Now, as we read through Pau’s Corinthian correspondence against the appropriate backdrop of the prizing of rhetorical skill and the honor competition and assignment associated with public speech acts, we get the distinct impression that Paul did not quite measure up in this area. It appears that some of the Corinthian believers derided Paul, going so far as to question his apostolic credentials, simply because, in his speeches before the assembled church community, he failed to employ the rhetoric and rhetorical skill that was so-highly-valued. At the same time however, Paul had no difficulty whatsoever in deploying his rhetorical arsenal in his written communications.
We see evidence of this attitude towards Paul in the second Corinthian letter, as we read “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speeches of no account.’” (10:10) It seems that they were uncomfortable with the idea that the person to whom they pointed as the presumptive founder of their community was not able to command respect through his public speaking. This goes a long way towards understanding the divisiveness in the Corinthian church that Paul references in the third chapter of the first letter. Paul writes “For whenever someone says, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ are you not merely human? What is Apollos really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow” (3:4-6).
Apollos, according to the eighteenth chapter of Acts, “was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue” (18:24b-26a). Chapter nineteen commences with mention of Apollos in Corinth, while Paul is in Ephesus. Apparently, Apollos put his skills to use in service of the church at Corinth, with his eloquent speech causing some to see him in a more positive light than Paul (read: more honorable). We do not immediately surmise that Apollos was somehow in competition with Paul, but understanding the honor and shame culture, it is not difficult to figure out that his rhetorical abilities caused him to be assigned honor in a way to which Paul apparently did not have the same access.
Paul, without condemning or criticizing Apollos, his speaking, his eloquence, or his learning, refocuses the Corinthian believers, criticizing them and their continued introduction of societal values into the church as they elevated and assigned honor to one based on accepted custom, making sure that they understood that both he and Apollos were nothing more than servants (diakonoi in Greek, those who were assigned to “wait on tables” in Acts 6), and that honor was to be assigned to the one that they served (both the believers and God). Paul stresses the unity and equality between he and Apollos in their role of servants, disavowing the attempts at elevation and emphasizing the need for the same amongst the congregation of believers, writing “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:8-9).
Before he brings up Apollos, who is renowned for his eloquent speech and his ability to employ lofty speech in his presentation and defense of the Gospel (thereby explaining Paul’s making mention of Apollos), Paul defends this recognized deficiency in his own abilities. Naturally, though he may see his abilities as being deficient, he believes that the message that he preaches, and the effects that it produces in those that hear it and live it, more than makes up for his perceived failings. With a solid framework in place, we now better understand what Paul is getting at when he writes “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:1-5).
This very thing that he did not want to see, which is faith based on human wisdom, is what was happening among those that were inclined to identify themselves with Apollos, in alignment with the prevailing principles of honor and shame. This also illuminates Paul’s asking them “are you not merely human?” Again, Paul takes no issue with Apollos. Indeed, Paul might have desired to possess Apollos’ abilities. At the same time, what he saw in Corinth, as the people were perhaps reacting to Apollos more based on his abilities rather than on the message that he faithfully delivered to the best of his abilities, served as a tremendous example to Paul. In the end, he would rather see that the message of the Gospel (Jesus as Lord of all) and its cross (humiliation, suffering, weakness, cursing, shame) carry the day, for then there would be no doubt as to wherein lied the efficacy of the message. Honor would not be assigned to the one that delivered the message, but to the one of whom the message spoke, and it would hopefully spark imitation of the supreme honoree along cross-shaped lines.
We must approach this carefully, especially if we find ourselves in the midst of a Christian culture that decries deep learning as being somehow antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel. Paul does not take issue with learning and the ability to speak persuasively. He is taking issue with the response of the people, as they are continuing to value the standards of the kingdoms of man rather than the standards of the kingdom of God as demonstrated by Jesus, as outlined in the what they have would known about Him through the traditions that were being orally transmitted about Him (in word and deed), and as displayed through His cross. Throughout this first letter to Corinth, Paul’s concern is with the body and its unity, and he adamantly opposes anything that might throw that body into disharmony, divisiveness, or stratifications along customary lines in a way that would decrease the witness and the effect of the body of Christ.