1 Corinthians 1:10-18
What do we need to do to grow the church? This is one of the hot issues of the western church in the 21st Century. And the question is constantly raised, because of the decline in interest in the established church.
In the past, various different programmes have been suggested to combat that problem: youth groups, young married groups, teaching groups, etc. But if we were to ask the question, “What do we need to do to grow the church?” even here, within this church, we would get a variety of responses. The solutions would probably vary from one person to another. All sorts of ways would be indicated; all sorts of new programmes would be suggested—and even a diversity of approaches recommended to appeal to different kinds of people. And that is naturally so, because people have different interests, and different focuses.
But I’m going to issue a warning today. And that is that there are real dangers in starting new groups and activities, designed to attract either the churched or the non-churched. And the danger is that unless the whole church is united in moving in that direction, the quest for growth can actually be the cause of much disunity.
Because whilst diversity is good, and should be a sign of a healthy church, if we’re not careful that diversity can lead to a real trap. And that trap is: that in pursuing our different interests, thinking, and programmes, those things can actually end up taking on a whole new life of their own. If we’re not careful, and if we are not united in our approach—the whole church working together—those different interests can splinter the church. And they can become an impediment to church growth, rather than the creator of it.
Now this trap we can fall into is not new to the church. Indeed it is one that the church fell into within the first few years of its existence. And for that reason, I want to refer to the church at Corinth to illustrate what I mean.
B. THE PROBLEMS OF THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH
1. The Beginnings of the Church
a). Acts 18:1-18
Now the church at Corinth owed its existence mainly to the Apostle Paul. On his second missionary journey Paul arrived in Corinth, where the church did not yet exist. And there, every Sabbath, he went into the local synagogue, and argued the case for Christianity with his fellow Jews.
Of course it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened—he got kicked out of the synagogue. And so instead he went next door to the house of a worshipper of God who was prepared to listen. That man then became a believer, and consequently with his family, became the start of the Corinthian church.
Then, eighteen months later, having established a church with a very strong foundation (and having in the meantime faced some serious opposition from his fellow Jews), Paul left Corinth, and returned on his way back to Jerusalem.
b). 1 Corinthians
Unfortunately, about three years later, messages filtered through to Paul that all was not well in the church that he had founded. And why? Because the people in the Corinthian church had allowed their diverse backgrounds and thoughts, and their individual preferences, to dictate where the church should be headed. They were not united in their approach. As a consequence, instead of their preferences helping to grow the church, their preferences were helping destroy it.
In the three years since Paul had been there, the church at Corinth, had apparently received a series of high profile leaders—all who portrayed a different aspect of the Christian faith. And probably without any encouragement from any of those leaders, the members of the church had split themselves into various groups who either followed aspects of their personalities and teaching, or had reacted against it.
All groups claimed to be spiritually superior. And all groups claimed and pursued completely different programmes regarding spiritual growth and ministry—to the exclusion of all else.
2. The Divisions in the Church
a). The Paul-party
Firstly, there were a group of people who for fundamental reasons were strongly attached to the Apostle Paul. But, then, that’s understandable. After all, Paul had brought the Christian faith to Corinth. So they were, therefore, ever in his debt. (They would not have known anything of the love of God, and what Jesus had done, without Paul). So they were truly grateful for Paul’s labours on their behalf. Whatever Paul said, or was imagined to have said, these folk accepted verbatim. Paul may have been gone several years now, but his memory lived on.
b). The Apollos-party
Secondly, there were a group of people, who for intellectual reasons were strongly attached to Apollos. Now, Apollos had come from the university city of Alexandria. He had good speaking skills, good expository skills on the Old Testament, accurate teaching about Jesus. He was fervent in his enthusiasm, confronted the Jews in public, and he was bold in his preaching. And he had an invaluable ministry with young believers.
Apollos hadn’t stayed long in Corinth, but long enough for some to start comparing him with Paul. Because whilst Paul was good in his mastery of the Old Testament and intellectual ability, he was not an eloquent speaker—unlike Apollos.
c). The Peter-party
Thirdly, there were a group of people who because of their attachment to the Jewish law were strongly attached to Peter. Because, Peter, despite acknowledging that Gentile Christians did not have to comply with aspects of the Jewish law, was still in many ways a Jew at heart in terms of his own personal adherence to Jewish practices.
