1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 16: Intentional Giving

We know from history that Judea was suffering from a famine at this point in time.  The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area were suffering from a famine.  For the Christians their problems were only compounded by the growing animosity between Jews and Christians and how this cut them off from the normal infrastructure of life.

We can tell from this letter and others that Paul had made it part of his mission to help the Jewish Christians by collecting money from Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia in order to bring relief when he soon visited Jerusalem.  Paul is discussing this in this chapter.  As a matter of logistics, Paul recommends that the Corinthians set aside their surplus money each week in order to have a store of money for the collection when he finally does visit Corinth on his way to Jerusalem.

On the first day of each week, every one of you should set aside and store up whatever surplus you have gained, so that when I come I won’t have to take an actual collection. (16:2)

I am struck by Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians (and to us) to be intentional in their giving.  This isn’t spur of the moment.  This is not a plea to give what you can spare.  This isn’t “brother, can you spare a dime?”  This is planned, purposeful giving and sacrifice over a number of months.  That is a good example.

What big idea really sunk in with you as you read 1 Corinthians?  

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1 Corinthians 15: YOLO?

“YOLO!”

Have you heard this slogan?

“You only live once!”  YOLO, in short form.

I am hearing it more and more.  The younger the person I talk to the more likely I am to hear it.  I hear it used to encourage doing something great with one’s life, and also to justify immense stupidity.  What troubles me is that I am also hearing the same thinking coming from some of the Christians I know.  It is not always said outright, but the implications are often there.

You only live once — so we better live it up now.

You only live once — so you better be happy now.

You only live once — so you only get one chance to do it right.

You only live once — so do all you have to do to stay alive.

You only live once — so death is worst of all fates.

The problem, of course, is that it is not true.  It is not biblical.  It is not congruent with the gospel of Jesus.  We live twice.  And the second life goes on forever.  That’s a pretty big difference!  (So would that be YOLT?)

Oddly, in this very religious (though not very loving) Corinthian church, there existed some Christians who also believed you only lived once.

How can some of you say that there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead? (15:12b)

Paul is beside himself.  How can a Christian believe that?  The entire worldview of Christianity hinges on resurrection.  It doesn’t make sense and is a colossal waste of time if there is no resurrection of the dead.

For if the dead aren’t raised, the Messiah wasn’t raised either; and if the Messiah wasn’t raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins.  What’s more, people who have fallen asleep in the Messiah have perished for good.  If it’s only for this present life that we have put our hope in the Messiah, we are the most pitiable members of the human race. (15:16-19)

If dead people stay dead, then Jesus was not resurrected.  If Jesus was not resurrected, sin was not fully conquered and death was not dealt with at all.  There is a force greater than God — death.  If these are true, the entire gospel is a farce.  The system of beliefs is nonsense.  We are living on false hope, and deserve the labels of “ignorant” we sometimes receive.  We are missing out and ought to say instead, “Let’s eat and drink, because tomorrow we’re going to die!” (15:32)

A study for “The Resurrection” by Michelangelo

But death is not the end.  Read that again, if you need to.  That is a core belief.  We are headed to death.  We cannot live this life forever.  Cancer and heart attacks and horrible accidents are a reality of the “decaying” life, as Paul calls it in this chapter. But whatever happens that ends this life is not the end.  Do we really believe it?  It is fundamental.

Death is swallowed up in victory!  Death, where’s your victory gone?  Death, where’s your sting gone? (15:54b-55)

Thank God!  He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. (15:57)

What caught your eye in this long chapter?

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1 Corinthians 14: For the Common Good

Why do we gather together as a church?  

This is an important question at a time when one can listen to a podcast of a church service, watch one on a television, bring up some great preaching on YouTube, or read a fantastic book by a dynamic spiritual writer.  Why pull on your church clothes, get into your car, and drive across town to “go to church?”

Asked a different way, when Christians gather together, what is the most important aspect of that gathering?

American Christianity has become thoroughly individualized.  We gather together, but we want to have a “personal touch from God.”  “We” is really just a group of individuals who each want to have a “deep connection with God in my spirit during worship.”  We want to feel like that sermon was “really speaking to me.”  “I” need to hear what “God wants to say to me today.”  Communion is a time of private introspection about my “personal relationship with God.”  For a lot of American Christians, church is all about harnessing the power of a group for the personal benefits that come to the individual.

It seems something similar was happening in the Corinthian church.  The ability to speak in tongues (which in this passage does seem to indicate speaking in an ecstatic unknown language indecipherable to the casual observer, c.f., 14:2, 23) was being held up as the supreme gift.  Why?  Because it created that intimate and personal connection between the worshipper and God.  Because it benefitted “me.”

