“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:3, ESV). Amen. In last week’s sermon, I preached about the importance of giving thanks for the people in our lives, even the ones who are difficult to love and get along with. In that same message, we surveyed the many conflicts and disagreements that plagued the Corinthian church. And in today’s epistle, the Apostle Paul begins to tackle those problems one by one, beginning with the divisive party spirit that had taken hold of the congregation. “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” (1 Cor. 1:10).
By way of his friend Chloe, Paul had got wind of the division in the congregation. Apparently, there were various groups in Corinth who supported the ministries of certain pastors and missionaries, but not others. “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’” (1 Cor. 1:12). From what we can gather from the New Testament record, none of the pastors advocated for such personal loyalties. This was the sinful result of individual favoritism by the church members.
The apostle Paul founded the church in Corinth, when he first brought the Gospel to the wealthy, cosmopolitan city. Paul had a special relationship with the Corinthians, not only as the founding pastor, but he also spent more time there than he did in almost any other place. Ordinarily, during Paul’s missionary journeys, he might only be there for a few days or a few weeks. But he spent eighteen months—a year and a half—in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:11). He had plenty of time to teach them the Christian faith and love the people as a father loves his children.
Apollos was another Christian missionary in the Book of Acts. Apollos had already planted a church in Ephesus (in Asia Minor) before journeying on to Corinth. He was a dynamic preacher and apparently garnered quite the following in Corinth. But Paul and Apollos were not in competition with each other. In fact, later in the letter, Paul reveals that he personally urged Apollos to return to Corinth for a visit when the opportunity arose (1 Cor. 16:12). In Paul’s letter to Titus, he told his fellow pastor to give whatever aid and support he could to Apollos’s ministry. Paul and Apollos may not have been best friends, but they were friendly and wanted the same thing—for people to come to saving faith in Jesus.
Yet a third camp at Corinth were those who were fans of the Apostle Peter. Cephas he is called here. That was Peter’s Aramaic name. Petros, or Peter, was his Greek name. (Aside: Kind of like how Juan, John, and Johann are all ways to the say the same name in Spanish, English, and German). We don’t know how the Corinthians came to know Peter, the disciple upon whom Jesus said he would build his church (cf. Matt. 16:18). But he must have passed through the area because the Corinthians were familiar with Peter’s custom of traveling with his wife (9:5). Maybe this group liked how down-to-earth Peter was. Or maybe they were impressed by the fact that he was one of the three apostles in Jesus’ inner circle. Who knows?
Now, it’s no secret that the relationship between Paul and Peter could be “rocky” at times. At one time, Paul very publicly “opposed [Peter] to his face” when he accused him of being a hypocrite (Gal. 2:11). And, for his part, Peter once got in a dig that Paul’s letters can be hard to understand (an assertion which, incidentally, I quite agree with). Yet Peter still referred to Paul as a “beloved brother” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). So they weren’t enemies. They were brothers in Christ.
The fourth group in Corinth might sound like the best to us. Over against the followers of Paul, Apollos, and Peter, they declared, “I follow Christ.” Now that sounds very spiritual and high-minded, doesn’t it? And that’s precisely the point. They weren’t saying this out of a sense of humility in trying to restore peace to the church. They were trying to exalt themselves as holier-than-thou because they claimed that they alone had gotten it right. Yes, they followed Christ. But they were smug about it.
And Paul would have none of it. “Is Christ divided?” Paul writes. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v. 13). Of course, not! Christ died for them. They were baptized in the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus is all who matters.
Paul points out that he didn’t even baptize that many people at Corinth. Mainly, he just preached the Gospel—“and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul’s point was that it wasn’t about Paul. It wasn’t about Apollos or Cephas either. It was all about Jesus and what he did to save the Corinthians (and us) from sin and death.
In chapter 3 of his letter, Paul goes to great length to show that all of the pastors whom the Corinthians knew and loved were coworkers in the kingdom (3:9). They were not competitors for the affections of the people. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (3:5-6).
Miss Kristin once told me a story about something that happened in confirmation. When she first came her as an intern, a student asked her if she was going to “replace Pastor Chris.” It’s a funny idea, isn’t it? Kristin didn’t come here to replace me. She came here to work alongside me in the kingdom. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. The Church needs all the help we can get. And if we call another pastor or DCE, that person won’t be in competition with us either. We are all fellow workers in the kingdom of God.
