Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes a Church

Based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, the church at Corinth sounds like an ideal church.   Just listen to the way Paul describes this church.  Paul says they were:

  • sanctified in Christ Jesus (v.2)
  • enriched in every way in Christ Jesus in all speech and knowledge (v.4)
  • not lacking in any spiritual gift (v.7)
  • awaiting the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.7)
  • guiltless in the day of the Lord (v.8)
  • called into the fellowship of the Son (v.9)
This church is holy, wise, spiritually gifted, patient, guiltless, and enjoying good Christian fellowship together.  What more could anyone ask for in a church?  

But then we read the rest of the letter...

Immediately, after Paul describes the Corinthians as being called into the fellowship of the Son he says "I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (v.10).  Paul has heard reports that there is quarreling and divisions among the Christians in Corinth.  Later in chapter six, we find that this disunity is so serious that some in the congregation have actually been taking each other to court.  What happened to the fellowship of the Son?  

Near the end of chapter one and into chapter two, we hear that this church which Paul describes as being enriched in all speech and knowledge is made up of people who actually weren't very wise according to worldly standards, nor very powerful or well respected in society (1:26).  Paul even goes on to describe them using terms like weak and lowly.  

Then, in chapter 3, we find that the ones Paul described as not lacking any spiritual gift, he now can not address as spiritual.  In fact, he says they are mere babes in Christ who are not ready for solid food.  Paul has to keep giving them milk, going over the basics of the faith with them again and again (3:1-2)

In chapter 4, Paul says that those who were waiting so patiently for the revealing of our Lord Jesus are actually boasting as if they have already arrived.  They are acting as if they already have everything for which they hope and have already become rich, acting like kings as if Jesus had already returned and God's new creation had already come.  (4:7-8)

In chapter five, we hear that this church which Paul describes as sanctified and guiltless, is actually sexually immoral.  And Paul says it is a sexual immorality that the common culture doesn't even condone; a man is sleeping with his step-mother!  And what is worse, the Corinthians think this is something to boast about.  They think that they are so spiritual that the normal confines of sexuality do not apply to them (5:1-2).  

So what's the deal?  Why does Paul say all of this stuff about the Corinthian church if none of it seems to be true?  Was Paul simply buttering them up to get their attention?  Was he being sarcastic when he said all of that nice stuff about the Corinthians?  

It is evident from Paul's letters that flattery and sarcasm were certainly both part of his rhetorical arsenal but I think there is something else going on in these opening verses of 1 Corinthians.  Interspersed between these statements are one's about God's grace, God's faithfulness, and God actions.  The first thing for which Paul gives thanks is the "grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus."  It is because of this grace that Paul says the Corinthians were enriched in knowledge and not lacking in any spiritual gift.  Paul says God will sustain the Corinthians in the day of judgment because God is faithful.  

In other words, the Corinthians aren't sanctified because they are exceptionally moral people but because God has set them apart for his holy purpose.  They certainly aren't guiltless because they haven't done anything wrong but because God will sustain them until the day of judgment.  They aren't full of wisdom and spiritual gifts because they are superstar Christians but because God has made them His people.  Paul's opening words in 1 Corinthians aren't about listing a whole bunch of accolades about the Corinthians.  Paul is reminding the Corinthians who they are; the Church, God's people set apart, made holy, and gifted for God's purposes in this world.  Paul is thankful for the Corinthians not because they are doing a great job compared to other churches because they weren't.  Paul is thankful for the Corinthians simply because they are the Church, they are a people among whom God has acted.  And before Paul says anything else, he wants to remind the Corinthians that their identity is found in God and what God has done among them.  

I often think that the greatest challenge the Church faces isn't outreach or discipleship or serving others even though those things can be pretty challenging and sometimes it feels like we do a miserably deficient job at them.  I think the greatest challenge we face is simply remembering who we are, remembering what it means to be the Church.  We constantly want to compare ourselves to other churches and we feel like we aren't really a church unless we have a certain attendance or we are in on the latest trend.  We turn Church into a competition to see who can be the most spiritual, much like the Corinthians did.  But then Paul comes and reminds us that we're not a church because of what we've done but because of what God has done in us.  

No comments: