Paul dealt with sinful division in the church at Corinth. In writing the Corinthians, he began with an imperative: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). Factions of people jockeyed to follow one leader over another (cf. 1 Cor 1:11–13), so Paul more narrowly commanded, “Let no one boast in men” (1 Cor 3:21).
This division brutalized the church with quarreling, jealousy, strife, and pride (1 Cor 1:11; 3:3; 4:6), corrosive elements that Paul feared would destroy the work of God (cf. 1 Cor 3:16–17). Godly people asked Paul for help (1 Cor 1:11). The problem was so severe that Paul ended this section with a threat to come to Corinth wielding his shepherd’s staff, a contrast to coming “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21). Paul deeply desired that they would follow Jesus Christ, not act as arrogant fools who pledged allegiance to one of His servants (cf. 1 Cor 4:14–20). They were not acting ling “spiritual people” but being “merely human” (1 Cor 3:1, 5). Instead of living according to the gospel and wisdom of God, they were living for the flesh and wisdom of men (cf. 1 Cor 1:26–3:5).
Interestingly, the people created these factions and not the leaders. They pledged allegiance to Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or (perhaps piously) Christ (1 Cor 1:12). In response, Paul addressed the matter at length (cf. 1 Cor 1:10–4:21). Apollos wanted no such following and avoided Corinth for a time (cf. 1 Cor 16:12). Peter traveled through, and then he traveled on (cf. 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). These men knew a following for themselves or anything else other than Christ was wood, hay, and straw meant for fire in the day of judgment. Christ commends no men who follow other men, and He does not reward men who gather followings unto themselves (cf. 1 Cor 3:10–15). Only work built on the foundation of Christ lasts both now and forever. Reward comes to servants who preach Christ and not themselves.
So, wanting God’s commendation (cf. 1 Cor 4:5), Paul downplayed himself and other leaders (1 Cor 3:5). Any success in Corinth was granted by God (1 Cor 3:6–9). These leaders were not celebrity superstars but servants of Christ and stewards of truth (1 Cor 4:1). Paul did not care what others thought as he would be judged by God alone (1 Cor 4:2–5). He simply cared that everyone looked like Christ, whether discipled by him, Timothy, or anyone else (1 Cor 4:15–17). That alone would please God in the present and draw his delight in the day of judgment.
May God deliver his church from division, and may God help us all to pledge allegiance to Christ alone.