On my bookshelf I have a book that chronicles my family’s history from the mid-1970s back to the 1800s when my ancestors moved from the United States to southern Ontario to farm and do millwork, to the 1700s when my forebears came from the Old World to Philadelphia as Quakers, and even to the 1600s in England. My sons now like to look through our family history as much as I used to when I was their age. But what I can’t do is go through the book and rip out the pages of ancestors who are embarrassing, eccentric, or outright egregious. I can’t pick and choose my ancestors. They are all right there, and each played a part in the varied tapestry of my heritage. I am a part of something bigger than just my own life. Sure, there are aunts and uncles I have been closer to than others, skeletons in my family’s closet I am content to keep locked away, and even a great-grandfather who sold land on the moon (a story for another day!) But there they all are, and it is only the collection of them all that makes a family.
The Corinthians were simplifying matters. They had chosen one part of their history and were exalting it above the rest. Maybe that part was the heritage of Paul in their midst. Or Apollos, who it appears came along after Paul and became the steady leader in the church. Peter (or Cephas) might have spent time in Corinth or was just well-known as the chief apostle of sorts, and some pledged allegiance to him. Others went all the way back to Jesus himself and limited their focus to him (c.f., 1:11-12).
Paul corrects the Corinthians, though, in this chapter. They can’t pick and choose from their family history. Paul brought the message of Jesus, then Apollos picked up where Paul left off, and maybe Peter did as well. Each of these leaders were parts of the whole. Paul uses a building metaphor to make that point; each is one part of “God’s building” (3:9), one brick in the wall if you will. All of these leaders belong to them:
So don’t let anyone boast about mere human beings. For everything belongs to you, whether it’s Paul or Apollos or Cephas. (3:21-22a)
Of course we have people in our families to which we feel a greater affinity, people who have shaped us more than others. To apply this more directly to our churches, of course we will probably favor our churches over others, prefer our denominations over others, appreciate some preachers and teachers more than others. But to use this as grounds and means to divide suspends the reality that God’s family is much larger than our preferences and division does nothing to honor God and develop the spiritual mind:
You’re still determined to live in the old way! Yes, wherever there is jealousy and quarreling, doesn’t that mean you’re living in the old way, behaving as any merely human being might do? When someone says “I’m with Paul!” and someone else says “I’m with Apollos!” are you not mere humans? (3:3-4)
May we be the people who work to bring the body of Christ closer together, not add to the fragmentation.