Paul makes it abundantly clear that this is not what church is all about:

Let everything be done for the general upbuilding. (14:26b)

Since you are so eager for spiritual matters, try to specialize in doing things that will build up the church. (14:12)

Four other times Paul says the goal of spiritual gifts is to “build up the church” (14:3, 4, 5, 17).  In other words, we gather together for the good of all.  We assemble for “us.”  Communion is communal, as the name implies.  The deepest connection with God comes in our collective spirit as we worship together and serve each other.  Lessons are intended to be discussed and applied together.  Quite the opposite from how some see it today, church is all about harnessing the power of the individual for the corporate benefits that come to the group.

So the actions of the church that promote that communal spirit are to be most highly valued and incorporated.

Practically, how can we do that in our churches today?

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1 Corinthians 13: The Better Way

When read by itself, 1 Corinthians 13 is a wonderful passage.  Great for weddings.  An ideal chapter to learn generalities about love.  Nice for ethics (I’ll guess many of us were taught to replace the word “love” in verses 4-7 with our name as a way to determine how loving we truly are).  I would not wish to take any of those things away.

This chapter comes so much more alive when we read it in context — always a good principle for Bible reading.  1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14.  We looked at chapter 12 yesterday and saw its focus on spiritual gifts.  Scan ahead and you will see that chapter 14 has the same focus.  Paul’s beautiful diatribe on love is best understood within the context of a church that is using spiritual giftedness of boast and divide.

Recall that we ended yesterday with Paul claiming there is a better gift than tongues or prophecy or miracles, that there is a “better way” to live than the way of competition and glory based on performance (12:31).  What is that better gift, that better way?

If I should have prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries, all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains, but have no love — I’m nothing. . . . Love never fails.  But prophecies will be abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too, be done away. (13:2, 8)

Love is that better gift.  The best way to judge spiritual fervor is love.  A Christian has reached the zenith when they love.  A church can be congratulated when they love.  If you want to pursue a gift, go after love.

And not just any kind of love.  A selfless, sacrificial, enduring love that banishes the attitudes the Corinthians’ competition was bringing: jealousy, envy, pride, anger, and vindictiveness.

Spiritual gifts were only intended to build up a church until the complete and perfect (13:10) outpouring of divine love came to the church, and to a large part that was dependent on the submissive obedience of Christians to the better way of love.  None of the fancy acts we see on those religious television shows with ladies with purple hair and men with perfect haircuts, shiny teeth and designer suits will be in heaven.  They were only a vehicle to an end.  Heaven is most of all characterized by love.  Love will go on for ever.

A church can major in the minors and they may just find it only fractures the bonds of fellowship.  Or they can keep the main thing the main thing and find that it builds up the very building blocks of community.

What stood out to you in a new way in this very familiar chapter?

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1 Corinthians 12: Edification, Not Competition

Have you ever met people who can turn anything in a competition?

My two sons are this way.  They race to get to the supper table first.  The race to see who can get in the front seat of the car first.  They one-up each other when tell stories about the day.  Everything is a contest to prove one is better than the other.  I have also watched with frustration the tears and lashing out that comes when one does not win or measure up or gets pushed down so the other can stand tall.

The Corinthian Christians were a whole lot like my sons.  Everything in the church had become a contest for superiority.  Who is the wisest, the most articulate, the most respected in society?  Who has the best education?  Who follows the best leader?  Who is a part of the best group within this fragmented church?  Who can show the most grace?  Who has the best food for the Lord’s Supper (a true meal at that time)?

Now it was the Holy Spirit, this great gift of God, given to us to make us holy and pure.  Yet the gifts of the Spirit were being used to create distinctions and airs of superiority.  How spiritual a person was had even become something that puffed up the Corinthians.

Paul reminds them that the whole point of the outpouring of the Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit is so “that all may benefit” (12:7).  They are meant to unify and draw people closer together in dependence, not split apart in competition.  There may be many different parts or “members” but there is only one “body” (12:20).  They together make up “the Messiah’s body” (12:27) and they need each other.  As we often see in the Bible, this point is emphasized by the use of repetition.  The word “all” is used 8 times.  “Same” occurs 7 times.  Ten times the word “one” is used to mean a complete entity.  Last, the word “whole” is repeated 3 times.  Let there be no mistake, Christians exist to be a part of something far bigger than what they can create themselves.

