Paul or Cephas or Apollos or Christ?

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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 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.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
—1 Corinthians 1:10-13

This passage has always struck me as somewhat odd. Why were there some in the assembly at Corinth who identified themselves as followers of Paul or Apollos or Peter in exclusion of the Messiah? As a Trinitarian, this made no sense, because of those four, only Jesus is God, so everyone following Paul instead of Peter would be a heretic. And why didn't Paul simply ask, “Is Paul God? Is Apollos the Creator? Is Cephas the I AM?” But he did not, which seemed like a lost opportunity to reinforce the doctrine of the deity of Christ if that's what he believed.

Now, as a Unitarian, it makes much more sense. Had Paul actually taught that Jesus was God, then the Corinthians' division would be asinine, because who would follow Peter or Apollos or Paul at the expense of God? But it is clear that they viewed Jesus, Paul, and the rest to be teachers on roughly equal footing, with some preferring Jesus' teaching and others preferring Apollos' teaching and so on. Paul's response was to elevate Jesus as the greatest among this group of apostles1 and the reason the rest of them even had a cause to speak.

But as I pondered this epiphany, something else occurred to me—many Christians do exactly the same as the Corinthians even today! As a former dispensationalist, I remember hearing that Jesus preached the Torah under the old covenant, but now under the new covenant, we are supposed to listen to Paul's message of faith. As I've tried to explain my Messianic faith to my family and friends, I've had more than a few bring up things from Paul's letters which apparently contradict the very words of Jesus himself—who is called the Word of God!2 If Paul truly did teach things which contradicted Jesus, then we should throw him out immediately, as some in the Messianic community have done.

Let the reader contrast the true Christian standard with that of Paul and he will see the terrible betrayal of all that the Master taught…. For the surest way to betray a great Teacher is to misrepresent his message…. That is what Paul and his followers did, and because the Church has followed Paul in his error it has failed lamentably to redeem the world….The teachings given by the blessed Master Christ, which the disciples John and Peter and James, the brother of the Master, tried in vain to defend and preserve intact were as utterly opposed to the Pauline Gospel as the light is opposed to the darkness.
—Rev. Vincent Arthur Holmes-Gore, Christ or Paul. C.W. Daniel: 1946.3

Indeed, the Ebionites were an early sect of Messianic Jews who rejected Paul entirely.4 (Perhaps they were descended from the Shammaite Pharisees of Acts 15 and elsewhere, or from Messianic Essenes.) Indeed, we don't have any documents from the Ebionites to know exactly what they believed, but it was reported that they rejected Paul as an apostle.

So there were followers of Christ both in antiquity and into the modern day who reject Paul because of the perceived incongruity between his teachings and those of Jesus. This is the appropriate response, if such discrepancies truly exist.5 But there are many Christians who go the opposite direction, preferring the teachings of Paul over those of Jesus. Whereas Jesus made bold (and controversial) statements such as, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments,”6 we find evangelicals make claims such as the following:

God raised up a covenant nation for them. In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures. As we'll see with regard to servitude, punishments, and other structures, a range of regulations and statutes in Israel reveals a God who accommodates. Yet contrary to the common Neo-atheists' caricatures, these laws weren't the permanent, divine ideal for all persons everywhere. God informed his people that a new, enduring covenant would be necessary (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36). By the Old Testament's own admission, the Mosaic law was inferior and future looking.
—Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, p. 59.7

Jesus taught us to obey God. Paul Copan tells us that God's commandments are “accommodat[ing]” to “deeply flawed structures”. It is easy to see how progressive Christians of the ilk of Matthew Vines could apply Copan's critique of the Torah to an issue such as homosexuality. This line of logic makes anything condemned in Torah to be permissible.8

Additionally, we find a stunning admonition from Harold Brown in his book Heresies.

“Christianity takes its name from its founder, or rather from what he was called, the Christ. Buddhism is also named for its founder, and non-Moslems often call Islam Mohammedanism. But while Buddhism and Islam are based primarily on the teaching of the Buddha and Mohammed, respectively, Christianity is based primarily on the person of Christ. The Christian faith is not belief in his teaching, but in what is taught about him. The appeal of Protestant liberals to ‘believe as Jesus believed,’ rather than to believe in Jesus, is a dramatic transformation of the fundamental nature of Christianity.”
—Harold Brown, Heresies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984), p. 13. Emphasis added.

