Imagine that you're a missionary. Under your ministry, a church has begun. And you've now moved on to begin a new work. And one day you get a visit from some members of the first church.
'So how's it going there?' you ask. Embarrassed silence. So how bad are things?' you ask. And the answer is, 'Very bad.' And out it all comes. There is a case of incest in the church - and people think it's OK. A good number of the men are using prostitutes to supplement their sex-lives - and that, too, people think is OK. Some members of the church are suing one another in the courts. The church meetings are a disaster – anyone with any sort of speaking gift insists on taking part, so they've become an exhibitionists' free-for-all, slowing scaring people away. The church is divided into factions which each prefer a different leader. And worst of all, the church is drifting away from the gospel – with the kind of preaching that changes the gospel to make it supposedly more acceptable. They've even had sermons denying that there's life after death.
What you've just imagined is the church in Corinth in the year AD55. For the missionary apostle Paul, that scenario was a reality. Everything I've just mentioned comes from reading 1 Corinthians. (See 5.1-2 (incest); 6.9-20 (prostitution) 6.1-8 (law suits); 11.17, 14.23, 26-33, 39-40 (meetings); 1.12, 3.3-4, 4.6 (factions); 15.1-20 (gospel)).
People often say, 'If only we could get back to how the early church was.' But in Corinth, it wasn't a model church. It was a problem church. And before we look at how Paul begins to deal with them, let me remind us that so are we. Some of our problems are very different. But some are very similar. And all are very possible for sinful people like us.
So how does Paul begin to tackle a problem church? Well, in vv1-17 he tells them and us three things. He says:
You are God's people
You are God's building site
So don't behave as if you're a human organisation
First, YOU ARE GOD'S PEOPLE (vv1-3)
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the willof God, and our brother Sosthenes.
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (vv1-3)
Paul's opening shot is to make the same point three times. Verse 2: 'To the church of God...' Ie, any local church – the church in Corinth, Jesmond Parish Church – is not a human organisation at all. It's not like a political party, for example – founded by humans, recruited by humans and led by humans. It's founded by God, recruited by God and led by God.
Then, v2 again, 'To the church of God, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus...' 'Sanctified' means 'set apart'. Set apart from one group into another. And set apart from one purpose for another. So, for example, last week, Andy Cole was sanctified into the England team – set apart from Manchester United and trying to score goals for them, to the England team and trying to score goals for them. (Well done, Andy.) And when we turned and put our trust in Jesus – if we have – we were sanctified – set apart from the world and living its way, into God's people, and living for his purposes. And his purposes are to call yet more people to stop living as if he wasn't there; to be forgiven through his Son Jesus; and to start living for Jesus as Lord.
And v2, Paul also says we're 'called to be holy' - and holy just means set apart. It's the same Greek word underneath the English translation.
So three times over, the same opening shot. Church in Corinth, Jesmond Parish Church, remember who you are. You are God's people. You belong to him.
Which is very striking. He doesn't begin by rubbing their noses in what they're doing wrong. He begins by reminding them who they are. Satan does it the other way round. Satan begins by rubbing your nose in what you've done wrong and then telling you you can't possibly be a Christian. Whereas through Paul, God begins by reminding them who they are, and goes on to tell them that they can't possibly carry on living the way they're living. Because it's complete contradiction of who they are.
And that's how it always is in the Bible. Christian living only comes out of knowing who we are – knowing we're forgiven through Jesus' death, accepted by him as our Lord, and God as our Father. And permanently, securely accepted - independent of how well or badly we live today. So wherever you're conscious of being a problem Christian, of being a failure, don't dwell on the failure and let Satan tell you you're not a Christian. Go back to Jesus, in the Bible, and let him remind you who you are, thanks to his dying on the cross for you.
'You are God's people', says Paul. You belong to God. So by implication, you don't belong to the world any more. Sure, v2, you're 'in Corinth', or in Newcastle, but you're 'the church of God in Corinth' or Newcastle. Which flags up one of the underlying issues in the Corinthian church. Namely, that it was conforming to the world around. There was still an awful lot of Corinth in the Christians.
The pressure was on them as a church – and it's on us as a church – to be like the world around. Take, eg, the most vital issue Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians – in chapters 1 and 2: the church's message. The pressure is always on us to change our message, to make it supposedly more acceptable. That's what the previous Bishop of Durham did when he denied the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Instead of sticking to the facts attested by the New Testament (NT), he reckoned modern people couldn't possibly believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead. So he changed the gospel. Ie, he betrayed the gospel.
But the same pressure is on us. As a church we either have been or will be called too black and white, right wing, fundamentalist (which just means 'spiritually to the right of the person criticising you'), homophobic, separatist, intolerant. The pressure is always on to believe what the world believes, to say what the world wants us to say and to live how the world lives. And of course if we did that, it would then accept us - because we would then be part of it.
