As much as Paul despises rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric, he masterfully baptizes it for Christian use in what’s called a “reductio ad absurdum”. This sort of argument carries your opponent’s thinking to its logical end in order show its absurdity. Parents employ this timeless classic in response to the perennial complaint, “But everyone else is doing it!” The familiar reductio ad absurdum in that case is (say it with me), “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” The force of the argument is to expose the disastrous logical implications of a particular line of thinking – and the best way to do that is with a question. In addressing the Corinthian mindset, Paul’s got three of them.
The first is, “Has Christ been divided?” For Paul, church splitting absurdly implies that Jesus Himself can be broken into pieces and parceled out in chunks among various factions. How this follows from disunity is not easily discernable for most modern evangelicals, since Christ and the Church are typically held at arm’s length from one another. Resigned to the impossibility of moral victory and desiring to minimize the damage to Jesus’ reputation, the only available coping mechanism is to see His ministry as radically independent from that of the Church. But this is a fantasy. The Church, like it or not, is in mystical union with Jesus Christ. So much so, in fact, that 1 Co. 6:15-20 says when a believer joins himself to a prostitute, he’s not only defiling Himself – he’s defiling Jesus too. 1 Co. 12:27 puts it even more plainly – “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” The neat distinctions we make between Christology and Ecclesiology can be worse than misleading; they can blind us from the fact that the Church is His body, and as such bear His reputation, constitute His earthly presence and mediate His ongoing ministry. As such, seeking to separate believers from one another is a direct assault on Jesus Himself because, though comprised of many members, He is one.
This first question reveals an absurdity in their view of Christ’s Person; the second question exposes the absurdity in relationship to Christ’s work. Even though he used his own name, he could have just as easily inserted the names of Apollos or Peter – none of these men died on your behalf – so why are you choosing sides according to your loyalty to them? I think we should feel free to read the names of any respected teacher in the Church, past or present in verse 13. Is this where the lines that divide us should be drawn? Should we be organizing ourselves according to these sorts of loyalties? Paul’s answer was plainly, “Hell no.” And the reason for that is because of the nature of Christ’s work on the cross – it demands exclusive loyalty. Neither John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon nor John Wesley died for our sins. Neither John MacArthur nor Rick Warren reconciled our rebellious hearts to God. And since it was none other than Jesus who did that, there is no other loyalty which should be used as the acid test of Christian fellowship. The oft-repeated ultimatum, “Do you stand with X or do you stand with Y” exemplifies Satanic brilliance, because regardless of which option we choose, we’ve inadvertently hacking the heart of true discipleship: exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ.
On top of these implications Paul piles on one more absurdity – “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” These divisions reflected different spiritual heritages, the products of different discipleship. Some were influenced more by Peter, others by Apollos; some were the products of Paul’s teaching, and still others claimed to be purists, relying only on the words of Jesus Himself. Surely, then, these divisions reflected different faiths! Not so. No matter who their spiritual fathers were, every single believer in the Corinthian community, as well as every single believer in Macedonia, the Empire, in both times past and present were all baptized into the same name: that of King Jesus. And that baptism was based not on receiving the good news about Paul, Peter or Apollos, but about Jesus, who God has made Lord and Christ by virtue of His death and resurrection. The message of the cross was the basis for baptism in the name of Jesus, and therefore dividing the fellowship was a way of emptying the cross of its significance. The cross brings men of every tribe, tongue and nation into one body through baptism. Gal. 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I’ll close this series of posts with a searching quote about these verses from Gordon D. Fee:
“It is easy to see the urgency of a paragraph like this for the contemporary church, which not only often experiences quarrels such as these at the local level, but also is deeply fragmented at every other level. We have churches and denominations, renewal movements that all too often are broken off and become their own “church of Christ,” and every imaginable individualistic movement and sect. Even in a day of various kinds of ecumenism, the likelihood of total visible unity in the church is more remote than ever. This fragmentation is both a shame on our house and a cause for deep repentance. If there is a way forward, it probably lies less in structures and more in our readiness to recapture Paul’s focus here – on the preaching of the cross as the great divine contradiction to our merely human ways of doing things.”