Consider that famous ode to love in 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this letter in response to a crisis. Since his departure from Corinth, the church had been split by factionalism, and he faced rivals for authority. Early in the letter, he laments the fact that some congregants say “I belong to Paul,” whereas others say “I belong to Cephas.” (Cephas is another name for Peter.)
There was another obstacle. Many in the church—“enthusiasts,” some scholars call them—believed themselves to have direct access to divine knowledge and to be near spiritual perfection. Some thought they needn’t accept the church’s guidance in moral matters. Some showed off their spiritual gifts by spontaneously speaking in tongues during worship services—something that might annoy the humbler worshippers and that, in large enough doses, could derail a service. As the German scholar Günther Bornkamm put it, “The mark of the ‘enthusiasts’ was that they disavowed responsible obligation toward the rest.”
In other words: they lacked brotherly love. Hence Paul’s harping on that theme in 1 Corinthians, and especially in chapter 13. It is in reference to members’ disrupting worship by speaking in tongues that Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And when he says, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant,” he is chastising Corinthians who deploy their spiritual gifts—whether speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or even being generous—in a competitive, showy way.
The beauty of “brotherly love” wasn’t just that it produced cohesion in Christian congregations. Invoking familial feelings also allowed Paul to assert his authority at the expense of rivals. After all, wasn’t it he, not they, who had founded the family of Corinthian Christians? He tells the Corinthians that he is writing “to admonish you as my beloved children… Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”
Had Paul stayed among the Corinthians, he might have kept the congregation united by the mere force of his presence, with less preaching about the need for unity—the need for all brothers to be one in “the body of Christ.” But because he felt compelled to move on, and to cultivate churches across the empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value and nurture it assiduously. In the case of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the result was some of Western civilization’s most beautiful literature—if, perhaps, more beautiful out of context than in.
Thus, for the ambitious preacher of early Christianity, the doctrine of brotherly love had at least two virtues. First, fraternal bonding made churches attractive places to be, providing a familial warmth that was otherwise lacking, for many people, in a time of urbanization and flux. As Elaine Pagels wrote in Beyond Belief, “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians … was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” (And there is no doubt that Paul wanted his churches to project an appealing image. In 1 Corinthians he asks: If “the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”) Second, the doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control, a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion.