There was a serious issue at Corinth. The problem was they had exalted certain disciples among them (specifically Paul and Apollos—see 3:4ff). While there’s nothing wrong and plenty right in having leaders who model correct attitudes and behaviors (11:1), the situation at Corinth went far beyond that. The disciples had not only put Paul and Apollos up on pedestals (against their wishes)—they were dividing the body of Christ based on who followed who (1:10ff).
We have our own ways of labeling other disciples in fragmentary fashions (Democrat or Republican, conservative or progressive, according to personality differences, sports affiliations, etc.). As with the Corinthians, this type of thinking can lead us to exalting someone who has the right view (i.e., sees things the way we do). We naturally identify with them the way some of the Corinthians were identifying with Apollos’ speaking style or Paul’s wisdom. When we begin to exalt them, it doesn’t take much insight to see that by association we are to some degree exalting ourselves. And this is often done at the expense of other disciples who aren’t on the same page as us and they are (consciously or unconsciously) relegated to second-class citizenship in the kingdom of Jesus. We are not trending toward Christ when we do this.
This is one way divisiveness can enter into the body of Christ. And the truth is, it’s our default setting as humans to fall into sub-groups with others we have more in common with. Even in the most spiritually dynamic circumstances, this can happen (Acts 6:1ff). I think all of this just underscores the fact that unity doesn’t just happen. Sustained oneness in a body of believers is the result of hard work and maturity (Ephesians 4:2-3).
It needs to be noted that not all instances of exaltation fall along these lines. Sometimes it occurs in a more innocent manner. It may be that esteem and admiration are simply taken too far. I suppose a natural consequence of living in a celebrity culture is that is that such a mentality can leach into the church.
However it occurs, it is an unhealthy practice. When we put someone on a pedestal, it hurts them because we’ve made them out to be something they’re not. When they are unable to live up to our unrealistic expectations, it’s a long tumble down. And whatever hurts our brother or sister, hurts us.
But Paul’s interest was not how exalting others affects us individually, but how it harms us as a community. He wants the Corinthians to understand that the jealousy and quarreling created by some (3:3), is a crime against the church, which he refers to as God’s temple (v. 16-17). There’s nothing accidental or incidental about his choice of metaphors. You yourselves are God’s temple. We should note it is temple rather than temples. Paul’s focus is on what they were together and he wants them to think that way as well. You together are that temple (v. 17). Destroying the temple, in this context, has to do with fragmenting the body of Christ (1:13).
In our culture, hyping people to celebrity status and then cannibalizing them when they’re not long hot is a national pastime. Paul would have us to see that exalting fellow disciples (for whatever reason), is always an unhealthy move and ultimately a crime against the community. Fragmentation can be avoided by not putting others on a pedestal (3:21). We can and should honor one another (Romans 12:10), but unity is built when we learn to limit our boasting to the Lord (1:31). Where this is practiced, you’ll find healthy faith communities that point people to Jesus rather than themselves (2 Corinthians 4:5).