1 Corinthians 12:1-11
1. A Twenty-First Century Dilemma
One of the concerns of today is whether things are genuine or not. As a consequence, our money is now plastic and has a see-through panel, making it harder to forge. When you buy things, particularly artwork, a certificate of authenticity is usually required as part of the deal. When people collect money for charitable purposes, they are required to wear some sort of identification to show that they are genuine collectors. And when the issue is on the other foot, when you have to contact organisations like Centrelink, Aurora, or any number of other organisations, you have to answer many questions about yourself to prove that you are the genuine article.
Indeed, it seems these days that nothing is allowed to be taken at its face value. And proof of authenticity, proof that anything and everything is genuine, has become the order of the day.
2. A First Century Reality
But if I were to tell you that this was peculiar to the twenty-first century, then I’d be quite wrong. Because as the background to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians indicates, the question of whether the Christian faith was real was very much the order of the day. People required proofs that faith was genuine, and particularly within the local church. And they were looking for supernatural signs to prove that it was real.
As a consequence this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, dealing with the issue of what makes a genuine church, makes some very interesting reading.
B. THE MARKS OF A GENUINE CHURCH
Because Paul basically summarised how one can be sure that the church, as represented by the local congregation, could be proved to be genuine. And he suggested that the proof could be discovered in two ways:
1. Proclaiming Jesus is Lord (1-3)
And the first proof was whether, within the church, there were people who were proclaiming that “Jesus was Lord.”
Now the idea behind this, wasn’t that it was some sort of formula that people said when they met other believers. It wasn’t a creed that people said off by rote. This was a public confession of a personal faith in a living saviour. It was believers telling non-believers—telling people outside the church—what Jesus had done for them and what he meant to them. In other words, this was a public admission of commitment to Jesus, his gospel, his church, and his mission. And in those days, this would have meant speaking in a very hostile environment, where people were very suspicious of the Christian faith.
And as far as Paul was concerned, this sort of confession was not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit. So if that was happening, it was proof that the Holy Spirit was dwelling within the particular believer. And because the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, had a burning desire to glorify Jesus, anyone filled with Holy Spirit, could not help but to stand up boldly and proclaim that Jesus was Lord.
On the other hand, if that was not a feature of the local congregation and if Jesus was cursed and not blessed, then that, Paul indicated, would indicate the absence of the Holy Spirit and the absence of faith. It would prove, without doubt, that the local congregation was not genuine at all.
2. Service in the Church (4-5,7)
The second proof, that the church was genuine, Paul suggested, was that within the local congregation there were people who were very active. And, indeed, Paul, indicated three different methods of service that would be present within the congregation.
The first was the practice of exercising gifts, particularly spiritual gifts. And even amongst the members of the Corinthian church this was a controversial issue, the subject of much debate and much division. However, Paul suggested, that whether people felt comfortable or not, the exercise of prophecy, healing, words of knowledge, miracles, etc. would be proof of the genuineness of the church.
The second method of service was the more practical, every day way of caring for one another. They were to be servants to one another and to their neighbours outside of the church. And this would prove the sincerity of the church as well.
And the third method of service would be the involvement of the congregation in using their energies to work—within the Church and without—with the specific purpose of changing lives, transforming relationships, and building up the congregation both spiritually and numerically. And if this sort of thing was going on, then that would be proof that the church was genuine too.
Now it’s important, at this point, to remember that it was not Paul’s intention to give the idea that those three forms were mutually exclusive. Indeed, the distinctions between the three could be very blurred. It’s also important to remember that they were not to be ranked in order of importance, because each one was as important as the other.
What is important, however, is that they were three different methods of service which had common goals. That is, the intentional building up the community of believers and the spread of the gospel. And, if practiced, they were proof that the church, or local congregation, was genuine.
And what made these things prove that the church was genuine? Well, as far as Paul was concerned, it was evidence that that the Holy Spirit was working through his people, enabling the church to embody his presence in the world. And if these three different methods of service were not present in the local congregation, then that would suggest the absence of the Holy Spirit and indicate that the church was not genuine at all.
1. The Corinthians
Now we need to remember what Paul was responding to in his letter to the church at Corinth. And what he was responding to was a growing concern about the reality of the Christian faith, and of the genuineness of the local congregation in particular.
The members of the Corinthian church would have been mainly from a pagan background—and one based on Greek mystery-religions, where spiritual experiences were the norm. Indeed, they expected them as proof that the divine force they followed was genuine. As a consequence, they believed that if no such supernatural manifestations were present then the power of the divinity they were worshipping was suspect.
The Corinthians, therefore, were thoroughly absorbed by all things supernatural. And as a consequence, they needed this firm, wise, corrective, but encouraging advice from Paul.
