The Cult of Personality.

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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. – 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 ESV

It was A. W. Tozer who said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy). Our theology will have a direct impact on how we live our lives, and a faulty view of God will end up dramatically affecting our behavior. That was the situation in Corinth and the reason why Paul mentioned God six times and Jesus Christ ten times in the first ten verses alone. He was refocusing their attention back to the nature of their relationship with God the Father and His Son. They were members of the church of God. They belonged to Him. Their very existence was due to Him. Their salvation was the result of His grace and the sacrificial death of His Son. They enjoyed fellowship with God because of Christ’s payment of their sin debt with His own life. They owed all that they were to God and His Son.

And yet, they were guilty of worshiping men. They were a house divided. It had come to Paul’s attention that divisive cliques had developed within the church there in Corinth. People were taking sides. They were aligning themselves with different leaders and claiming superiority based on who it was that they followed. There were those who bragged about their relationship with Apollos. Others claimed allegiance to Cephas (Peter). Much to his dislike, there were some who boasted that Paul was their leader. And then were those who claimed the high road, claiming to be followers of Christ. The end result of all this was petty arguing and prideful posturing. They had missed the point. It wasn’t supposed to be about Apollos, Paul or Cephas. None of them had been crucified in order to pay for the sins of mankind. None of them were preaching their own message of salvation, but each was acting as a messenger of God, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

For Paul, a proper view of God should result in proper behavior. If people had an accurate understanding of God and the future-based focus of His plan of redemption, they would not put all their hopes in this life. They would be less likely to make more of the messenger than the message. God had been using Paul, Cephas and Apollos, but they were simply the bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ. But the Corinthians had turned these men into celebrities, and this growing cult of personality was dividing the church. The worship of man was inadvertently replacing the proper worship of God. Without realizing it, the believers in Corinth were boasting in men rather than God. They were attributing their salvation to men, instead of God. And they were focusing all their attention on the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. Who baptized them had become far more important to them than why they had been baptized in the first place. They had given their favorite preacher more prominence than they rightfully deserved. And Paul was going to make sure that they saw the error of their way.

The Corinthian believers were just as susceptible to hero worship as we are. They found themselves susceptible to making much of the messenger. Some were naturally attracted to Paul. Others found Apollos more appealing. There were those who found the style of Cephas more to their liking. But they had allowed these personal preferences to become points of contention, leading to division within the church. They were elevating style over substance. But Paul was determined to make more of the message than the messenger. In the very next chapter he writes,

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV

It wasn’t about Paul’s preaching style or oratory skills. It wasn’t about his persuasive abilities or clever crafting of a good sermon. It was about Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The focus of the message of the gospel is as it always has been: the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is about the God-ordained, Spirit-empowered transformation of men’s lives as they place their faith in Christ, who died in their place and on their behalf. When we care more about the messenger than we do about the message, we are guilty of idol worship. When we prefer style over substance, we are no longer interested in having our hearts transformed, but simply want to have our ears tickled. We want to be entertained and satisfied, rather than sanctified. We find ourselves living for the moment, hoping our favorite preacher will keep us interested for an hour, while God would rather have us living with a much loftier goal: Our ongoing sanctification and future glorification.