Granted, Brown was addressing “Protestant liberals” who likely would take just as much offense to the appeal to “keep the commandments”9 as he would, his admonition is stunning nonetheless. If Jesus taught us to keep the commandments, if Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment was the Shema10 (“hear and obey”), then how can we ignore the words of the Founder and Perfecter of our faith11 and instead follow the creeds and traditions of man?

And [Jesus] said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
—Mark 7:6-9

To get around the plain truth of Jesus' words, Christians devise dispensational concepts that relegate his teachings to a bygone era of grit and merit. “Jesus was born under the Old Covenant Law and lived under the Law without sin. Jesus taught the Law to the Jewish people.”12 In effect, this means we can ignore anything Jesus ever said—the very words of God-the-Son—and instead allow later theologians to tell us what we ought to believe about Jesus. Can we really call ourselves his disciples if we refuse to walk as he walked?13

So who are the Pauls and Peters and Apolloses of this day? Perhaps the easiest to identify is Peter. The largest population of Christians belong to the Roman Catholic Church, who claims Peter as its first pope and an unbroken line of papal succession since the first century.14 Claiming the authority of Peter as one of the leaders of the early Messianic sect, the Catholic Church has fashioned itself into an entity virtually unrecognizable from the Torah-observant Messianic Jews in the Gospels and Acts—save for the names of the saints.

And what about the tens of thousands of evangelical denominations? It may be safe to say they follow Paul, particularly in dispensationalist circles where Jesus fits neatly into the Jewish dispensation while Paul preached the gospel of grace to the gentiles.

Instead of preaching the obedience of faith towards the law for righteousness, he taught righteousness by faith only. … In his exposition of salvation, Paul explains that we are reconciled to God while we were his enemies, disobeying the commandments and ‘strangers from the covenants’ (Eph 2:12). … Whereas under the message of the disciples righteousness was indicated by their deeds, Paul’s message indicates righteousness as a product of the work of Christ on the cross imputed upon those that believe (Romans 3:22-24, 2 Cor 5:21). … Based upon the necessary conditions for righteousness, we can see that Paul not only taught a different message but a different gospel than the disciples. Whereas, the disciples taught faith in the Christ as the Son of God and commandment-keeping as their standard for righteousness, Paul revealed a message of trusting the function of the death and resurrection for justification (Romans 3:24-25).15

Whose authority ought we follow? Should we eschew the words of the Word of God in favor of Peter the Roman16 and his papal bulls***?17 Should we continue to take Paul's words out of context as an antinomian apology despite his own insistence that “according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets”?18 Or should we instead choose to listen to Paul's appeal in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 that we be united under the teaching of Christ Jesus, whom Paul and Peter and Apollos also served?

I will leave that up for you to decide for yourself, but as for me, I will follow the teachings of Rabbi Yeshua the Nazarene. I will try to walk as he walked,19 keeping the commandments of God and the faith of my Messiah.20 I will worship the One God of Israel21 whom alone we should fear.22

  1. Cf. Hebrews 3:1.
  2. Revelation 19:13.
  5. Galatians 1:6-9.
  6. Matthew 19:17.
  8. Apologists such as Matt Slick from CARM attempt to explain away the hypocrisy of following Leviticus 18 but not Leviticus 11 by chopping up the Torah into subcategories such as “moral, civil, and ceremonial”, but these distinctions do not exist in the Bible, where we find all three categories jumbled up into a series of commandments all given by the same God with the same requirement to obey. I have been guilty of making the same argument in years past, for which I am now ashamed because I can see how flimsy it is.
  9. Matthew 19:17.
  10. Mark 12:29-30.
  11. Hebrews 12:1-2.
  13. 1 John 2:6.
  15. Earlier in this page, they say, “During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught, ‘For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20).” By their own admission, Paul taught a different Gospel than Jesus himself!
  17. Pardon the crassness. I feel a moral obligation to make this joke.
  18. Acts 24:14; cf. Acts 25:8.
  19. 1 John 2:6.
  20. Revelation 14:12.
  21. Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:29; cf. Exodus 20:2-3.
  22. Matthew 10:28; cf. Revelation 14:7.


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