1 Corinthians 1:1-9
One of the pressing problems in many western churches today is the question of church growth. As in, “What do we as individuals need to do to grow in the faith?” And “What does the church need to do to grow in the faith?”
2. Personal Spiritual Growth
And this is particularly relevant today, because there are many people who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, but who feel the need for their own personal spiritual development. They want to feel closer to God; they want to feel more in tune with God at a personal level.
So much so, that we have the extremes. We have the phenomenon of church hoppers—people looking for spiritual teaching that fulfils their personal need and going from church to church to seek that fulfilment. We have people driving past one church to get to another—because they feel that a church farther away might better meet their needs. And we have people going from one seminar to another—searching for different spiritual ways in order to feel fulfilled.
3. Church Growth
And despite that, we have many churches which are languishing on the downward spiral to closure.
And consequently, we have congregations who are hoping that suddenly something miraculous will happen, and that the downwards slide will suddenly take an upward trend. We have congregations who are hoping that new people (and younger people) will suddenly come to the door and help build up the numbers. And we have congregations who are hoping that Christians from elsewhere will move into the area, join the church, and be the nucleus of rescuing their church from certain closure.
As can be seen, then, church growth and spiritual growth are issues which are very relevant to our churches today.
And particularly so because many people struggle with their own personal spiritual growth. Because despite their searching (and they can be very active in their searching), they remain frustrated, and unable to find anything really satisfying.
And furthermore, many churches are desperate to include new people in order to survive. But because they put limits and restrictions on what they are prepared to accept, they consequently get nowhere and experience no real spiritual growth at all.
So, the questions remain: “What do we, as individuals, need to do to grow in the faith? What do we need to do to build up our own personal relationship with God?” And “What do we, as a church, need to do to grow in the faith, so that our churches become healthy and vibrant and active?”
B. THE SPIRITUAL CHURCH
Well, to answer both of these questions I want to turn to Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. And I want to do that for two reasons. Firstly, because the first nine verses of Paul’s first describes the basics of what is needed for spiritual growth. And, secondly, because it appears that the church in Corinth faced many of the difficulties that many of our modern churches are facing today.
Indeed, the church at Corinth was full of cliques, with different groups following different personalities. Snobbery abounded. There was a great divide between the rich and the poor. There was very little church discipline—people were very lax in both their morals and in what they believed. Many were unwilling to submit to authority—and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and of consideration for others. And there was a spiritual snobbery—where some considered themselves better Christians than others.
As a consequence, if Paul could provide a formula for spiritual growth for a church like Corinth, then it’s very likely, that that same formula could be relevant to the modern-day church as well.
And the formula for spiritual growth comes in three parts . . .
2. Lesson 1: The Need for a Sense of Calling (1:1-3)
And the very first part of the formula, Paul suggests, is the need for all Christians to have a sense of “calling”.
a). God’s Call to Individuals
Now, Paul was very conscious of God’s initiative in his own call. He was also conscious of God’s initiative in the calling of individual Christians in Corinth. The concept of the initiative of God was very important for Paul because he realised that a relationship with God (which was necessary for salvation) was just not possible based on one’s own abilities.
Without God’s initiative, Paul realised, neither he, nor any of the members of the congregation at Corinth, would have become apostles, or found Jesus, or become God’s special people at all. And therefore a sense of God’s “calling” was fundamental to the whole concept of spiritual growth.
b). God’s Call to His Church
However, Paul’s idea of God’s calling went beyond the idea of God calling us as individuals. Indeed, Paul was conscious of God’s initiative for individual believers to be members of God’s church too. So as far as Paul was concerned, there should be a close unity between Christians. God’s calling involved being “called” into the membership of the church as well as to their own individual calling. But in that, Paul recognised that the church was not “his church” or “our church” but it was “God’s church”.
Getting the perspective right, for Paul, then, was fundamental in his understanding of church growth and spiritual growth. Yes, we may come to God as individuals called by him. But we are also called to be members, together, of “God’s church”. And “God’s church” isn’t something we can own at all.
Now, of course, what this means is that when we are considering the issue of spiritual growth—whether as an individual or as members of a congregation—the very first thing we should do is to remember to whom we owe our existence as Christians and to what it is that we are called. Our faith is the result of God’s initiative, not ours. And God calls us not just as individuals but as members of a wider congregation. We are called to be members of a church that belongs to God and not a church that belongs to us.
And that means, if we only respond to the call of God from a personal level and have no time for his church, or if we relegate the church to non-essential, then we effectively deny a very important part of our call. As a consequence, we shouldn’t expect to grow spiritually much at all. We simply cannot be the people that God wants us to be if we leave meeting together regularly with other believers out of the equation. If we try to pursue spiritual growth on a personal level to the exclusion of spiritual growth on a corporate level, then it won’t be just us who doesn’t grow but the whole church will suffer as a consequence. And if we try to pursue the corporate angle but limit the church to being “my church” or “our church”, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the church doesn’t grow either.
Yes, God may reward us from time to time with spiritual gifts, and other ways in which we can grow spiritually as an individual. But we should never leave out the corporate aspect of our calling. We should never leave out the fact that this is God’s church—for him to do with as he wishes—and it is definitely not our own.
So it is very important, then, that we get our sense of “calling” right, if we are to experience spiritual growth either as an individual or as part of God’s church.
3. Lesson 2: The Knowledge that the Church is Fully Endowed (4-7)
The second part of the formula, Paul suggests, is that a congregation already has all the gifts it needs for spiritual growth.
a) The Apparent State of the Church
Now that might sound an odd thing to say—and we might look around the church to which we belong and say, “You’re kidding, how can that possibly be? We need more people. We need people with particular gifts and talents. We need new people with get up and go.”
