, a deeply ingrained tendency, to divide and to draw lines and to create cults of personality around leaders. We pray that you would break us of this vice and help us to set our hearts wholeheartedly on Jesus and Jesus alone. For our good, for the good of the church, and for your glory, we pray. Amen.