This post is part two in a series. To read part one, click here.
If Corinth were a modern day church, and I was an outsider asked to help fix their mess, I wouldn’t approach the problem like Paul did.
I would have grouped the problems into what I thought to be manageable pieces.
“Let’s see. The worship service is really screwed up. And there’s some marriage stuff going on which I will file with the weird sex stuff. And then there is cultural problems – put all of those in one bin…”
Then I would have pulled the leadership together and said, in a James-Cagney-gangster voice, “What this church is lacking is vision, see. So what we need to do is figure out what kind of church you want to be, see. And we should start with the worship service, see. Because that’s the thing you can control, so that’s how we’re going to do it, see. Then will move onto marriage and the sex stuff. Yeah. Because that’s important, see. But there’s nothing you can do about the culture, see. In fact, probably better to have different worship service. Attract more people that way, see.”
In short, I would have focused on the visible issues, trying to bring the church in line with some image I had in my mind of what a church should be, and the church would have been worst off than when I left than when I arrived.
Thankfully, Paul took a very different approach.
In his approach the the Corinthian church, Paul identifies four misunderstandings that need to be fixed. Like an ancient Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Paul identifies wrong thinking that is leading to wrong action.
- The Corinthians are confusing the acquisition of knowledge with wisdom.
- The Corinthians are so busy arguing about rituals, rules, and freedom that they are missing the point – following Jesus is about loving your neighbor.
- The Corinthians think the church exists to help them celebrate the unique snow flakes they are, missing that they are part of a body who are supposed to be focused on the promotion of others.
- The Corinthians are focused on present temporary things, and have forgotten that this world is dying and a new one is being born.
As Paul addresses these wrong thoughts, he weaves in conversation about each individual issue, often circling back to issues over and over, like a Master Lego builder laying groundwork for towers that won’t be appreciated until the entire castle is constructed. He starts with unity, then focuses on a few practicals, then jumps into rituals and rules, then the worship, then marriage, then back to worship. As he journeys through the problems, he doesn’t just offer answers, he radically redefines the questions.
In addition to marveling at the brilliance of Paul’s thoughts, I find myself enchanted by Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians because I see myself in them.
I too often confuse the acquisition of knowledge with wisdom. I grew up going to Sunday School, memorizing the names of the Bible, and doing Sword Drills (a game where someone calls out the name of a book of the bible and the verse, and you race to find it), so I understand where the Corinthians are coming from.
I also confuse discipline with righteousness. I remember how strong I felt the first time I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. With new rituals and rules to practice, I thought I had leveled up my Christianity. It wasn’t that I saw myself as better than other Christians because I routinely fasted, rather I believed I was just “more mature in my faith.” Again, I get the Corinthian mindset.
I’ve also participated in church with my needs at the front of my mind. I’ve taken personality tests and spiritual gift assessments, hoping to prove to everyone that I am the one true leader of the rabble, the Moses that will successfully take the people across the Jordan. No one knew I was an amazing teacher because I hadn’t taken the gifts assessment yet, but now that it is out of the way, everyone is surely going to fall in line.
Yep, call me a Corinthian.
And I’ve been stuck on the temporal. I’ve charted my church’s growth and been excited as the numbers increased one Sunday after the next. I’ve argued strategy, fighting for the thing that will make us the biggest the fastest. I’ve found personal definition in successes that seemed massive at the time, but now, with years having passed, I struggle to remember what they were.
I’m a Corinthian. I get it. Which is why Paul’s words are so hard for me to hear.
I’m going to dig into each of Paul’s points and share with you what I’ve learned/am learning. Until them, allow me leave you with a quote from each of Paul’s four sections.
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things with are strong…For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
“All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”
“If I speak in the tongue of men and angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if i surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing… But now faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.”
“Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the last trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the word of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”
When I step back from the letter, I see this amazing thing.
Paul begins in the first chapters talking about the crucifixion,
He ends the book talking about the resurrection,
And between the two I discover what it means to die to myself and truly live.