I have heard horror stories about congregations that divide because the cult of personality takes over and one faction supports the senior pastor while another faction champions the associate pastor. Usually, the pastors don’t foment this division, but sometimes they do. Pride goes before a fall, and the temptation to be liked is particularly keen to pastors. But people in ministry together should never see themselves as competition. They are on the same team.
Similar divisions among Christian denominations hurt our witness before the world. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed for his disciples—for us!—“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus prayed that the Church would be united as a witness to the world of the truth of the Gospel. But sociologists estimate that there are over 35,000 distinct denominations in Christianity around the world. Even within Christian traditions, such as Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist, there are dozens if not hundreds of different groups. American Baptist, Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Missionary Baptist. Who can begin to decode the alphabet soup of Lutheran churches: LCMS, ELCA, WELS, ELS, SELK, LCC? Will it ever end? Ironically, even the United Methodists divided a few years ago over the issue of homosexual clergy. So much for us all being one!
You may be surprised to learn that Martin Luther never wanted to have a church named after him. In fact, the terminology Lutheran began as a byword among Catholics trying to discredit the Reformation movement. The word “Lutheran” was a pejorative, much in the same way that the term “Mormon” is a pejorative for the so-called Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Luther writes:
“In the first place, I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine…. Neither was I crucified for anyone…. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians.”
Wow! Isn’t that just amazing and wonderful?! I bet you never knew that before. What did Martin Luther want the Reformation movement to be known as? The Evangelical Church—the Gospel Church!
Despite all this, some districts, I have heard, will not even admit into the Synod any church that omits Lutheran from its name. (For example, the full name of our congregation is Epiphany Evangelical Lutheran Church of Castle Rock.) We worry that if people are embarrassed by the name Lutheran, then perhaps they are not that interested in upholding the doctrine we believe, teach, and confess. What would Luther say about this? I think he would say that we’re all fools. After all, was Luther crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Martin Luther? No, of course not! Christ died for you, and you were baptized into the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 28:19). The name of Jesus is the only name given unto men by which we must be saved. I haven’t found Luther’s name anywhere in my Bible? Is he in yours?
I am not saying that doctrine doesn’t matter. The Bible is quite clear that the rule of faith matters. Paul writes to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Keep a close watch on yourself—and on the teaching (doctrine) because doctrine saves. The Word of God matters. And what we believe about it matters too. Even in today’s epistle, Paul writes, “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree…” (1 Cor. 1:10a). In the literal Greek, Paul urges the Corinthians to “say the same [thing].” Saying the same thing means to hold fast to the same confession of faith. When we agree on the doctrines of Scripture, we say the same things about God, Jesus, and the Christian life. And that matters.
So churches use denominations as a shorthand to indicate what kind of teaching they follow: Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Baptist, and so on. Yet, in the end, aren’t we all on the same team? Aren’t we trying to accomplish the same thing: to rescue people from the fires of hell by leading them to the cross of Christ? And in a post-modern, secular world that hates Christianity, don’t we have more in common with other Christians—regardless of denomination—than we do with our pagan and atheist friends and neighbors? “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). In the end, only Jesus saves. And all our differences will not matter in heaven.
I heard a story once about a man who died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the Pearly Gates and began to give him a tour of the town—heavenly Jerusalem. Every street was filled with churches where people of all denominational stripes were praising and worshiping God. As they based by one large building, they could hear bells ringing and smell incense wafting out of the windows.
“Those are the Catholics,” St. Peter said.
Next they passed by a church where they could hear the congregation yelling and shouting excitedly during the sermon. “Those are the Baptists,” Peter explained.
As they continued their journey, they passed one church after another of all kinds. But as they drew near to a little brick building with a steeple on top, Peter paused and whispered, “We have to be very quiet now.”
“Why is that?” asked the new guy.
“Because those are the Lutherans,” Peter replied, “and they think that they’re the only ones who are here.” [Pause for laughter.]
I am happy to say that heaven will be much more diverse than we imagine. All Christians, regardless of denomination, will be saved if they believe that Jesus died for them. Who is the true Church? Who are the real people of God? “All those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2b). Everyone who hears and believes the message of the cross will be saved. “It is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
I am a Lutheran pastor for very specific reasons. But at the end of the day, we are followers of Jesus. We belong to Christ who died for our sins and rose again to give us eternal life. So don’t call me Lutheran. Call me Christian. In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 45:70, as quoted in Gregory J. Lockwood, 1 Corinthians (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 54.