But, says Paul, you are the people of God, the church of God in Corinth/Newcastle/wherever, set apart in Christ Jesus, called to live a life for Jesus as Lord. And the only way we will do the world any good is to be radically different from it in what we believe, say and do. The more like the world we are, the more useless to God and the world we'll be.
You are God's people.
Secondly, YOU ARE GOD'S BUILDING SITE (vv4-9)
In this next bit of his opening shot, Paul still doesn't weigh in with what's wrong. But with his conviction that God is at work in them and will continue to be at work in them.
Just think back to what we imagined at the start. You're a missionary, writing to a church God planted through you. They're tolerating sexual immorality, suing one another in court, their meetings are doing more harm than good, they've divided into factions, and they're changing the gospel. Apart from that, things are fine. Would you ever have written v4?
I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him [ie, by coming to faith in Jesus] you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ [ie, the gospel] was confirmed in you [ie, as we preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit worked in you to confirm the truth of it, and move you to trust in Jesus.] (vv4-6)
Would you have written that? I'd have been tempted to despair. To say, 'There's no hope for this church.' Even to say, 'Maybe none of them were really converted anyway – it was just mass religious emotion and now it's wearing off.' But not Paul. He knew, v6, that when he'd preached the gospel, the 'testimony about Christ', it had been 'confirmed in them' – there'd been a real work of God's Spirit in them. What was the evidence of that? Verse 5: their new 'speaking' and 'knowledge'. They'd begun to speak about Jesus being their Lord – in church and outside. And they showed good 'knowledge' or understanding of the faith.
The amazing thing is that later in the letter you find that both their knowledge and their speaking were part of the problem. When you get to chapter 8 you find Paul weighing into them for the way their knowledge made them proud – they were, like we can be, good at being doctrinally correct, but bad at being loving (8.1-3). And in chapters 12-14, Paul weighs into them for the way they all insist on using their speaking gifts in a way that makes church meetings a disaster.
But Paul had the spiritual discernment to look even at the problem areas and, vv4-6, to say: God is at work. Yes, there are problems. But these are the problems of life. Better some doctrinal knowledge with an attitude that needs sorting than no knowledge at all. Better a desire to use spiritual gifts than no such desire at all.
I don't know what faults you see in JPC. It's easy to spot the faults of a church, to dwell on them, even to question the genuineness of a church because of them. And to fail to see - under the sinfulness that each one of us contributes - that God is at work.
I remember being at the house of some friends when their daughter Ellie took her first steps. 'Quick! Come and look at this! Ellie's walking!' said her Dad. And we all rushed through in time to see her fall over the Fisher Price garage and collapse in a heap. It's funny, but I've never heard a toddler parent say, 'Quick! Come and look at this! He's flat on his face again!' Because they take the falling over as read. That's to be expected. The wonder is a step. Even a single step.
And Paul is like that as a spiritual father (see 4.15) to this problem church. He takes the sinfulness of the church as read. It's to be expected. The wonder is that God is at work. The wonder is the signs of grace, not the many, many faults you can spot. And we are to dwell primarily on the signs of grace – in ourselves, in our husbands, wives and children, in our small groups and areas of ministry. Dwell on the signs of God at work. Not on the fallings and failings. Take the sinfulness of your fellow-church members as read. Like yours, that's to be expected. Because the church is God's building site, onto which he takes the raw material of sinners and starts to work on them. And building sites are messy places, unfinished, untidy, disappointing to look at. Not places you want to live next to, let alone in. And sometimes you feel you'd like to move churches. But the next one you try will only be a building site, too. That's the way it is this side of heaven.
So, look at vv4-6 and learn from how graciously, how gratefully, Paul speaks of this problem church. Preparing this, I've been put to shame by my own critical spirit and critical words – both about JPC and other Christian groups.
You are God's building site, says Paul. God is at work. And, God will continue to be at work, v7:
Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait eagerly for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed [ie, as you wait for Jesus' 2nd coming]. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (vv7-9)
Ie, what God begins, he finishes. This building will finally be perfect – in heaven. And that's a great antidote to despair, for Paul and for us.
But it's also a great antidote to pride. Read on, and you'll find the Corinthians were a proud lot. Full of life, full of gifts, full of knowledge, but above all full of themselves. Very pleased with themselves. Very blind to their faults as a church – which of course we will be, too. We are by definition most blind to our own faults. It's easier to see the speck in the next church's eye than the plank in our own.
So, vv7-9 is a way of saying to the Corinthians, 'Don't think you've arrived, or anywhere near it. You're only a building site, and God has an awful lot of work still to do on you. In fact, only the return of Jesus and your own transformation beyond death will finally get the sin out of you completely and finish the work.'
So let's give thanks for the signs of life at JPC, for the professions of faith and growth in godliness; and for the numbers and Jonathan's graphs, whatever they mean spiritually. But let's be very wary of pride. Let's be very humble in the way we think about JPC and speak about JPC. We're not the church God wants us to be. We're only a building site.
You are God's people.