2. Our Background
But our background is very different. We have an emphasis, in our culture, of doing away with God, and on concentrating on the things we can do for ourselves. We live in a society that often shows only lip service to all things religious. We live in a world where everything is questioned and tested to see whether it is genuine (which is probably not a bad thing). Except for the fact, that trying to explain away the mysterious and supernatural has become the order of the day.
And, yet despite that, the response that Paul gave the Corinthians regarding the proofs of the genuineness of the Christian faith, and the genuineness of the local church, are just as relevant today as they were in the first Century.
The answer is still the same. The marks of the genuine church are still that members will be involved in standing up publicly, proclaiming that Jesus as Lord, and actively being involved in the life of the church. And they will be active through the exercising of God’s gifts, through the practical every day serving of one another, through activities which at their heart have the spread of the gospel in mind.
And that, of course, leads us to the obvious question. If the proofs that the Church is genuine involves the church doing those things, who precisely is it who is that is required to do them?
1. Proclaiming Jesus is Lord
Well, regarding standing up in a hostile environment and declaring the faith and what Jesus means to us, the answer is all of us—every single person who has committed their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. And in a sense that is natural for any Christian. Because the Holy Spirit that dwells in us has a burning desire to glorify Jesus at every opportunity.
The practical reality, however, is that even with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Christians find it hard to be obedient to God. It’s not easy making yourself vulnerable. Nerves, feeling out of one’s depth, not knowing what to say, fear of the unknown, never having done it before, wondering about possible reactions, and fear of repercussions, can be very powerful disincentives to allow the Spirit to use us in the different situations and opportunities that come our way.
However, if we give in to all this pressure there are also a number of consequences. Because we not only deny God (and his Holy Spirit), we also restrict our own spiritual growth. At the same time, we also put a nail in the coffin of the local church. Because it’s very hard for people outside the church to see that the local congregation is genuine if its members do not demonstrate the conviction of their beliefs.
2. Service in the Church
And, just as the answer to standing up and being counted is all of us, so is the answer to service in the church as well.
Paul’s words were quite specific: “There Spirit is one, but there are a variety of gifts. The Lord is one, but there are a variety of ministries. God is one, but there are a variety of activities” (4-6a). And then he came to his conclusion: “Yet the one God works all things in all people” (6b).
In other words, every believer should exercise service in the church in those ways. Yes, we may be different people, and God may give “to each person as he wishes” (11b). But regardless of that, the exercise of each of those three aspects of service—the exercising of God’s gifts, the practice of service, and participation in transforming lives—should be evident in every believers’ life.
Of course, not coming from a culture like that of the Corinthians—where there was an expectation of the supernatural—may mean that many in the church today will want little to do with the more controversial spiritual gifts. Nevertheless, God did not just endow us with certain abilities at our physical birth, but he endowed us with new abilities at our spiritual birth too.
And if we start to pick and choose, and only exercise the things that we are comfortable with, then again, we will not only deny God (and the Holy Spirit), but we will also restrict our own spiritual growth, and put another nail in the coffin of the local church. Because it’s very hard for people outside the church to see that the local congregation is genuine if its members cannot put their faith into action.
a). Those on the Fringe
Now obviously the church attracts a variety of people. Apart from people of faith, there are enquirers—people who are not believers but who want to know more about the faith. There are people who simply like the traditions and customs. There are those who want to support the church so it will be there for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And there are those who like its physical presence—the building—because it gives them piece of mind.
However, the question of whether a church is genuine or not, is not about any one of the non-biblical extras. It’s about the people who stand up (or should be standing up) for what they believe.
b). Fund Raising
Similarly, there are many activities in the church these days. And one of the most common would have to be fundraising. (And, indeed, finance was an issue in the Corinthian church as well). And yet important as some might think that to be, the question of whether a church is genuine or not, is not about fundraising at all. It’s about the spiritual activities, the exercise of gifts, the care of others, and the spreading of the message of the gospel.
As a consequence we need to belong to a church that is genuine and is seen to be genuine. And we should not allow the advice that Paul gave to the church at Corinth go totally unheeded.
So whether we like it or not, we live in a world where there is a need to prove that things are genuine. And the church is not exempt from that.
When people look at the Christian faith, and at this church in particular—either within or without—what they are looking for is proof that we are genuine.
So, do we meet Paul’s criteria for a genuine church? Do we have people who stand up for what they believe—who openly speak out about their faith—even in outside situations where people can be quite hostile? Do we have people who are prepared to tell others just who Jesus is and what he means to them? And in our congregation, do we have people actively involved in serving God, exercising their spiritual gifts, being involved in caring for others, and taking their place in bringing others to Christ?
And not just do we have people among us who do these things. But do we all do them—–every single one of us—everyone who confesses a saving faith in Jesus?
Because those are the features of a genuine church. And if they are not features of our church, then we’re in danger of not being the genuine article at all.
Posted: 25th January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
1 Corinthians 12:1-11