Then Paul ends this chapter in the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory way:

You should be eager for the better kinds of gifts.  Now I’m going to show you a better way, a much better way. (12:31)

Three times Paul uses the word “better.”  But if you say something is better to a bunch of hyper-competitive, pompous, attention-seekers of course they are going to want it.  Maybe this is something else they can use to divide and puff up.  What is this better thing?  What could be better than the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit?

What did not notice in this chapter? 

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1 Corinthians 11: Follow Me (The Second Generation)

Copy me, just as I’m copying the Messiah. (11:1)

Wow!  We balk at a verse like that, because it sounds pompous.  But what an incredible thing to be able to say with the right heart.  The heart that says that can’t be proud; Jesus was not proud, so how could a proud person validly say that?  To be able to say with true humility that other Christians should follow you as you follow Jesus — that is a truly great goal!

This week begins a new school year for me and for many of the people who read this blog.  Many of us are also parents and active members and mentors in churches.  Little eyes are watching, even if they are attached to a 17-year-old football player’s massive body.  Some day (it won’t be this year or any soon, I am afraid) I hope to be able to say that with credibility.

There were lots of other interesting things in this chapter; what caught your eye?

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1 Corinthians 10: To God Be The Glory

There was a real question in Paul’s mind about the degree to which a Christian could follow the cultural norm.  That by itself is a point some Christians in this world need to bear in mind.  If we think we can be an everyday Christian and an everyday American or Canadian or Filipino or Saudi Arabian, we are kidding ourselves.  Nonetheless, there were still many details to work out about this point, and the Corinthians were slowly sorting through the details with Paul’s help.

Paul gives a foundational principle for ethics in this chapter, though:

So, then, whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything to God’s glory. (10:31)

As a Christian sorts out how to live everyday life, there is a guiding principle that is more important that was is lawful (c.f., 10:23), more important that what is right or wrong, more important that what one has the right to do, more important that even our own preferences and desires.  Before asking what we want to do, we need to ask whether something brings glory to God.  Does this make God look good?  Does this draw people closer to God or further away?

The Corinthians needed to bear that in mind as they determined what kinds of food to eat, and when and where to eat it.  They need to remember this when they lived in community with each other and influenced the behavior of their brothers and sisters.  They needed to remember this as they decided how to interact socially in church and how to view the worth and acceptance of others.  Does this bring glory to God?

What would be different if we today used this same guiding principle?  

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1 Corinthians 9: Ministry & Money

Jim Bakker.  Robert Tilton.  Creflo Dollar.  Kenneth & Gloria Copeland.  Joyce Meyer.

These are all ministers, well-known from their television presence, who have either been convicted of financial malfeasance in their ministry or have been investigated for such because of their lavish lifestyles.  I am afraid that there are whole sections of America that think of people like these first when they think of Christian ministers.  For these people, closely associated with church and church leaders is greed and exploitation of followers in order to line the pockets of those leaders.

Today, we learn that Paul was being accused of the same things.  We have been progressively piecing together a picture of Paul’s opponents in Corinth.  It would appear there is a group of leaders in the Corinthian church who have arrived only recently who are picking away at Paul’s authority in the church by making people question his credentials (chapters 1-4) and now his motives.  We can divine from this chapter that they are suggesting Paul is taking advantage of the Corinthians financially in order to benefit his own bottom-line.

Paul’s response is two-pronged.  First, he defends his right to support.  This is only fair and lawful.  Basic life practices show we owe people for what they do for us.  It is only right to pay those who minister.  For goodness sake, a farmer doesn’t even deprive an ox his due.  It is entirely inappropriate and unbiblical to pay a minister a subsistence wage for his or her work.  On the other end of the spectrum, we should also ask ourselves whether we can pay a minister so much that it actually begins to hurt him or her spiritually?

However, Paul’s second point was that if they remember correctly, he never even exercised his right to support in order not to give people like these accusers a foothold for scandal.  He supported himself through tent-making.  He willfully gave up his freedom so as to be as free from accusation as possible:

But we haven’t made use of this right.  Instead, we put up with everything , so as to place no obstacle in the way of the Messiah’s gospel. . . . I am indeed free from everyone; but I have enslaved myself to everyone, so that I can win all the more. (9:12, 19)

It is unconscionable to think we can pay a minister well below the average income in a church or community just because they are a minister.  Ministers don’t take oaths of poverty.  We are saying how much we value these noble people and their work with we pay them a pittance.  But in a culture where accusations and realities of ministerial greed do exist, we probably ought to consider whether it is wise to compensate a minister well above the median income of the church of a community or for a minister to live a lavish life.  We certainly owe a minister his or her due, but we also owe it to Christ to do whatever we can to “win all the more” and in America that means money is always part of the equation.