You are God's building site
Thirdly and last, SO DON'T BEHAVE AS IF THE CHURCH WAS A HUMAN ORGANISATION (vv10-17)
And now Paul does begin to weigh in, to tackle the first problem: factions in the church. Verse 10:
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ [ie, on behalf of the person whose church this really is], that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household [they were the ones who came to visit him after he'd moved on] have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: one of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ'. (vv10-12)
So, v2, the church is God's church and the community of people who all call Jesus their Lord; and, v10, they should do that unitedly. But, v12, the church in Corinth is internally divided four ways. Three groups have lined up behind their preferred teacher – Paul, Apollos or Cephas (ie, the apostle Peter). And one group sounds very spiritual by saying, 'We simply follow Christ'. But of course super-spiritual people can be as divisive as the rest.
What we'll see in chapters 3-4 is that leaders were being judged and preferred or not preferred on grounds of style. The world's wisdom on leaders was much the same then as now. The 1st century world of Corinth preferred leaders to be powerful speakers and impressive personalities. In a word, presentation and spin counted far more than content and truth. And we'll see in chapters 3-4 that this problem church had come to prefer Apollos – who was quite an impressive speaker – to Paul. So Paul's following was dwindling, while Apollos' rating was soaring – his sermon transcripts and tapes were selling like hot cakes. So the church had become a personality cult.
That's what v12 is on about. And Paul is so horrified he goes for shock tactics. Verse 13:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul?
Ie, Just who is God in this church? Did I die for your sins to become your Saviour? Do you owe me an eternal debt of gratitude and service? And when we baptised you, were you saying by that that I was your Lord, that you were going to live the rest of your life for me? (Questions expecting a solid 'No!!')
Which is a strong way of saying, 'Do not put me or anyone else on the pedestal that belongs to Jesus alone – as if anyone but him was your Saviour, your Lord and your God.' And Paul suspected that those he'd baptised personally when they'd come to faith might especially have put him on a pedestal. So he says, v14:
I am thankful that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no-one can say you were baptised into my name. [And then he remembers as he's writing/dictating, v16:] (Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanus; beyond that I don't remember if I baptised anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom [ie, the 'spin' and 'political correctness' that makes it acceptable to the world], lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (vv14-17)
Ie, what's important is not that someone baptised you with water – one human being getting another human being wet in a ceremony that's a visual aid of the spiritual reality. What's important is that you heard the gospel about Jesus dying to forgive you back into relationship with him, and that God's Spirit worked in power through that message to bring you to faith. And the power isn't in the messenger. It's in the message.
So stop behaving as if the church was a human organisation. As if it's recruited and led by humans. It's not like that. The church is a supernatural group of people whom God has brought to faith through the message of the cross, to be led by Jesus as Lord.
So how should we behave when it comes to leaders in the church? Well, look at v17. Positively, we should look for leaders who focus attention on Jesus and the cross. Ie, leaders who are faithful to the content of the Bible and keep bringing us back to its main subject (not 'majoring on minors' – even biblical minors). We're not to look for a particular style (as if there was only one 'right' way to preach or lead a group). We're not to look for intellectual stimulation or entertainment or social or political comment or novelty. No, the job of any teacher/leader is to point us again and again to Jesus and the cross with the aim that we trust and obey him more.
And, negatively, we should look for leaders who go out of their way to avoid focussing attention on themselves, to avoid a following of themselves rather than Jesus. Look back to v13. It's very striking that Paul uses himself as the example. 'I'm not your Saviour. I'm not your Lord,' he says. If people put him up on a pedestal (which we love to do with leaders) then Paul kicked it away. He didn't want people following him; he didn't want the authority over peoples' lives that is Christ's alone.
Some of us on the staff were talking about going to films the other day – what's suitable and unsuitable for a Christian. And, tongue in cheek, I said, 'Would Bishop Ryle even have gone to the cinema?' And Bertie came out with exactly the right response. 'Does it matter what Bishop Ryle would have done?' Answer: no. Because we don't follow Ryle. We follow Jesus. And one of Ryle's favourite sayings was, 'I call no man 'Master'.' (A teacher or leader can help us understand the Bible. But we must always weigh up what the teacher says against the Bible. And then, if we're convinced he's explained and applied it right, then we forget the teacher and follow the Master, the Lord Jesus, in living it out.)
That's what to look for in leaders in the church. People who positively focus attention on Jesus and the cross. And, negatively, who don't want people to follow them. And that of course is also what we should be as leaders, which most of us are, either formally or informally. That's the model for youth leaders and Focus Leaders and Home Group Leadres and all other leaders in JPC; and for Christian parents, and for our witness to friends and acquaintances.
So, that's Paul's opening shot to this problem church. A church in which there was a lot of sin and a lot of the world. And Paul says to them and to us: You are God's people. You are God's building site. So don't behave as if you were a human organisation. And next week, we'll see how he goes on to tackle the number one problem: their changing the gospel to suit the world.