Now, there had been amongst the Corinthian Jews significant conversions to Jesus as the Christ. And the temptation to return to the old legalism, which marked the Jewish faith, must have been very strong.
d). The Christ party
And fourthly, there were a group of people, who because the other three groups paid such excessive attention to individual leaders, reacted to the situation by refusing to acknowledge any leader at all. To this fourth group “hero worship” as practiced in the other three groups was an anathema. And so they took a very strong anti-authoritarian line.
3. The Common Problem in the Church
Of course, the news of all the factions splitting the church came to Paul’s attention. And all the indications suggest that Paul found the news of what was happening—with the four groups—very painful. But, Paul knew enough about the realities of local church life not to be surprised. He recognised that there were bound to be different emphases and ideas within the local church—because all Christians select different aspects of the truth at different times for particular emphasis. However, he also recognised that when a Christian or a group of Christians become totally absorbed with one aspect of the truth, and they don’t have the support of the whole church, then a danger-point in the life of the church is reached.
Paul was therefore concerned that the church at Corinth should learn the right way of dealing with ‘selectivity’ and ‘diversity’. And consequently he began his letter by appealing to them for unity.
4. The Solution in the Church
But a unity not based on the lowest common denominator. But rather on the need to focus one’s eyes on the person of Jesus. The problems of the church at Corinth, Paul suggested, was that with all their preferences, and ideas, and focuses for spiritual growth, they had put their hopes in individual leaders, and styles of growth with their programmes and plans, and they had ignored the need to be united in their approach. They had taken their eyes off Jesus.
What they needed to do, then, was to step back from where they were, look at what they were doing, and focus their eyes on the person of Jesus.
a). The Wholeness of Christ
Because, as Paul rightly stated, firstly, people were either Christians or they weren’t. A person had either received Jesus or they hadn’t. There was no room for spiritual snobbery, or a debate over who was a better Christian.
b). The Cross of Christ
Secondly, Paul stated, that following people other than Jesus was a waste of time. It was Jesus who had died that they might have life. It was Jesus who had died for their sins, no-one else. Jesus was the only one who could unite people, and he did so through the cross. So what was the point in moving away from the only one who could provide reconciliation with God?
c). The Lordship of Christ
And, thirdly, Paul stated, that when someone was baptised (as an adult), they effectively signed their life over to the person to whom they were baptised in. They committed themselves to his authority and they were consequently at his beck and call. So in baptism the Corinthians had become the possession of Jesus Christ, and of nobody else. Consequently, all believers belonged to Jesus—not to Paul, not to Apollos, not to Peter and not to anyone else.
d). The Need for Unity
And on these three grounds, Paul appealed to them, not only for unity amongst themselves, but to preach the gospel in such a way that proclaimed the cross of Christ, and didn’t do anything to distract from it in any way whatsoever.
Of course it’s may be very easy for us to say, “That’s OK, but that’s the church in Corinth. That’s history, but what’s that got to do with us?” But, unfortunately, as the saying goes, history tends to repeat itself. And just as the conflict in Corinth began over different people having different ideas, and following different people’s teachings, until it got out of control with the establishment of specific focus groups—hence the disunity in the church. So is the same situation evident in our churches today.
a). The Paul-party
Indeed every minister of any Parish (with any kind of history behind it), has probably discovered a group of people within his or her congregation, that over time have taken their eyes off Jesus, and who are consequently harking back to the good old days.
And the group that purported to follow Paul almost certainly emerged as a reaction to the others in Corinth, who had different ideas and different focuses. As a consequence they dug in their heels; they went back to their origins. And they used what Paul had taught, or had purported to teach, to support their case.
And the same is true today. As a reaction to new ideas, and new focuses, there are groups in most churches who hark back to past times—or what is purported to have happened in past times. And they’ve dug in their heels, to prevent the church from changing, or modernising, at all.
b). The Apollos-party
In addition there are also people, in our churches today, who very much want to elevate the teaching of the church to a highly intellectual level. They want the focus of the church to be more on the good speaking skills of its leaders, and good expository skills of the bible, rather than on the practical aspects of living the Christian life.