 What do you think?

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1 Corinthians 8: We’ll Do It Your Way

1 Corinthians 8 is a nice companion to Romans 14-15, as both deal with the topic of how to handle disagreements of conscience between Christians.  More extensive thoughts can be found back in my Romans post.  In my opinion, the topic of how to handle conflict in our churches in one of the most important these days, especially as Christ’s last prayer for humanity was that we be united.

I find here again the conclusion I found back in Romans: the conscience (not opinions, preferences, traditions or stubbornness) of the brother or sister who cannot do something is the determining factor in a disagreement.  For the Corinthians, we can tell the issue was whether they could participate in the ubiquitous meals that took place in pagan temples knowing that the food served there had recently been offered to a pagan god.  These meals were not particularly religious; they might have been little more than the equivalent to a business luncheon at the local casino, but the location and history of the food tainted it in many Christians minds.  Paul himself did not think so, still he concludes that what his brothers and sisters who object to these meals as a matter of conscience think is more important:

If food causes my brother or sister to stumble, I will never, ever eat meat, so that I won’t make my brother or sister trip up. (8:13)

Let me say this: in my religious tradition I would probably be deemed a more progressively-minded person.  I like innovation.  I feel the church does have to adapt for the culture we are reaching, just as Paul did.  Just as the great Christian leaders of history have done.  I get rather impatient with people holding back what I think will bring progress and effectiveness because of scruples I am not sure are well-founded, well-educated, or “knowledgeable,” to use Paul’s word from 8:1.  However, I have to admit that everything I read here indicates I am the one who must bend, compromise, and reign in my ambitions for change, not the brother or sister who truly objects to something out of conscience (not tradition; I still struggle with patience in those cases).  I don’t like to say that, but I feel I must, if I am to obey the teaching of this chapter.  Of course, there is much more to discuss about the specifics of how to handle particular situations, but time does not allow me to go on.  Pursue this in the comments today if you wish.  One teaser: in a context where there are tens or hundreds or even thousands of churches of various stripes in a town or city, isn’t the easiest way to handle disagreement for people to migrate to churches that best fit their views, versus force something on an already existing church?  But I said that and other things in the comments of the Romans post linked above.

Paul gives a perspective in this chapter that I find very helpful:

And so, you see, the weak person — a brother or sister for whom the Messiah died! — is then destroyed by your “knowledge.” (8:11)

Maybe all of this is easier when we remember that this brother or sister is not just a roadblock or a curmudgeon or a whatever less than charitable word we might come up with.  She or he is a cherished creation of God whom God so valued that He died for him or her.  And if Jesus died for that person, can’t I at least give up getting my way for their sake?  Something to think about.

What struck you in this chapter?   

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1 Corinthians 7: Marriage Isn’t Easy

This is a hard chapter to know how best to understand and apply what Paul says.  Yet, because it is talking about marriage, it is one that a lot of Christians end up in with some frequency.  I am afraid I have neither the space nor knowledge necessary to unravel all of the knots.  My only goal today is to lay done two boundary lines that might help us know where a good interpretation should land.  Unfortunately, these also produce more questions.

1.  Paul makes no bones about it, a lot of what he has to say in this chapter is only his opinion, as wise as that may be (7:6, 12, 25, 40). Paul himself says that much here is not binding on the reader:

I’m not saying this as a command, but as a concession. (7:6)

Maybe it helps to remember that verse 1 indicates this was a response from Paul about a question they had asked.  Could it be that we have uninspired opinions like these in the Bible?  Well, that is a Pandora’s Box if we agree, isn’t it?  It gets right down to the roots of what we mean when we say the Bible is truth.  Maybe we should view it like this?  I take seriously what certain church leaders say when I am seeking advice from them.  I don’t assume it is unquestionable and inspired truth, but I also feel like I better have a good reason not to take seriously their wisdom.

2.  The teachings in this chapter appear to be based on a premise that did not turn out to be the case: this present world is coming to an end very soon.

