At the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, we have seen, the Corinthian church was plagued by factionalism (1 Cor. 1:10–12). Doctrinal differences did not likely serve as the source of this division; rather, different groups were trying to advance themselves based on their connections to noted figures in the church. Having expressed his knowledge of the situation, Paul in today’s passage explains why such divisions are foolish.
First, Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?” (v. 13). The question answers itself. Christ Himself cannot be divided, so how can brothers and sisters in Christ divide His body? Since Christ has not divided His body based on personal associations, we certainly may not.
Next, Paul shows how wrong it is to improperly use the name of others for advancement in the church by saying that he was not crucified for believers; nor is he the person into whom one is baptized (v. 13). This is true also of any other mere human teacher. It is not wrong, of course, to esteem our fathers and mothers in the faith. Paul himself tells us to give honor to those to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7). But when we use this honor to justify dividing with those who share the same faith, we have committed a serious sin. Practically speaking, this means that we cannot claim rights for ourselves for inappropriate reasons. For example, we might reason that we have been a member of our church longer than others or we knew its founding pastor.
Paul then expresses his disdain for the Corinthians’ practice by saying he is glad that he baptized only a few people because it means no one can claim him for their side (1 Cor. 1:14–16). In effect, he says, “I am glad you cannot associate me with this nonsense,” which must have had quite an impact on the Corinthians. This leads Paul to state that Christ sent him not to baptize but to preach the gospel—not with eloquence in order not to empty the cross of its power (v. 17). Paul does not mean he had no mandate to baptize, but he is pointing out that the real source of power for Christians is the power of the cross. Furthermore, Paul is not saying that eloquent preaching is wrong. The New Testament is filled with eloquent preaching (for example, the book of Hebrews). Instead, as John Calvin comments, we are to commend the eloquence that “has no tendency to lead Christians to be taken up with an outward glitter of words, or intoxicate them with empty delight, or tickle their ears with its tinkling sound, or cover over the cross of Christ with its empty show as with a veil.”