“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” 1 Corinthians 3:21-23
Today, while working in an Old Testament text for Sunday’s sermon, I was cross-referenced to the above passage. The Corinthians—perhaps the most contemporary of ancient biblical people—displayed a tendency we know too well in American evangelicalism. Paul referred to himself and Apollos and Peter as “servants and stewards” (1 Cor. 3:5; 4:1). But to a fractured Corinthian fellowship the men became their “princes,” in effect (“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes,” Psalm 118:8-9).
Groups in the Corinthian church had congealed around their favorite servant, crowning and elevating him above the others. Between Apollos and Paul and Peter themselves there was no rivalry. But different people in the church were endeared or repelled or unimpressed with Paul or Peter or Apollos.
Apollos might be the unnamed guy whom Paul references in 2 Corinthians 8:18, “the brother” who was renowned in the churches for his gospel preaching. I make this plausible linkage only because of what’s written of Apollos in Acts 18, that he was a great orator and rhetorician. So it is easy to see why some Corinthians preferred him. Great teaching gifts! But we also learn in Acts 18 that Apollos was not the best theologian.
Paul, a great theologian, was criticized by some Corinthians for not being a very good preacher (2 Cor. 10:10). And yet some were saying, “I follow Paul.” And why not? Courage, conviction, strength of character, doctrinal depth—Paul! A personal testimony of a life radically changed after meeting Jesus in extraordinary circumstances.
And Peter—all that personal time with Jesus Himself! To shake Peter’s hand was to shake a hand that had touched Jesus Christ in the flesh numerous times. Peter could tell personal stories of travels with Jesus. Top that, Apollos and Paul! So some of the Corinthians yet preferred Peter, because there was just something extra Jesus-y about him, you know? Peter, however, wrestled at times with some implicit Jewish elitism, as we see in Acts and Galatians 2. Peter was still just a man, as was Apollos, as was Paul.
Apollos, Paul, and Peter ministered to a church too focused on making servants princes. Evangelicals simply make too much of church leaders today. The celebrification of ministry means more church leaders are in brighter spotlights than ever before. Radio and internet give us 24/7 access to great teaching and Christian conferencing is its own industry. It feels uniquely Corinthian how we talk of leaders and leadership today.
Men have to be part of the mix because God calls men to lead His church. God has purposed to use people to build His church. And so it is just as Corinthian to disdain church leaders. There are those who never encourage or affirm a leader in his role because they think it their duty not to “puff him up” with praise. But the opposite of boasting in men is not to bash them.
Men are vital but we’re not absolute. It is Jesus’ church. Only God is both vital and absolute. Men come and go. But Jesus remains, “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.