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There are two kinds of Christians that I try to avoid: holier-than-thou Christians and uppity Christians. Holier-than-thou Christians think they are spiritually better than others. Uppity Christians think they are socially better than others.
The two groups are distinct, but they can overlap. In other words, holier-than-thou types may consider themselves spiritually better than others, but not socially better. Uppity types may consider themselves socially better than others, but not spiritually better. It seems that the Corinthians considered themselves both spiritually and socially better than others, including Paul.
The Corinthians were cagey, however. Instead of simply saying, “We’re better than others,” they argued about the relative superiority of their Christian leaders – i.e., Paul, Apollos, and Peter – with Paul drawing the fewest favorable votes. In other words, they projected their superiority rankings onto their leaders, and then they fell to arguing over whose projected rankings were correct.
The point of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21 is that their quarreling is unhelpful because their standard is wrong. The gospel exposes the folly of humanly devised superiority rankings. The old adage about the ground being level at the foot of the cross is true. We are peers in our sinfulness and our need for grace. God is our Superior because “he gives more grace” (James 4:6). Therefore, we should not boast about ourselves but only about God (1 Cor. 1:29, 31).
In 1 Corinthians 4:6-7, Paul writes:
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
“These things” refer specifically to the metaphors of leadership Paul has employed throughout his argument. In the preceding verses, he has described Christian leaders as “waiters,” “servants,” and “stewards.” These are metaphors of subordination, not superiority. Christian leaders are “waiters” in their relationship to their congregations. They serve them the “bread of life” for their spiritual nourishment (John 6:35). They are “servants” and “stewards” in their relationship to God, responsible to him for carrying out the divinely given task of proclaiming the gospel. Neither relationship leaves the Christian leader any room for pride.
What applies to the leader applies also to the follower. Paul describes Christian leaders as he does so that the Corinthians “will not take pride in one man over against another.” The Corinthians are the products of God’s grace channeled through Paul’s evangelism and Apollos’ discipleship. Paul asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Answer: nothing. The good news is God’s grace for people like us who don’t deserve it.
Holier-than-thou Christianity and uppity Christianity, taken separately or together, are a repudiation of that gospel.