But if we are tempted to think that way, then we need to remember, that this statement was made by Paul to the church at Corinth—a church that was in a real mess; it was full of problems. There were divisions, false teaching abounded, their moral standards were woeful, and some of their beliefs and practices defied belief. In fact, it probably wasn’t much different to many of our modern churches today. And the reality was that in this first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul had to deal with those problems too.
However, before Paul got stuck in about all the things that were wrong in the church, he wrote these nine verses we’re looking at today, stating that they already had whatever they needed to grow the church. They had already been given all they needed to be a church of great spiritual wealth.
b) The Underlying State of the Church
And consequently Paul made three statements about what the church in Corinth had already been given. He told them that they had already been given the grace of God. He told them that they been enriched by God in every way. And he told them, that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift. Three statements of the lavish generosity of God.
Interestingly, however, these statements all relate to the corporate side of our calling. They are statements about the church as a whole, even if they have implications for individual believers.
So if we consider that grace has already been given to us, if in every way we have been enriched, and if we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, then we, too, just like the church at Corinth, have all we need for spiritual growth. Indeed, if the church today is in just as much a mess as the church at Corinth—with its divisions, snobbery, dubious moral practices, false teaching etc.—and if the church at Corinth had all the resources at their fingertips to grow spiritually, then the implication is that God has given us all the resources that we need to grow spiritually too.
Consequently, this church as well as others does not need to look for outside help or more new people or younger people to get it back on track. We already have the means within. It also means that anyone who drives past the church to go to another more “spiritual” church does so needlessly. And anyone who doesn’t come because they believe the church to be spiritually dead in many ways is completely wrong.
God has blessed this and all other congregations with all the gifts that are needed to become a thriving church. However, maybe, like the Corinthian church, we just haven’t understood or realised what we have already been given or used those gifts to their full potential.
It’s the local church which potentially has every spiritual gift within its corporate life for spiritual growth. And therefore, it’s the local church which should prayerfully expect God to bring those gifts to mature expression. But it does take a certain willingness on our part for those gifts to be used to build up the whole. (Which in turn will help us in our own personal spiritual growth too).
The church is thus fully endowed with all the gifts of God’s grace. But these need to be discovered, explained and appropriated, if we are to see growth both as a church and as individuals.
4. Lesson 3: The Need for Confidence in God (8-9)
And the third part of Paul’s formula for spiritual growth is the need to have confidence in God for the future.
a). The Continuing Role of God
Now Paul was not only very positive about the resources of the church of God at Corinth, but he was also full of confidence in God for its future. Whatever ups and downs that the church had faced, Paul was sure of the faithfulness of God. Indeed, Paul believed that just as God had called the Corinthian church into fellowship in the first place, so, too, God would sustain them to the end.
As far as Paul was concerned, if God had called them to share his Son, then he would hardly be likely to abandon them or go back on his promises. And therefore for them to grow spiritually, what they needed to do, was to put their total dependence upon God.
b). God’s Terminus
As far as Paul was concerned, God’s faithfulness to his people wasn’t just to the end of an individual’s life, but it was to the Day of the Lord. That was how long God would sustain his church in this world. And on that final day the full disclosure both of Jesus as he really is, the true quality of our service for Christ, and the inner purposes and motives of our hearts, would be made known.
And because it will be Jesus who will matter on that day, and Jesus who will call the tune and determine the issues—the same Jesus to whom we are called to share—then that is how long he will be faithful to us. And as a consequence, we will we share in Jesus’s supremacy on that day too.
So the practical implications of this glorious hope means that in order to grow spiritually we need to be unreservedly committed to the church of God—where he has placed us. We should be unhesitatingly confident about God’s desire and ability to build his church where we are. And we are to be uncompromisingly certain about the call for us to be holy, as he is holy.
Paul, then, provided in the first nine verses of his letter to the Corinthians the basic formula for true spiritual growth.
Now, of course, the implication for the Corinthians was that all the division, dissent, snobbery, immorality, and false teaching would still have to be dealt with. (And Paul tried to tackle those issues in the other fifteen and a half chapters of his letter.) But nevertheless, what was required for spiritual growth as an individual and as a congregation, Paul told the Corinthian church, was at their very fingertips.
And the implication is that if that was true of the church at Corinth, then it is also true for us today too.
As I said at the beginning, the issue of spiritual growth—whether as an individual or in our churches—is one that has plagued many people over the years. And it certainly was a problem even in the church at Corinth in the first century. And yet despite the mess that the Corinthian church was in, the Apostle Paul was able to give clear guidelines on how the people and the church could really grow.
Firstly, he said, individuals need to be conscious of their call by God. But their call, not only as individuals into God’s kingdom, but their call into the life of the church as well. Because individuals cannot experience full spiritual growth if they exclude the church from their vision.
Secondly, congregations need to accept that as a congregation, God has already equipped them with all the gifts that they need to grow the church and to grow the individuals within them. Now, a church may be facing problems but that is usually because people hold on to things and refuse to be active members in the life of the church. Issues that still need to be dealt with. But churches have been endowed by all the gifts they need to grow, nonetheless.
And, thirdly, individuals and churches need to have confidence in God—that what he has already started he will continue until the end. Therefore, there is a need for all members to be unreservedly committed to God, and to the task in hand.
Get these three things right, Paul suggests, and you have the formula for spiritual growth. And the side effect of that will be, that whatever other troubles there may be—and there will be troubles from time to time—well they will disappear and come to be of no consequence at all.
But get these three things wrong and the consequences are well known—a lack of spiritual growth both as individuals and as a congregation; churches in the downward spiral towards closure; and all the fighting that inevitably comes with it.
Posted: 14th March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
1 Corinthians 1:1-9