When is Being a “Follower of Christ” a BAD Thing?


My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 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.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?  I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)  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.

1 Corinthians 1:11-17

For me, this passage doesn’t go the way I expect it to. I would have expected the flow of Paul’s writing to more like one of the two:

  • One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; and still another “I follow Cephas.” Is the church divided? No! We all follow Christ.         Or…
  • One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” No one should follow me, or Apollos, or Cephas. The church follows Christ and no other.

But it doesn’t say that. I seems to condemn (or at least fails to condone) those who say they follow Christ. Why is that?

It is pretty obvious why some would say that they follow Paul. He was the founder of the church. Many people maintain a very strong attachment to the churchplanter, or any founder of an organization. Sometimes, such a person may even use that to apply undue influence over the church years, even decades, later.

It is pretty obvious why some would say that they follow Apollos. He had ministered there in Corinth as well. Apollos was described to be fervent of spirit, much like Paul. On the other hand, unlike Paul, Apollos was a great preacher/orator. Paul, by his own admission, was identified by others as a stronger writer than speaker. Frankly, churchplanters are commonly not the greatest preachers— it is not a critical skill in planting a church. They are often better at evangelizing than oratory. It is hardly surprising that some would prefer Apollos.

It is less certain why some would say that they follow Peter. Perhaps the use of his Aramaic translation (Cephas) is indicative of a strongly Jewish camp in Corinth. Paul indicates in his Epistle to the Galatians that Peter had a strong influence in Antioch. The context suggests that Peter had a strong influence in Galatia as well. Further, since Peter was the preacher at Pentecost, some might argue that while Paul founded the Church of Corinth, Peter founded the Church (as some groups argue still to this day.) On the other hand, adding Peter may have been more of a rhetorical device— making the point that the issue is more than simply about Paul and Apollos.

And then we get to the followers of Christ. I have seen commentaries that speak of these as possibly the “hyper-spiritual.” I suppose that is pretty likely, and my thought is petty consistent with that. Still, I would like to keep this simpler. After all, the passage is not about spirituality per se, but rather about divisions in the church. When one sees this as the central point, then the issue changes a tiny bit. The labels, after all, are not simply labels, but descriptions of divisions. I believe one could read verse 12 as:

One of you says, “I follow Paul— unlike you”; another, “I follow Apollos— unlike you”; another, “I follow Cephas— unlike you”; still another, “I follow Christ— unlike you.”

This way of saying it is consistent with the context, I believe, but it gives a very different feel. Of these, which is the worst?

I have a friend who also teaches missions. I like to say that he is more “Ralph Winter” while I am more “John Stott,” expressing in this how our theology lines up with a couple of 20th century missiologists. That isn’t really that bad. I Corinthians 3:6-7 downplays individual roles (specifically Paul and Apollos) but does not discount them. Rather the emphasis is on God.

But when we get to “I follow Christ” there is something different entirely. Now it could be that in chapter 1, some people were saying:

“I follow Christ— as, of course, we all do.”

It is possible. But that breaks the parallels with Paul, Apollos, and Peter. It also seems inconsistent with the next verse that utilizes the previous verse as the basis for describing the divisiveness found in the Corinthian church.  It’s more likely that some in the church of Corinth were saying to other members of the church:

“I follow Christ— and you don’t”

That is quite a strong statement. This tendency to see oneself as uniquely of Christ as opposed to other Christians has a fairly long history. Some of that has roots in fairly important doctrinal issues. After all, if one claims to follow Christ, but Christ is only a prophet, or a docetic divine being, and archangel, or deluded apocalyptic revolutionary, it may be fair to say that we don’t follow the same Christ. But it is hard to see that in the Great Schism of 1054 AD when the Western Church excommunicated the Eastern Church over issues that today appear less than trivial (except for issues of control and power— temptations of most churches). In theory the Protestant Reformation should have improved things as it became clear that the church is a spiritual entity, not a governmental entity. But alas, more fighting ensued.

In recent years it still happens. )There was a tendency to say something to the effect that, “Outside of the (as in our very specific) church, there is no salvation.” This was especially noticeable in the Restoration Movements in the 19th century… some of which had very inadequate Christologies, but many relatively orthodox. Restoration was built on the premise that the Church had for all intents and purposes died soon after the New Testament age, and they were needed to “restore” the True Church.

I am a Baptist missionary professor although I don’t generally emphasize my denominational pedigree. The Baptists were not officially among the Restorationists, but often acted like them. In the 19th century there was a movement that sought to view Baptists as uniquely God’s chosen church. They saw themselves as part of a “trail of blood” going back through to Christ Himself, while other Christians were deluded. One still comes upon this view at times.

And sometimes being Baptist isn’t enough. One has to be the right kind of Baptist. I haved lived near two Baptist churches that share a neighborhood. The pastor of one of those two churches stated they their church was the only “God-ordained” church in their neighborhood. (I wonder how one can tell that one’s church is “God-ordained”?) There is a lot of hubris there, although I hold slight hope that the pastor was joking. Less serious perhaps was a Baptist minister who told a Baptist churchplanter that she was going to hell because she had apparently committed the unforgivable sin– being a churchplanter while female.

Anyway, I can see that I am drifting off topic.

The question is “When is being a ‘Follower of Christ’ a bad thing?” I would say that when that label is used particularistically to tear apart the Church (or a church) it is a bad thing, and really draws into question whether the one speaking really is a follower of Christ.

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