Just at the moment we are in the middle of a very difficult time. . . . The present situation won’t last long. . . . The pattern of this world, you see, is passing away. (7:26, 29, 31)

Many scholars believe this indicates that Paul had a view that Jesus would be returning in the near future.  Hence, people should “remain before God in the state in which they were called” (7:24; c.f., 17, 26, 40) because soon our present relationships would be over.  Of course, it has been 2000 years since Paul said that.  That is not exactly “very soon.”  One can say, “But Jesus could come any minute, so we should live like Jesus’ return is right around the corner.”  Maybe that is what Paul meant.  The problem with that logic is that, then, we all should do what this chapter says: remain in the situation we are present in — married, unmarried, widowed, enslaved, etc.  Christians don’t do that.

So, what do we do with a chapter like this?  I guess I prefer to look for big concepts that I also find elsewhere in the Bible and hang on to those.  Such as:  Marriage is a blessing.  God has provided a partner for each of us so that a physical and sexual life can be lived with purity and blessing.  At the same time, family is not the most important thing in life if you are a Christian; practically, marriage and a family does pull a person away from preaching the gospel and ministering to churches, as Paul says here (7:34).

If you are interested in reading more about how to interpret the Bible, check out this series of posts on my other blog.  These posts won’t answer all of our questions but they will show that understanding and applying the Bible to our lives today is not always as easy as we have thought.

What do you think about this complicated chapter?

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1 Corinthians 6: Stay Clean

Have you ever noticed spilled food is only attracted to clean clothes?  I am convinced of it.  Put on a dirty shirt and you will never spill on it.  You can eat spaghetti, dripping wet barbecue ribs, or melting ice cream and you will still come out unscathed.  Put on a clean shirt and you are destined to drip ketchup from your hotdog right in the middle of your chest.  Murphy’s Law, I guess.

When I was young my mother’s last instructions to me any time I went out to play in the yard with my friends were “Stay clean!”  Of course, I never did.  A muddy hand is made clean again by rubbing them down the legs of your pants.  A bloody nose is stopped by the front of your shirt held up to your nose. Right?

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians today are the same: Stay clean!

You were washed clean; you were made holy; you were put back to right — in the name of the Lord, King Jesus, and in the spirit of our God. (6:11)

God has cleaned them up, now stay clean and don’t make His work for naught.  But it seems everything they did was making them dirty once again.  Sure, they were under grace and not under Law, so this was not a matter of staying clean so as to earn salvation, but just because “everything is lawful” (6:12) for them doesn’t mean they should take advantage of grace.

How were the Corinthians sullying their new clothes?

  • Dragging each other into the Roman courts to settle their personal differences and offenses (6:1-6).  They looked like an uncharitable bunch who couldn’t solve the problems of the world as they couldn’t even settle their own problems.
  • Forgetting that the hallmark of a follower of Christ is to model selfless sacrifice, even if it means being wronged and losing what is rightfully yours (6:7-8)
  • Indulging the body with immorality and possibly food (6:12-14)
  • Possibly using the services of prostitutes, maybe even religious prostitutes in the pagan temples (6:15-17)

That is no way to show God appreciation for what He has done.  One brings glory with a holy life.  One worships God by what one does in the body, as that is His temple (6:19-20).

“Stay clean!”

What did you see anew in today’s chapter?

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1 Corinthians 5: Grace of a Different Sort

I hope those who know me best would say I am all about grace.  I love to talk about it, teach it, and read about it.  I am painfully aware of my need for grace.  Any chance I get to speak publicly I am increasingly inclined to bring the message of grace.  More and more in my life, by the help of the Spirit, I am learning to practice it in my relationships, and of course that is most important.

The challenge comes when grace meets sin, in particular sin in the life of people who are representing Christ in this world.  Grace must cover over sin, or it is not grace.  Grace teaches us that we are all in a place of need because we all fall short.  Grace knows that our brothers and sisters will fail.

But is there a limit to grace?  When is the right response discipline and judgment, not mercy and unconditional acceptance?

It seems from this chapter that the Corinthians were a deeply graceful people.  In fact they were so gracious they took pride in what they had forgiven and accepted, even in their midst.  This is likely what they were “boasting” about in verses 2 and 6.  Apparently, a man’s father died and some time after (maybe soon after?) this man took his father’s second wife (surely not his own mother or the text would have said as much) as his own wife.  More to the point, this was deemed scandalous, immoral, and undignified even in their permissive Corinthian society (5:1).  The Corinthian Christians surely saw this as wrong as well, but they had chosen to respond with acceptance instead of judgment and exclusion.  How noble and mature, right?  In a world of judgmental Christians better known for picketing funerals and petitioning politicians and excluding “dirty” people from their social circles, it is very easy still today to want to be the ultra-accepting ones.

