At the end of the day, we do not have access to an unmediated Jesus. Jesus didn’t write a single New Testament book. We know Jesus because of the apostolic word handed down to us in the scriptures. Thus, to play Jesus off against his appointed spokesmen is a contest that neither Jesus nor the apostles would ever have accepted. And neither should we.
Paul really had the Corinthian church’s number. He knew all about their issues, and he never shrank back from getting in their face when they needed it. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, he chastises the Corinthians for dividing themselves into factions based on their devotion to different teachers. He writes:
11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:11-12 )
A party spirit had taken hold in Corinth, and it manifest itself in these slogans declaring loyalty to different teachers. Some followed Paul, some Apollos, some Peter, and some Christ. We are only hearing one side of this conversation, so we really know very little about what each of these factions actually believed. They may not have believed very different things at all. It may be that they were simply marked by their deference to different leaders who basically taught the same thing.
Paul corrects the misguided loyalties of the Corinthians by informing them that the body of Christ cannot be divided like that. He reminds them that there was only one Person who was crucified for them and whose name they were baptized in. That singular Person is Jesus—the only proper focus of their devotion and worship.
If this is the case, then why does Paul list the “I am of Christ” faction alongside all the others? It seems like he would want everyone to join the “I am of Christ” faction, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Why?
If the “I am of Christ” faction is like the other factions, they were likely playing off one teacher against the others. Some people only acknowledged the authority of Paul and would only listen to him. Others only Apollos. Others only Peter. And still others only Christ. In the latter case, however, that meant that these people were resistant to submitting to Christ’s apostles but would only listen to Christ as he spoke to them directly through the Spirit. I think Richard Hays has it right when he argues,
In context, it would seem that some of the Corinthians must have been claiming Christ as their leader in an exclusivistic way (“We are the ones who really belong to Christ, but we’re not so sure about you”). Such a claim might be coupled with a boastful pretension to have direct spiritual access to Christ apart from any humanly mediated tradition (p. 23).
In other words, the “I am of Christ” faction may have felt that they could sidestep the authority of Christ’s apostles by claiming that they heard directly from Jesus himself. In this sense they were the original red-letter Christians. Because Jesus spoke to them directly, they could sideline the apostles and other teachers in authority over them.
Is this not the same approach that modern day red-letter Christians take when they elevate the words of Jesus as if they had some special priority over the other words from scripture? This approach lends itself to the suppression of black letter texts that seem to differ from the emphases of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
So the “I am of Christ” faction has much in common with the modern day red-letter faction. They play the authority of Christ against the authority of Christ’s apostles. But neither Christ nor Paul would ever have accepted such a disjunction. It is after all the red letters of Jesus that say, “[Paul] is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). Who are we to gainsay Jesus’ choice of a spokesman?
It seems that Paul’s words against the factionalism at Corinth would apply to the present case as well. At the end of the day, we do not have access to an unmediated Jesus. Jesus didn’t write a single New Testament book. We know Jesus because of the apostolic word handed down to us in the scriptures. Thus, to play Jesus off against his appointed spokesmen is a contest that neither Jesus nor the apostles would ever have accepted. And neither should we.
Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar. He blogs on matters concerning politics, theology and culture. This article is used with his permission.