It is well known that the church at Corinth had “divisions” over leadership. Some considering Paul their authority, other Apollos, others Peter, and still others accepted only Jesus as their authority. It is possible that these divisions represent competing house churches, some founded by Paul, some by Apollos. But even if there are multiple house churches founded by different leaders, Paul passionately argues that the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way. In fact, these divisions are a sign of worldliness. How can the presence of “divisions” be described as “worldly?”
Bruce Winter details the Greco-Roman practice of discipleship in the second chapter of After Paul Left Corinth. He finds that there is a great deal of parallels between the disciple-teacher relationship in the culture of Corinth and the problem of divisions in the church over the authority of teachers. Dio Chrysostom visited Corinth about A.D. 89-96. He described the activities of the disciples of the Sophists – the professional orators who were able to command large audiences, high fees for educating youth, and often a great deal of power within the city. There was extreme competition among the orators for honor and power. The better the orator, the higher the fee, and the more disciples he will attract. Dio Chrysostom complained that Corinth was filled with “wretched” sophists, many of whom were debating one another with “shouting and abuse” near the temple to Poseidon. (I suppose that if Dio were commenting on the modern world, he would describe the “wretched bloggers” shouting abuse at the temple of WordPress…!)
Paul enters this world of “wretched Sophists” and preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He gathers disciples and establishes a church, a meeting place for educating his disciples. He begins the process of developing them into leaders who will also preach the gospel and found more churches. The Gentiles coming into this new Church do not seem to be able to see the differences between it and a Greco-Roman philosopher gathering disciples and educating them in a particular philosophy.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul consciously avoids disciple-teacher language. Paul did not want to present the Gospel as an orator, competing for students as they did. In fact, Paul never claims disciples. This is really what is behind his disclaimer on baptism in 1 Cor 1:14-16. He come to Corinth to create a community of disciples from which he might receive patronage and prestige.
Paul does not want to be considered a philosopher who is gathering disciples, nor does he want that for Apollos or Peter or any man. So rather that detailing their accomplishments as orators, Paul describes their functions (Paul planted, Apollos watered, etc.) Christians are all disciples, or better, stewards and servants of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1).
The real problem behind the “divisions” is that the church continues to act like Christianity is just another philosophy, and teachers are in competition with each other just as the Greek orators competed. They are still acting “just like the world.” This is the challenge of the “divisions” in 1 Corinthians – how does the modern church act “just like the world”? In what ways have we failed to “de-paganize”? I do not think things have improved much since the first century.