Factional Leaders & Followers: The Corinthian Leadership & Follower Problem (Part 1)

Every leader knows they have followers and the power to influence them. In an age of divisiveness, the leader’s power can—intentionally or unintentionally—create a cultic following. The followers will begin to argue with those opposed to their tribe, even if the leaders do not condone this act. They begin to argue over doctrine and why their nuance is correct, and everyone else’s nuance is wrong. If what to believe is in question, the leader has the answer. In the end, the followers wear their leader’s name as a badge of honor and do not want to be associated with other groups. These descriptions sound like the current political situation in 21st century United States of America, where Democrats and Republicans divide over political doctrine and a quick comment from their party’s representative is the definitive answer. In the end, their party’s and leader’s name is worn with pride. This situation is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it reflects first century Corinthian culture where the church divided over religious doctrine (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Church members could not bring themselves to fellowship with those of opposing doctrine. They wore the name of the apostle who baptized them as a badge of honor. Consequentially, the church fragmented into miniature tribes which centered around who baptized them. The church spiraled into various forms of immorality and idolatry, and that’s not how any church is supposed to function.

What is the solution to this division? In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, he argued for unity that finds its roots in a robust understanding of Christ’s life (Philippians 2:1-11). Christ’s humility as the God-man should characterize the life of his followers. Leaders and followers are responsible for deepening their relationship with Christ and modeling their lives after his life and humility. Unity will flourish in the church as a result. Paul makes it clear: there is no space for self-exaltation and disunity in the church’s life.

The Corinthian Leadership & Follower Problem

Paul visited Corinth on his second missionary journey and he stayed there for an extended period of time for missionary work.[1] Typically after Paul left the church he ministered, external pressures either by false teachers or persecution would threaten the church’s life.[2] However, after he left Corinth, internal pressures began to affect the church.[3] Apollos and Peter came after Paul to build up the structure of the church on his foundation.[4] More than likely, they did not try to create their own following,[5] but it happened anyways: “You all are saying ‘I am of Paul,’ ‘I am of Apollos,’ ‘I am of Cephas,’ and ‘I am of Christ.’”[6]

The divisions created in the church among leaders and followers corrupted flourishing life. Division rooted itself in perverse forms of sexual immorality (5:1-13), lawsuits against each other (6:1-11), not sacrificing personal liberty (8:1-13), idolatry (10:1-22), abusing the sacraments (11:17-34), and exalting individuals and their giftings (12:1-11). The church should not live this way, but rather sexually pure, reconciled to each other, willing to sacrifice personal freedom, devoted to God, and unified in the exercise of their gifts. The church should be unified, not divided, as they live together and serve God, the world, and each other another.

Paul begins the identification of their problem by strongly urging (Παρακαλῶ) those close to him (ἀδελφοί) to have agreement (λέγητε πάντες; literally, “saying all things”).[7] The content of their agreement should be the same goals—not “schisms”[8] (σχίσματα)—so that they can “function well” (κατηρτισμένοι) in a unified state (which implies that they were never in that condition).[9] This unity is evident in their thinking (νοῒ) about each other and their goals (γνώμῃ).[10] It seems that Paul did not know about the condition of the church, because Chloe’s people (τῶν Χλόης)—whom little is known[11]—reported to him (ἐδηλώθη) the “rivalry” that consumed the church.[12] The rivalry mentioned above was based on who followed whom (Παύλου … Ἀπολλῶ … Κηφᾶ … Χριστοῦ). The names are all in the genitive singular indicating that the followers belonged to only one of these people.[13] This understanding could be nuanced to mean that these leaders possessed their followers, but the former seems more likely based on the character of the leaders.[14] Paul responds to their factionalism with a series of rhetorical questions: is Christ is made up for parts (μεμέρισται), did Paul die for their sins instead of Jesus (ἐσταυρώθη), and were they baptized (ἐβαπτίσθητε) in Paul’s name rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The implied answer to all of these questions is “No!” for Christ is unified, he died for their sins, and they were baptized in his triune name. Then, Paul expresses his thankfulness that he did not baptize anyone except Crispus and Gaius because only they (and Stephanas’ household) could exclaim that they followed Paul, although it seems like they did not cause dissension in the church. He concludes that his purpose as an apostle is to “proclaim the divine message of salvation” (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι), not to create his own following so that others may boast.[15] Even then, he does not preach the gospel to cater to the world’s rhetoric—to draw people to himself (σοφίᾳ λόγου).[16] Instead, he proclaims the gospel so that Jesus’ work on the cross would possess its full power to save those who believe.[17]

If not clear already, the main issue at the Corinthian church was factionalism. The followers in the church would prefer to associate with people of their own “tribe” rather than to cross the aisle. The things that should lead to unity—sex, reconciliation, freedom, God-fearing, the sacraments, and spiritual gifts—all these led to disunity. Sex should be a recommittal of the covenant made between two spouses; reconciliation should redeem unity; lawsuits do not need filed for every minor offense.[18] Freedom from sin is liberating, but freedom should not be used to oppress another believer by violating their conscience. The sacraments should be physical reminders of God’s presence with his people, not cause for classism or gluttony. Spiritual gifts should be used for building the body of Christ so that everyone may be further sanctified, not to exalt oneself or boast. The common thread among all of these situations is pride: people insist on their own way and want to be associated with the best, whether that be who baptized them or what gift they had. The solution to pride and the division it causes is humility.

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Bradley Matthews in Acts & Paul at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.


  1. I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 308.
  2. Marshall, Acts, 5:309.
  3. Marshall, Acts, 5:309.
  4. D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 421.
  5. This point is difficult to discern. Certainly, Paul and perhaps Apollos did not attempt to create their own following. Jesus had his own following that he cultivated, but he brought disciples to him so they could be trained. Creating a following may be characteristic of Peter if this account is compared to his actions in Galatians 1. For the sake of argument, however, it will be assumed that this following is unintentional.
  6. 1 Corinthians 1:12, my translation from Dirk Jongkind, ed., The Greek New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). Emphasis added.
  7. Frederick Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 765; Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 18.
  8. Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 45.
  9. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 982; BDAG, 526.
  10. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 680; BDAG, 202.
  11. Morris, 1 Corinthians, 7:46.
  12. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 222; BDAG, 392.
  13. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 81.
  14. Wallace, GGBB, 81. It is interesting to note that in verse 11, “the people of Chloe” carries the same construction and idea. However, it is unlikely that these people were tribal followers; they were possibly from her household. Compare to the New International Version.
  15. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 402.
  16. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 934; Morris, 1 Corinthians, 7:47.
  17. Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 539.
  18. Though they are needed at times. Specifically, when the state needs to be involved since a law was broken.
Categories: Tags: , , , , , , , ,