Except Paul didn’t feel this way.  In fact, he was beside himself with the Corinthians (“Well I never!,” 5:1b).  This is grace run amok.  Grace is supposed to attract people to God, and this “grace” was a turn off even for the pagans.  And that right there is the key point for Paul:

Everybody’s talking about the sex scandal that’s going on in your community, not least because it’s a kind of immorality that even pagans don’t practice! (5:1)

Grace is not intended to enable sin, rather to move us past our sin in gratitude for such a gift.  We are a re-created people; “depravity and wickedness” have been taken from us (5:6-7).  Why would we allow our sin to remain and fester within us?  Dealing with sin with kid gloves thinking it will go away is a dangerous naiveté.

Paul proposes a different tack.  There is a place for judgment within the church.

Let me tell you what I’ve already done.  I may be away from you physically, but I’m present in the spirit; and I’ve already passed judgment, as though I was there with you, on the person who has behaved this way. . . . You must hand over such a person to the satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus. (5:3, 5)

Note, Paul is talking about how Christians deal with other Christians, not non-Christians (5:9-13).  It is fine to show one’s support for a restaurant because of their stance on gay marriage amongst predominantly non-Christian people, but do we deal with the greed and gluttony and bigotry in our own midst as vigilantly?

Judgment, exclusion, discipline, handing over to Satan, not associating with — well, that doesn’t sound very gracious now, does it?  Certainly all of those response can be done with entirely wrong, depraved motives.  But that is not what Paul is intending here.  Notice what the purpose of this sort of discipline is: “the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” (5:5).  Put distance between you and the offender so as to get him back again but as a spiritually-stronger, morally-cleansed brother.  Produce a situation where the immoral one feels a loss of love that causes repentance.  The goal is salvation.  The desire is to draw that person closer to God again.  That is an act of grace, albeit a different sort.  That grace says you deserve for us to write you off and have nothing to do with you ever again, but instead we will pray for you, keep you on our radar, and welcome you back with open arms when you decide to turn around.  This is the grace of the father of the prodigal son who never went looking for the son, yet welcomed him home as a dearly loved son not just the slave he was willing to be.

Yes, even discipline can be an act of grace.  Grace motivates change, so the approach Paul was taking fits.  Ironically, what doesn’t fit is the “grace” of the Corinthians.  Nothing would change in unqualified, principle-less acceptance of a perversion even non-Christians find offensive.  In fact, the only thing that changes is the reputation of the Church and the Christ who we serve.  And for the worse.

What do you think?

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1 Corinthians 4: Success Defined

Our American society defines a successful leader a certain way.  He is charismatic and charming.  She is an engaging speaker.  He has a strong backbone and can’t be railroaded by the people he leads.  She has a visionary spirit.  He projects genuineness and is authentically caring towards his people.  She empowers her reports and does not micro-manage.  In a post-Enron world, he must be virtuous and free from scandal.  She is available and open to input so as to elicit loyalty, but at the same time she is confident enough to make hard decisions.  He is a self-made man.  More often than not, successful leaders in our culture also have an attractive physical presence and have a lifestyle of affluence.  Bottom-line, a successful leader has power as our society defines power — the power of personality, persuasion, money, intellect, and respect or even fear if necessary.  (When you look at the complete list one almost has to be superhuman to be that leader.)

Is a successful leader the top dog . . . ?

The problem comes when we take this same paradigm and bring it into the church.  In this model, our preachers, pastors, elders, and teachers would be expected to be like the description above.  Consciously or not, we would then judge our leaders by this standard.  We should complain that this preacher is not dynamic or funny or a good enough storyteller.  That elder has not excelled in his own business career so surely he can’t help shepherd a church.  We certainly cannot abide a weak leader.  Nobody walks on a true leader and they have plenty of people to do the grunt work so they don’t need to get down in the trenches.  Successful church leaders get things done and win people over to their way of thinking and make it obvious that their ministry is achieving.  Church leaders need to make it known what they have done for the kingdom, so people will be impressed with them and slap their backs in approval and congratulations.  Successful leaders make sure churches have all they need, and their churches are not in want.  Ask yourself if any of this resonates with churches you know.  Do members you know have these expectations?

This seems to be something like the problem Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians.  It seems the Greek culture of Corinth had similar views.  Power is good, and weakness is bad.  Strong leaders are articulate and persuasive.  They get things done.  They evoke esteem and admiration.  They achieve and do not want.  They are celebrated and served by others.  We can tell from today’s chapter that this thinning was also in the Corinthian church:

Some people are getting puffed up. (4:18a; c.f., 4:7-8)

Paul makes it clear that this is not the right way to define success.  Churches need to guard against exporting this sort of thinking into their community.  It is counterproductive to judge leaders by this definition of success.  Actually, a church should be concerned if its leaders have this sort of thinking, as a new group of self-imposed leaders in the Corinthian church seem to have  (we will hear more about this group later).

