Now it is possible to read through Paul’s Corinthian correspondence against the appropriate backdrop of the prizing of rhetorical skill and the honor competition and assignment associated with public speech acts. In this, one gets 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.
One can see evidence of this attitude towards Paul in the second Corinthian letter, when reading “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. Thus, because Paul was unable to accrue honor for himself through his rhetorical abilities, the community was also going to be unable to accrue honor.
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). One should not immediately surmise that Apollos was somehow in competition with Paul, but with some understanding of 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. Thus, again, because Apollos could accrue honor through the use of his rhetorical skills, so too could a community that he led accrue honor.
Paul, without condemning or criticizing Apollos, his speaking, his eloquence, or his learning, refocuses the Corinthian believers by criticizing them and their continued introduction of societal (old age) values into the church as they elevated and assigned honor to one based on accepted custom. Paul attempted to make 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 the Creator 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).