“Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.” (1 Corinthians 1:12–17, NASB95)
Factions tear apart. This is a foundational reality in all of man’s relationships. When things come between us we can easily be tempted to focus more on the thing that divides than on all that knits us together. This is true in marriage, friendships, work environments, politics, morals, and the church. At the time of Paul’s writing the church was still young. The New Testament Word of God and all that we know of Christ and how we are to function as believers was still being spread by direct teaching, word of mouth spread from one to another, or from letters like this one being shared.
As a result, there might not have been 100% agreement in what some of the early church leaders were teaching or who they were looking to for their information. Some may have come to Christ under the ministry of Paul and had the privilege of sitting under his teaching for a season. Others may have heard from Apollos, who only had limited understanding. We read about this in Acts as we also see how humble and teachable he was. “Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:24–28, NASB95)
But in the next chapter we also see that there were some believers who had heard from Apollos, likely before Apollos had been instructed by Priscilla and Aquila, and who were incomplete in their understanding some things. “It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:1–5, NASB95) Right there in Corinth there were those who may not even have herd that the Holy Spirit existed. John the Baptist had died before Christ went to the cross. What Apollos had learned was not wrong in that sense, but it was incomplete. Paul helped them to complete the picture, because Christ has truly come and brought salvation to man.
And then there was Cephas. Peter himself grew in his understanding of Christ bringing salvation to all of mankind. We read about this in Acts chapter 10, where after a vision we read: “Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)— you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”” (Acts 10:34–43, NASB95)
Then there might have been those who were personal witnesses of Christ, and who said, “I am of Christ.” Paul’s answer to all of them was the same. “Has Christ been divided?” The body of Christ—the church—is not divided based upon who personally told you about Him. There is no distinction among believers. All who have trusted in Christ for their salvation are one in Christ, and there are to be no divided loyalties. Paul refuted anyone putting even himself above any of the others. They all belonged to Christ, and it was Christ in whom they were to be unified.
This passage is not a statement for or against these men or even water baptism, but rather it is one against the loyalties that may have been associated with that baptism or any other faction. Regardless of the baptizer, we are all knit together in the Holy Spirit. Rather than emphasizing baptism or who did it, Paul retuned to the priority of his calling which was, “…to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”
I am a member of a Baptist affiliated church. We hold in our doctrinal statement a very particular statement concerning baptism and communion as ordinances for believers. Not all churches agree with the position we hold. While these positions can be between us of different Bible believing churches a matter of study and discussion, we understand foremost that these ordinances are responses to our salvation and not a condition of salvation. I am free to walk with and serve alongside other believers who understand these a bit differently, but within the church of which I am a member this is our position. In order to clarify and preserve the unity of the fellowship, we spell this out in our Doctrinal Statement as a biblical principle under which we operate.
The Corinthian church had not come to terms with the distinctives of the teaching they had received, and those distinctives had grown into factions and even quarreling. This is not as it should be. When my wife and I first moved to Grants Pass and were deciding on a church home, we looked first at these things knowing that unity was critical to the health of the local church. And, when I have worked outside the church with other believers I have striven to keep central that oneness that we have in Christ and secondarily consider how I can best walk or work with them in the other things. Most of the time it has worked out very well. Sound teaching and doctrine are essential. We don’t need to compromise our understanding of the Word to walk well with other believers as we always hold first and foremost that salvation in Christ alone is central to the gospel message.
The gospel message is really not that complicated. Later in this letter Paul would write, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:1–4, NASB95) This is the central message. Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures. This is the great truth that we know, and it is the absolute primary truth that is very simple to share.