I'm not one of the people who lament the existence of denominations -- I think, since they give each of us the chance to gather in worship that's congruent with our beliefs, they are actually very good things. For example, I believe in and am part of a denomination that accepts the ordination of women. If there were only one church, and it didn't accept that idea, then I and others who believed like me would be required to worship in a way that violates our consciences. Just as someone who does not accept such ordinations would be if they had to worship in my church.
Now, sometimes people use these differences as the way to promote division and to try to elevate themselves above other groups of Christians. That's obviously wrong, and it's what Paul wants to nip in the bud when he writes to the Corinthians. They of course don't have full-fledged denominations, but they are dividing along the lines of who performed their baptism. The issue is not that they were baptized by different people. That's happened since the church began on Pentecost. The issue is that they want to make these differences ways of elevating themselves over their fellow Christians.
Which is why Paul asks, "Is Christ divided?" Did some people receive more of Christ than others? Does Jesus love some of his followers more than he loves others, and does he distinguish them based on who conducted their baptism? Of course not, and while they would never phrase it that way, the Corinthians' quarrels over this matter are saying exactly that.
It's an exercise in missing the point of being a Christian, I think. Paul notes that the Corinthians identify themselves with one minister or another, but the major identifying characteristic of a Christian should be...let me see...what's that old Sunday school answer? Jesus! Yes, that's right.
Our aim as Christians is to get to a place in life where we can't be described accurately by someone unless they refer to our faith in Christ. If I tell you about an Albanian woman named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu who, at the age 19 moved to another country to help the poorest of the poor, you might know who I'm talking about, but you might not. Her story is not complete unless I tell you that she did so first as Sister, then Mother Teresa, serving those poor as a part of her vow as a nun of the Roman Catholic church. We can't describe her unless we mention Christ and his influence on her life.
Paul suggests that the Corinthians, in wanting to be known as a part of Team Apollos or Team Cephas or Team Paul, head in exactly the opposite direction. They create their identity as Christians on top of some other name than Christ, and it seems like they do that because they want to build and maintain their own identity.
Now probably none of us are as far along on this path as we wish, but for Christians the central feature of our identity must be Christ. As we follow Christ we try to shed whatever other labels or names we've taken on so that we reflect Christ to the world. Our eventual goal is that people see less and less of us and more and more of him -- we must decrease and he must increase, to paraphrase John the Baptist.
Which is where, if you're curious, the foolishness of the message of the cross comes in. Our world around us tells us that in order to leave our mark and affect the world, we need to focus on our own identity and establishing it. We must tell the world, "Here I am!" But the message of the cross says that the only way we will ever find out who we really and truly are is to lose our identity and all of our distinguishing marks to take on the identity of Christ's followers.
And when he tells us this, Paul does no more than echo Jesus' own words: If we seek our own lives, we will lose them. But if we lose our lives for his sake, we will find them. It's certainly counter-intuitive. It's probably foolish.
But it's true.