Posts Tagged With: Corinth

2 Corinthians 10: Boasting Without the Ego

Some days it seems like we are swimming in a sea of ego.

Here in America, the presidential campaigns are heating up and there is enough ego to choke on coming from both parties.  I guess that is part of the game.  Football seasons are cranking up and a great number of athletes are more than willing to tell us how good they are.  In the world of Howard Stern, Usain Bolt, LeBron James, and Lady Gaga self-promotion is a must.  Then our kids learn this and life imitates art in the hallways of schools across America and on Facebook and Instagram pages.

How do we walk like Christ through the world of ego?  

We are headed now into the last big part of 2 Corinthians where the idea of “boasting” is key.  In this chapter alone the word “boast” is used seven times in eighteen verses.  As we will see more clearly in the next chapter but as has been seen several times already in the Corinthians correspondence, pride was certainly encouraged in the self-important culture of Achaia.  A person needed to make a name for themselves, develop the skills and personality traits that were admired, and then they didn’t need to feel bad about making these known.  Furthermore, pride always brings about competition, and it seems it was also okay to point out your opponents failures in comparison to your strengths.  We can tell that in the Corinthian church there were people present not lacking in ego and quite willing to point out Paul’s inferiority.

Paul states in this chapter that he felt justified in joining in the boasting, but he would boast in what God had done through him, not his own accomplishments.

But when we boast, we don’t go off into flights of fancy; we boast according to the measure of the rule God has given us to measure ourselves by, and that rule includes our work with you! (10:13)

For Paul, the most important things he has ever done, the greatest bragging point is simply the success he has had evangelizing.  Yet, Paul also knows that success does not come from his great rhetoric, because he is sometimes lost for words.  It is not his charisma and personality; he is too meek and weak for that.  It is not some ministry proudly named after himself, because the power of his ministry came from God and the ability to change hearts always comes from God.  The Corinthians need not look for Paul’s credentials to be impressed.  They only need to look at their own history to realize, they would not be in Christ had Paul not come to town.

In a world of ego, we would do well to boast like Paul did:

Anyone who boasts should boast in the Lord! (10:17b)

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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2 Corinthians 3: Qualified for Ministry

So what makes you think you are qualified for ministry?

That seems like a pretty reasonable question.  In fact, it is the kind of question I would expect to receive if I were in an interview for a sales person job or an opening for a management position at a factory or a job as a crane operator at the construction site down the road.  A person needs to have the appropriate credentials if they are to assume they can do a job.

Isn’t it the same in ministry?

Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with pursuing academic training in ministry.  I have two earned degrees in theology myself.  But is a person qualified for ministry if they have a degree in the field?  If they are a dynamic speaker?  If they have the charisma to capture a room and motivate people to achieve a goal?  If they go to lots of conferences and enact cutting edge thinking and technology in their churches?  If they can attract a crowd and grow the membership of a church?  If they can lead a capital campaign that nets millions of dollars?  Now flip it.  Is a person disqualified from ministry if they do not have these traits and abilities?

Think like a Corinthian.  We know their culture.  Wisdom, knowledge and education is good.  The cult of the personality will take you far.  Recommendations from the masses will take you far.  Gather a group of people to you and have them follow your teaching.  Sure, others might call it pride and “being puffed up” but really its just confidence.  We even know that this kind of cultural thinking had seeped into the church in Corinth in various ways.  If a group of people think like this, won’t they want credentials and recommendations?

Does that Corinthian thinking sound that different from everyday American thinking?

So, what qualifies a person for ministry?

Perhaps we need — as some do — official references to give you? . . . You are our official reference!  It’s written on our hearts! . . . That’s the kind of confidence we have toward God, through the Messiah.  It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account.  Our qualification comes from God: God qualified us to be stewards of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit. (3:1-2, 4-6)

Paul appeals to two things as evidence to his qualifications as a minister:

  1. They only had to look at themselves.  How did they come to know about Christ?  Who brought them this far?  Their very lives were reference letters.
  2. They could see the marks of the Spirit in his life.  His power came from the power of the Spirit, not his own power.  His persuasive spirit was not his own, but God’s.  His charisma was the “charismata” (Greek for “gift”) that comes from the Spirit, not a charming personality.

One is qualified for ministry if there is within that person the Spirit who is changing the worshiper into the image of Jesus from one stage of glory to the next (3:18).

What caught your attention in this 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 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 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 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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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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