1 Corinthians 4:5-8
I remember being a kid, and when ever birthdays or Christmas, or whatever occasion for celebration came around, and there were always those kids who would brag about what presents they got. They were filled with such a sense of pride about what presents they got and they flaunted them and made everyone else feel bad because they got so much better presents than anyone else. Some of them even perfected the art of “one-up-man-ship,” they would begin with the smaller gifts and eventually build up to the “coup de grace” present, the one that literally everyone wanted. And looking back on those days now, it’s easy to recognize how unloving that behavior is, how mean and uncompassionate it was to evoke these “I’m better and you’re inferior” emotions in the other kids.
In today’s reading, we see Paul dealing with division in the Corinthian Church, and most of it is based on pride and arrogance. As we’ve already seen, they had divided one from another based on who their teachers were, and looked down upon any other disciples of a different teacher. “You say I am of Paul, or I am of Cephas, or I am of Apollos,” and each considered themselves to be superior to the students of the other. So, St Paul here chooses to address this topic in an attempt to vanquish this sense of pride that they have developed.
He brings it down to the teachers, “so that you may learn in us not to look beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up, one against another.” “Not to look beyond what is written” is an obvious reference to the Old Testament, as is any reference in the writings of St Paul to the Scriptures, considering his writings themselves compose over half of what would become the New Testament. And, all throughout the Old Testament, we find various warnings against contentiousness and pride. St John Climacus warns us that “pride and nothing else caused an angel to fall from heaven,” and St Macarius of Optina warns us that “the worst of all sins is when we are overwhelmed by our pride and our own opinion about everything.”
And Paul goes on to address this topic with a very powerful rhetorical question. “What do you have that you did not receive?” he asks. That is, what do you have that was not given to you freely by another, what do you have that you acquired on your own? And this is a powerful question in spiritual matters, because the answer is nothing. These believers who were students of Apollos had no spiritual knowledge that wasn’t freely given by Apollos. Similarly Paul and Cephas, each were teachers who freely gave knowledge because of their great love. And the Corinthians had turned this free gift into an occasion for boasting. There is nothing that justifies thinking of yourself as better than another. And especially when the cause for boasting is something that you had no control over to begin with. See, they each considered their teacher to be better than the other teacher, therefore they took this false sense of superiority of their teacher and applied it to themselves. All of a sudden Joseph, the disciple of Paul, claimed himself to be better than David, the student of Apollos, because Joseph considered Paul to be a better teacher than Apollos (arbitrary names given to illustrate a point).
And this same erroneous way of thinking still exists today. I see it all the time in the Western Church. I’ve actually heard teachers speaking to their congregation referring to other teachers as “unqualified,” which in turn leads the congregation to believe that they are better than the congregation of the other teacher. This is especially true in the case of some of the more popular “rockstar” pastors in the American Church. We find people whose sense of ego is inflated by the number of their book sales, and so they consider themselves superior to other teachers and find themselves looking down on those who spend their time in prayer for their flock rather than writing exegetical theses. But, the danger with that is that their congregation adopts that same mindset. Rather than praying for the unity of the Church, they spend their time creating arguments for why the Church should never be unified, or apologetics to argue why God created the world in 144 hours rather than accepting the possibility that the six days of creation may have been an allegory. What’s worse is that because of this hermeneutical approach, they determine that the goal of Scripture is to gain knowledge, rather than obey it, and then they look down on those who seek to read the word of God and obey it, rather than “figure it out.” I’ve been told by a Protestant pastor to “be careful reading the Church fathers, because their theology was very naive.” Well did Paul speak when he wrote that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” See, when we take this scientific approach to Scripture, we tend to allow that knowledge, that almost gnostic sense of knowing, and allow it to become a dividing point in our Church. We cling to those who have found these hidden meanings and cling to them, and based on our own elevated opinion of them we begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And, my beloved brothers and sisters, this must never be so.
Do not misunderstand. We will find teachers that we have more chemistry with than others. There are different teaching styles and different learning styles and each must mesh. Further, we must also each find a spiritual father who can help us and guide us as we grow spiritually. But, we must never allow either of these to puff us up to the point of where we consider ourselves better than those of different teachers, of different spiritual fathers. God has given to each of us according to our own needs, and if anything, perhaps it should humble us to consider that we have a stronger spiritual father than another, perhaps that’s the Lord’s way of telling us that we need a stronger support to stay faithful. We must remember, however, that each of us can no more than receive what has been freely given, and, much like the child with his birthday gifts, it is unloving and foolish to boast in what has been given to us. Rather, we should receive what is given in humility and gratitude, knowing that “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Christ is in our midst.