This is how we [apostles] should be thought of: as servants of the Messiah, and household managers for God’s mysteries.  And this is what follows: the main requirement for a manager is to be trustworthy. . . . This is how I look at it, you see: God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession [a parade of prisoners of war, likely destined to fight to the death in the Colosseum], like people sentenced to death.  We have become a public show for the world. . . . We are fools because of the Messiah. . . . We are weak. . . . You are celebrated; we are nobodies!  Yes, right up to the present moment we go hungry and thirsty; we are badly clothed, roughly treated, with no home to call our own.  What’s more, we work hard, doing manual labor.  When we are insulted . . . persecuted . . . slandered. . . . To this day we have become like the rubbish of the world, fit only to be scraped off the plate and thrown away with everything else. (4:1-2, 9-13)

. . . or a servant-leader?

According to Paul, a successful, godly leader is first and foremost a servant and manager of God’s church, not their own.  They know there is no self-made minister and certainly no self-made church.  They may be very capable because of the gifting given them by God, but their greatest trait is that they are trustworthy of the great privilege they have been given to lead God’s people.  Their life is anything but comfortable, glamorous and affluent.  They roll up their sleeves and they do whatever it takes — nothing is below them — to advance the kingdom.  Their life is marked by sacrifice and they empty themselves of self, even to the point of putting to death their egos.  However, they are powerful, but in a whole new way.  It is the power of love, sacrifice, and the Spirit.

Now, that is a different way of view success.

What stood out to you?

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1 Corinthians 3: One Big Family

On my bookshelf I have a book that chronicles my family’s history from the mid-1970s back to the 1800s when my ancestors moved from the United States to southern Ontario to farm and do millwork, to the 1700s when my forebears came from the Old World to Philadelphia as Quakers, and even to the 1600s in England.  My sons now like to look through our family history as much as I used to when I was their age.  But what I can’t do is go through the book and rip out the pages of ancestors who are embarrassing, eccentric, or outright egregious.  I can’t pick and choose my ancestors.  They are all right there, and each played a part in the varied tapestry of my heritage.  I am a part of something bigger than just my own life.  Sure, there are aunts and uncles I have been closer to than others, skeletons in my family’s closet I am content to keep locked away, and even a great-grandfather who sold land on the moon (a story for another day!)  But there they all are, and it is only the collection of them all that makes a family.

The Corinthians were simplifying matters.  They had chosen one part of their history and were exalting it above the rest.  Maybe that part was the heritage of Paul in their midst.  Or Apollos, who it appears came along after Paul and became the steady leader in the church.  Peter (or Cephas) might have spent time in Corinth or was just well-known as the chief apostle of sorts, and some pledged allegiance to him.  Others went all the way back to Jesus himself and limited their focus to him (c.f., 1:11-12).

Paul corrects the Corinthians, though, in this chapter.  They can’t pick and choose from their family history.  Paul brought the message of Jesus, then Apollos picked up where Paul left off, and maybe Peter did as well.  Each of these leaders were parts of the whole.  Paul uses a building metaphor to make that point; each is one part of “God’s building” (3:9), one brick in the wall if you will.  All of these leaders belong to them:

So don’t let anyone boast about mere human beings.  For everything belongs to you, whether it’s Paul or Apollos or Cephas. (3:21-22a)

Of course we have people in our families to which we feel a greater affinity, people who have shaped us more than others.  To apply this more directly to our churches, of course we will probably favor our churches over others, prefer our denominations over others, appreciate some preachers and teachers more than others.  But to use this as grounds and means to divide suspends the reality that God’s family is much larger than our preferences and division does nothing to honor God and develop the spiritual mind:

You’re still determined to live in the old way!  Yes, wherever there is jealousy and quarreling, doesn’t that mean you’re living in the old way, behaving as any merely human being might do?  When someone says “I’m with Paul!” and someone else says “I’m with Apollos!” are you not mere humans? (3:3-4)

May we be the people who work to bring the body of Christ closer together, not add to the fragmentation.

What caught your attention today?

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1 Corinthians 2: Communication Breakdown

My favorite Chinese restaurant is right around the corner.  I can walk to it.  It is a no-frills kind of place.  You can stay and eat there if you wish, though half the time the air conditioner is broken.  Most people pick up styrofoam containers packed full of General Tsao’s Chicken or Pork Fried Rice and head home to share with family.