The group that purported to follow Apollos almost certainly were trying to make themselves into an intellectual elite. Their emphasis was on spiritual growth for their own gratification, rather than in terms of actually growing the church. And so they clung to a leader who seemed to have all the attributes that they aspired to in order to achieve their aims.
And that same focus is evident in the church today too. There are people in most churches who coil from getting their hands dirty, in the practical everyday hands on approach to Christianity. But instead prefer to concentrate on becoming, or being seen as one of the spiritual elite.
c). The Peter-party
There are also those who like to have everything clear cut. They want rules and guidelines which can be followed—rules and laws which can be rigorously applied, no matter what the situation.
The group that purported to follow Peter obviously felt the need to resort to a system that was clear cut, where everything was as black and white as it could be. Where there was a set of rules and regulations covering almost every circumstance. And where, in addition, there was a set of guidelines spelling out exactly what those rules and regulations meant.
And the same is true today too. After the first flush of new life, having accepted Jesus as their saviour, many Christians feel more secure in such strait-jackets, rather than to trust in God and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.
d). The Christ-party
And, in addition, there are also those in our churches today who have no time for authority whatsoever. A super-spiritual elite, who tend to cause problems in the church for a while, and then go off and start their own churches elsewhere—only for the whole situation to repeat itself over and over again.
Now, the group that objected to excessive attention to any particular leader may well have been one of this kind of group. Because forty years after Paul wrote his letter to Corinth outlining the divisions in the church, history tells us that whilst the three groups following Paul, Apollos and Peter sadly still existed, this other group—this super-spiritual elite—were no longer in the church at Corinth at all.
The reality is that where the Spirit of God is at work, there always seems to emerge a group of people who sit very lightly with any human leadership. There is an air of spiritual superiority which is beyond question or analysis. As a consequence, leadership of any kind, for these people, is something they have very little time for.
e) The Need to Focus on Jesus
So, with those four modern expressions of the same problems evident in the church at Corinth, we can say that if the same features of the church in Corinth in Paul’s day are evident in the church today, then Paul’s warning about disunity must apply just as much to us today as it did to the people back then.
So Paul’s appeal for unity amongst believers, and the need to preach the gospel in such a way that it proclaims the cross of Christ, and it doesn’t distract from it in any way, is just as relevant today as it was to the church at Corinth.
Paul’s message in his letter was that all four groups in the church had got it wrong. And instead, what they needed to do was to focus their eyes on Jesus, and not on their particular wants and desires and programmes or whatever. So what we have to do is to make sure that we don’t end up following our own wants and desires and programmes, to the point where we create and harbour disunity. Indeed we need to keep our eyes focussed upon Jesus too.
The question of where the church should be headed in terms of, “What can we do to grow the church?” is one of the hot issues of the western church in the 21st Century. And, with that debate, there are a variety of solutions that are currently being offered.
Yes we can come up with a number of programmes, or change our emphasis, to attract non-believers. And within the church, there will continue to be a variety of programmes and suggestions on what we should do—and naturally so, because it is natural for people to have different interests, and different focuses.
However, today, regarding church growth we need to heed the warning—we need to be united. Because whilst diversity is good, and should be a sign of a healthy church, within that diversity is a trap that we need to avoid. And that trap is that if we allow our diversity, our own individual preferences, to take on a whole life of their own, then we will no longer have our eyes focussed on Jesus. The church will then splinter, and whatever we hoped would be the solution to the church’s growth, will actually become the reason for the church’s further decline.
What is important for the church today, as it was for the church in bygone days, is that we should never allow our own personal interests, our own wants and desires, and our own preferences, or even our own church programmes, to be the cause of our disunity. We should never allow our eyes to be focussed on anything else, but the person of Jesus.
Because if we do, the recipe is, that even flourishing churches, like Corinth, that Paul left after eighteen months, will not grow. But instead they will decline and self-destruct. And that is something that we should want to avoid at all costs.
Posted: 17th January 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis