Many in the church of Corinth were enamored with style. And Apollos had style to spare. He seems to have been bright, articulate and alert to the philosophical streams of his day. In a nutshell, Apollos and his offspring are the sort of men every church wants to recruit as a speaker for their annual Retreat. Paul, on the other hand, offered real substance but his style was plain and narrow. If his writing is any measure—and we need to remember that his Bible letters were first spoken to an amanuensis—he often shifted from topic to topic in a loosely structured sequence, his metaphors could be scrambled, he lacked humor and he rarely employed the rhetorical flourishes that any bright audience enjoys.
In I Corinthians Paul addressed this style gap. Paul had founded the Corinthian church and then moved on after a couple of years, but he never lost his devotion to their welfare. Apollos also spent time there after Paul left and soon became a church favorite. Some sharp divisions followed, not because Apollos stirred them (he, too, had moved on), but because some of the local leaders started to question Paul’s capacity to lead. The style gap between Paul and Apollos made Paul seem to be an inferior figure . . . and, therefore, one whose teachings need not be taken very seriously.
Paul wrote to the church when he heard reports of those problems. Any differences he had with Apollos were based on function and nothing more or less. The two men could be compared to farm workers preparing a field for a crop: he had planted and Apollos had watered. By implication, one was a hands-on, dirt-based effort; the other was cleaner, neater and appreciated. Both roles were needed. Yet the church in Corinth came to be divided by competing loyalties: some favoring Paul, some Apollos, some Peter, and others Christ. Paul was appalled.
At stake was a deeper, more seditious problem. Some of the leaders in the church were using this rhetoric gap as a ploy to achieve power for themselves. They wanted power in order to take the church in new directions, directions they knew Paul would oppose. In 1 Corinthians some of these new directions are apparent: unconfronted incest, careless sexual promiscuity, in-church lawsuits, casual divorces and remarriages, and more. So, in order to loosen up Paul’s status and the sort of moral-spiritual restraints he represented, these leaders offered a new course for the church: the course of wisdom. By comparing Paul unfavorably to Apollos their real point was not to follow Apollos but to dismiss Paul. It was a basic ‘divide and conquer’ model for a church takeover.
Paul’s response was, ironically, rhetorically brilliant. He responded (and I paraphrase), “You want wisdom, do you? Well, wisdom has different sources, doesn’t it? And from where are we getting our competing versions of wisdom?!”
Why this strategy? Because he knew the Biblically-literate members of the church would perk up their ears in an instant: two competing versions of wisdom were at the root of the Fall in Genesis 3 just as there were two versions being offered in Corinth. Isaiah, in a similar set of circumstances, had said as much on God’s behalf in a text Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” [Isaiah 29:14]
The context of Paul’s Isaiah citation is striking in its application to the Corinthian problem. In Isaiah God was challenging those in Israel who “draw near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me . . . . [and who] hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down!” [Isaiah 29:13, 15-16] Some in Corinth were also turning things upside down.
The problem of discriminating true wisdom from false wisdom was widely recognized in the early church as illustrated in James’ epistle [James 3:13-18] where he distinguished a wisdom from above and a wisdom from below. One is expressed in meekness, the other in selfish ambition; one is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere; the other is demonic, larded with jealousy, boasting, disloyalty to the truth and it breeds “disorder and every vile practice.”
After raising the problem with dripping irony [1 Corinthians 1] Paul turned to the Trinity as the basis for discriminating a true wisdom from the flawed version offered by the Apollos-favoring-rhetoricians. First, the Father “chose what is weak in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, so that no man might boast in the presence of God.” [1:27-29] Paul turns next to the Son [1:30-31], “He [the Father] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” And the Spirit is the source of the Godly and true wisdom being offered to and through all who love God: “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit . . .” [2:9-10].
In sum, Paul’s lack of impressive rhetorical skill was a bit like a gift poorly wrapped in some inelegant WalMart paper, yet containing a magnificent diamond bracelet; and his detractors were offering a lump of coal wrapped in a splendid package. Paul was offering fellowship with the Triune God while his foes were promoting their own importance to the profoundly immature Corinthian church.
On both sides of this division was the certainty that the other side represented folly. Which, in turn, meant that as soon as anyone in the Corinthian church embraced either Paul or his opponents, they would be branded instantly as a “fool” by the opposite side. Yet, on the other hand, they were “wise” according to the side they embraced. The bottom line, Paul observed, is that those who side with the teachings he received from Christ become wise fools, having “received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” [2:12]
Let us, then, who are treated as fools for our simple devotion to Christ, celebrate our folly as we draw near to him with our hearts and not just with our rhetorical lips. Let us enjoy the honor of becoming more and more the ‘fools of Christ Jesus’ with the full certainty that the Triune God is pleased with us.
This was a timely gift, Ron. Thank you.
Don’t these differences of function still exist? A strong case for reading our gift of love from our Father, the Bible, the wisdom from above.
My college roomate and close friend, Bill, has been a youth pastor for almost 40 years. One of his skills has been to help today’s youth distinguish the two types of wisdom. Dramatic changes come whenever some of the youth ‘get it’ and begin to live by God’s wisdom . . . even when it costs social standing. It’s as true for adults. So, yes, the challenge continues.
A good message for any church which is going through a change in pastors. There are always those who embrace the new, and those who tenaciously hang on to the past.
This passage, of course, serves some pointed interest for me (given my thesis). You take a different approach to this passage than I did, which provides a fruitful angle to view Paul’s correspondence from.
Although, I actually kind of argued against your thesis on “rhetoric” as the primary problem here; but I certainly do see “rhetoric” as 1/2 of the issue 😉 .