They know me there.  They know my voice when I place an order by phone.  They know my favorite menu items.  They greet me by name (I guess that is an indication of the frequency of my visits!)  Recently, when the China-born owner and head cook was studying for his American citizenship test, he would ask me questions about how to pronounce politician’s names or to explain certain things about American life and governance (thankfully never the concept of the electoral college).  Only when he had finally taken the test and earned his citizenship did I break it to him that he had been relying on a non-citizen for answers!  (I am still a Canadian by citizenship, though I have been here over twenty years.)

Though I thoroughly enjoy his effusive presence, talking to my Chinese friend is not easy (and he likely says the same about me).  His accent is strong.  There are whole sounds he doesn’t even know how to pronounce.  His understanding of English grows every year, but just like most of us would experience if we moved to China, it is a daunting task to learn a new language and English is not an easy language to learn (I am sure he is doing better than I would do learning Chinese).  A few days ago it took me five tries to figure out he was saying the phrase “summer break.”  Yes, my summer break as a teacher is sadly coming to an end.  It is not infrequent or surprising that he and I struggle to communicate as well as both of us want to.  We are literally thinking in two different languages.  (Interestingly, two doors down the strip mall is the Italian printer who stamps Bibles with my students’ names and the school crest.  I have the same linguistic experiences with him too!)  I, for one, love a multicultural world!

In today’s short chapter, Paul reminds us that this is somewhat the same experience we will inevitably have with the people around us who have not accepted Christ and are not enlightened by the Holy Spirit:

We do, however, speak wisdom among the mature.  But this isn’t a wisdom of this present world, or of the rulers of this present world. . . . We don’t use words we’ve been taught by human wisdom, but words we’ve been thought by the spirit, interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people.  Someone living at the merely human level doesn’t accept the things of God’s spirit.  They are foolishness to such people, you see, and they can’t understand them because they need to be discerned spiritually. (2:6, 13-14)

It is like we are thinking in two different languages.  Our frame of mind is spiritual.  Our wisdom is spiritual.  Our truth and worldview and value systems are shaped in a fundamentally different way.  It is inevitable that we will not always be understood.  Confused looks will come.  Unspiritual people will naturally feel that their physical and material “language” is superior to our’s and that we should “learn their language.”  Exasperation and maybe even ridicule are destined to come as well.  We should not be surprised by this in the least.

What caught your eye today?

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1 Corinthians 1: “Christians are Ignorant”

“Christians are ignorant.”

“Christians are weak.”

“Christians are escapists.”

Ever heard those charges?  More and more, these insults are thrown around as simple truths.

Christians sometimes don’t accept the theories and beliefs that others hold as settled fact.  Some Christians even talk about science like it is an enemy of faith (which might just be a bit ignorant, frankly).  Christians can be viewed by some as weak when we don’t fight back or refuse to pursue our own glory and advancement.  And to those who don’t accept it, our belief in an afterlife seems like nothing more than wishful thinking and a way to escape our frustrations and disappointments.

The reality of the situation, according to Paul as he starts 1 Corinthians, is that God did intend for it to be this way.  God has always chosen the unconventional way of working.  Only criminals die on crosses; the gospel was scandalous to Jews.  And humans can’t kill gods; the gospel sounded foolish to Greeks.  Yet this is exactly the message with which God sent his ambassadors into the world.  Why?

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the shrewdness of the clever I’ll abolish. (1:19)

God’s folly is wiser than humans, you see, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans. (1:25)

God gladly plays the underdog.  He’ll take the B-string.  He’ll do things that sound backwards and foolish, but . . . when they bring about change, when those things make all the difference, when they render other things ineffectual, it will be God and His wisdom that stands supreme.

So, yes, for a time we may very well seem ignorant, weak, and even like escapists.  God’s wisdom is still being revealed in its glory.

When has your faith made you feel inferior?

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Corinthian Letters

I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead.  Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church.  We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined).  We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians.  Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else.  As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.

Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.

Holy living in an unholy culture:  Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul.  The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served.  On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters.  This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice.  There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality.  Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.

Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring:  Wisdom was key to the Greek culture.  At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development.  Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem.  As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well.  This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit.  A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred.  Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.

Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead:  There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many.  Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.

Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem:  Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city.  Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.

Having to defend this apostolic authority:  Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians.  This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth.  The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders.  More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him.  They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled.  Paul responds will great passion and fire.  For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.

So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life.  This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.

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