Saturday, December 05, 2009

5c. Disunity at Corinth 3

And now to finish the first draft of chapter 5: "Disunity at Corinth." Previous drafts in this series include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth; 5b. Disunity at Corinth 2
1 Corinthians is one of those books whose instructions often jump right off the page of the Bible and into our lives. Not all of the biblical books are this way. They were, after all, not written directly to us in their original settings but to a myriad of different ancient contexts. True, it was the same God speaking to them as to us, and so as Christians we believe that all these books are for us even though they were not originally to us. Indeed, God can meet us in these words even when we have no sense of their original meaning at all. At the same time, it is hard to deny that the words of 1 Corinthians leap much more quickly from the ancient world to today than those of Leviticus, Nahum, or Jude.

The fundamental problem of the Corinthian church was disunity, driven by powerful and fundamental human desires like sex, power, and pride. We will discuss the various challenges at Corinth relating to sex in the next chapter. Then in chapter 7 we will look at some of the specific issues on which they were divided, like what they should eat and how they should worship. An underlying factionalism lay behind these debates, an underlying dynamic of one group thinking they were better than another. And along with this "party spirit," this "us versus them" mentality, was a thirst for control and power on the part of some. It is into this mix that Paul himself asserted his authority as an apostle, with some submitting and others obviously not.

One of the reasons 1 Corinthians seems so directly relevant to the church today is the fact that division and factional pride remains a perennial problem in congregations across the world. Indeed, one of the key features of American Christianity is the "church split," where one part of a congregation gets disgruntled with another part and then leaves with a bunch of people because they do not have enough power to get their way. Even in congregations that stay together, someone probably will immediately spring to mind at the words, "church boss." Who is the person or family you need to get on your side if you want to do anything in your church--even if you are the pastor?! Humans are apparently herd animals and prone to "tribalism" of a negative sort. The church is far from immune.

The lessons of 1 Corinthians, so simple, yet apparently so hard to sink in, leap off the page to us today. Some believers may have more authority than others in the church, but no one has greater status than any other. All the parts of the body of Christ should be equally valued, even if we all have different roles to play. At God's table, it does not matter whether you are the employer or employee (slave or free), whether you are male or female, whether you are the "tribe" in power or the one with less earthly status (Jew or Gentile). [1] God wants to give everyone the same menu at His table.

Everyone is expendable. A church whose health is tied to a single person is not a healthy church nor is that person a good leader. Churches often fall into hero worship. One sign of an unhealthy church is when its attendance drops off dramatically after a particular pastor or leader leaves. Such leaders sometimes mistake their followings for importance or God's favoritism. Their gifts are indeed God's grace toward them, but God does not play favorites. In God's eyes, their gifts do not increase their status one bit, since they did nothing to get those God-given gifts in the first place! The humble soul who is truly thankful for the one little thing God has enabled them to do is more worthy than a thousand powerful leaders of great influence who think they are special in God's eyes for abilities that they did nothing to earn.

The conflict between followers of a previous pastor and a new one will be familiar to many church goers. Of course in the case of the Corinthians, Apollos had already left too, and of course Paul was an apostle. At the time, however, Paul's apostleship and authority was not nearly as obvious as it is to us in hindsight. Paul needed the Spirit to convince his churches of his authority then just as we need the Spirit today. Or viewed from our human perspective, Paul had to demonstrate the validity of his call and spiritual authority then just as we have to today.

Some of the Corinthians thought they were more spiritual than others even though they were far from it, another experience we have in common with the ancients. Today we would rarely say such a thing to others in the church. We know we are not supposed to say we are more spiritual than others. [2] But there are plenty in the church who think they are better than others when they are plainly not.

I come from a Christian tradition that has rightly emphasized the importance of Christ-like living and real life transformation. But we went through a period in our history where external appearance sometimes got confused with real heart change. Whether a person dressed a certain way or wore certain kinds of rings was mistaken for love, joy, peace, and the true fruits of the Spirit. How ironic to hear someone looking down at someone else as being unspiritual because they had a certain kind of ring! The very comment betrayed a much more sinister unspirituality in the heart of the speaker.

Again, there are different roles to be played in the church and in the world, but for Christians they should not be connected to whether we are a "Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Gal. 3:28). Most Christians today are comfortable with the first two comments, although some think we should distinguish differing roles in the church and the home based on gender. We will discuss God's ideal on this issue when we get to chapter 7. [3]

When we apply to today the distinctions between slave and free, between Jew and Greek, we find principles most of us might agree with, that is, until we get down to specifics. We might agree that it should make no difference whether a Christian is British or American. But we might get a little more uncomfortable, maybe even irritated, if we are saying a Mexican, Palestinian, or Haitian Christian was just as precious in God's sight as the nice middle-class US born citizens on our church boards. And of course Christians regularly indulge in not a little denominational condescension.

The New Testament does imply that there are levels of reward in the kingdom (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 2:6-10). But these rewards are not based on our abilities or talents, nor are they based on our innate goodness. They are based on the degree to which we submit ourselves to God's power, enabling us to become Christ-like in our thoughts and lives. Needless to say, thinking ourselves more spiritual or more important to God than others is hardly something God will reward.

Division is thus one of the fundamental problems that 1 Corinthians addresses and not only 1 Corinthians, but the New Testament as a whole. And it remains just as much a problem today as it was two thousand years ago. Division is trickier than adultery or murder, not least because we often have a way of telling ourselves we are divided over principles. "I am against you because you are wrong on how to live," or "I am against you because your understanding is wrong." Sometimes we are probably right. Just as often it is probably we who are wrong, simply given the averages, and it is we who are mistaken.

No matter what, it seems clear that we must love not only our enemies, but our Christian brothers and sisters as well. Perhaps on a rare occasion, groups within a congregation might agree to disagree and part company, but we imagine the vast majority of church splits have not fallen into this category. And those who are thinking of leaving their mainstream denomination should be mindful of what their absence will facilitate among those who remain, even if their leadership does seem to have strayed .

[1] The question of "Jew and Greek" does not map exactly to the question of ethnicity or "tribe." After all, the Jews actually were God's chosen people in a way that no other nation was. But despite their place of honor in the kingdom, Paul does deny them any greater ultimate value, status, or righteousness in the kingdom. And in that sense, the question of ethnicity does relate.

[2] Of course some people in the church are more Christ-like than others, and there is a better than average chance that most people in the church could tell you which is which. We are not supposed to stay just as sinful in our behavior after God forgives us as we were before, and there are concrete observations that, as in Paul's day, immediately indicate that a person is certainly not spiritual. But a truly spiritual person would not trumpet or boast about being spiritual--that would be an indication that a person in fact was not.

[3] And certainly in the second volume of this book when we look at the Prison and Pastoral Epistles. In general, we argue that while some of the later books of the New Testament do follow the practices of the day in assigning different roles in the home based on gender, this is not the trajectory of God's kingdom. It does not make sense for us to maintain the roles indicative of a fallen world when it is possible for us to move closer to the kingdom. Western culture has already moved in this direction in relation to slavery, a practice the New Testament never indicates should be done away.

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