It is of importance to keep in mind that the Corinthian culture was deeply influenced by status, prestige, and power. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the “Corinthians were caught up in the pattern of behavior that characterized those who were zealous for oratory and eloquence” (Witherington, Ben. Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995] 100). In regards to baptism we need to take note that in Roman religion it was common practice (though not universally) that the head of the house would be followed in religious orientation (cf. Wihteringtron, 102).
These are just two historic-cultural aspects in the Greco-Roman world we need to keep in mind as we come to today’s passage. It is of interest (and shock) to the present writer, that the church of God in Corinth is so similar to today’s church. Though this is shocking it also gives us the opportunity to learn from those who have gone before us and to be open to Paul’s rebuke to them – and to us!
Let us now look at today’s passage (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). In v.10 the apostle gives us the thesis statement for the upcoming argument (vv.11-17). In this verse he admonishes (parakaleō) the Corinthian believers, whom despite all the difficulties he still calls “brothers” (adelphoi), that there should be no divisions and that they should be of one/the same mind and of one/the same judgment. Thus the important theme of unity is introduced.
In vv. 11-12 he mentions certain reports of quarreling among the believers and divisive behavior. This behavior is seen as some identify themselves as followers of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ. What all these groups consist of is difficult to asses and goes beyond the scope of this article. However, what is of importance is not the identification of such individual groups, but that there is disunity and thus the Gospel is threatened to which Paul then replies. The apostle calls out their disruptive behavior and exhorts them to “concord using the example of Christ and the gospel as the standards for true wisdom and hence for true Christian behavior” (Witherington, 99; see more to the topic of divine wisdom in 1:18-2:5 and 2:6-16 in the upcoming articles).
To Paul it is absolute nonsense that there are divisions (or fractions) among the Corinthian believers (vv.13-16). It is nonsense for two reasons: First, because Christ is not divided. Second, because it was not Paul (or any other leader) who was crucified for them (v.13). There is only one true Messiah, Jesus, and he was crucified for them (and us). Further, one is only baptized in a NT sense into the name of Jesus and not into the name of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas.
Paul then goes on to mention that he baptized some, but only to contrast such to his primary ministry – namely that of preaching. His ministry was the proclamation of the Jewish Messiah, and him crucified (v.17). He did not do such which “eloquent speech” (en sophia logou) but with the power that comes from God by preaching the crucified Messiah (see more hereunto in section 1:18-31). For Paul then it is not water baptism, that defines a Christian, but the “faith response to the preaching” (Witherington, 105; though, as is pointed out in Witherington’s work, the NT is fairly clear that water baptism should be in close temporal succession to conversion).
What can we learn from all of this today? Well, there are many applications – which should not come as a surprise as the same God who inspired Paul is still speaking today!
First of all we need to see that the Gospel is the central message of the church. Such was the case for Paul and such should – must – be the case for us. When we loose our focus on the Gospel we will inevitably loose our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – who himself is the Gospel!
Further, we learn that divisions should not be characteristic of the Christian church. Divisions can be seen all around us – family, work, sports-teams etc. – but the church has to stand in unity. This does not mean that we ignore the differences of opinion, but it does mean that we will learn to live with them in shalom. We need to learn how to disagree on minor issues of the Christian faith and what it means to live in the faith community in a loving and respectful manner. If that is done, the world will see Him who loves us and creates a new humanity after His Son’s image.