“I doubt if there is a more pressing and urgent issue for the church today than determining ‘what are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards.’ Or to put it in other words, what is the nature of true spirituality and those features in the human soul that are acceptable in the sight of God?” (Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit)
Sam Storms is a gifted and insightful preacher. His skill as a scholar and writer is certainly in view in the above quote. I think the quote is all the more useful given the “recent unpleasantness” in Reformed circles. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, rejoice, and find something else to read in joyful ignorance.)
The current controversy over “Federal Vision” is so disheartening. The theological issues at stake–election, justification, and the nature of covenant–are serious. They warrant both careful investigation and the courage to act. Unfortunately, most of the current “dialogue” is characterized neither by care, nor courage. Least of all do I see much love from posters who seem more like the crew of the Enola Gay than elders of the church. I respect men on both sides, but I have to admit I’m ashamed at the tone this discussion has taken. It reminds me of two things:
-a Violet Burning song from back in the day: “Love Is the Loaded Gun.” The chorus said “Love is the loaded gun / Let me point it at everyone.” I like the song, but there’s something unsettling about love as a weapon, pointed at anyone. But I can imagine some of these guys (have even read things that suggest it) thinking, “We’ll give ’em love, all right, both barrels.”
– the movie Saved, which shows the “Christian” protagonist throwing a Bible at her reprobate friend and shouting, “I am full of the love of Jesus!” The friend replies, “This [the Bible] is not a weapon.” The movie is propaganda, sure, but that hits a little too close to home.
Which brings me to the substance of the current post. I’ve been writing curriculum recently, and the topic has been 1 Corinthians. That book has to do with exactly what Storms notes above: the nature of true spirituality. One might also ask, “What does a true, spiritual, Christian person look like?” In other words, are there behaviors that denote spirituality in an absolutely reliable way, such that we can identify the folk on “our team” with certainty?
This question isn’t a softball for any side. Neither is it a throwaway question. In the life of the Corinthian church, it had become crucial to their continuing worship, to both their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To put it mildly, only a few years of existence, barely out of the starting gate, and the church was already in a bad way.
The situation, briefly, seems to have been this. First, factions had arisen in the church around allegiances to teachers, apostles, and Christ himself. Paul mentions himself and Cephas (Peter), but he also mentions Apollos. Acts tells how this “eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” had been teaching and preaching the message of Jesus, but only including the baptism of John (i.e., a baptism of repentance). After some time with the dynamic duo, Priscilla and Aquila, he became an even more formidable apologist for Christ throughout Achaia, including Corinth (Acts 19:1). His work had clearly been fruitful there, since some considered him their pastor or “rabbi.”
While Paul doesn’t make this explicit, it isn’t difficult to imagine one faction saying to another, “Listen, you’ve got it all wrong. This is what it means to be a Christian.” And that faction saying either, “We’ve got it wrong? Look at those jokers!” or “Who made you the boss of me?” And going back and forth, it’s less difficult to imagine things getting pretty nasty around First Church of Corinth. In any case, Paul got word of these “quarrels” from some people in Chloe’s household.
Compounding this struggle (or giving rise to it?) were several moral and ethical dilemmas:
1) sexual immorality, possibly related to religious prostitution;
2) godly conflict resolution (lawsuits in pagan/secular courts); and
3) Christian living in a pagan society, particularly what to do about sacrificed meat.
Paul had dealt with some of these in an earlier communication (5:9 says he wrote a letter), but he goes into more depth since the Corinthians hadn’t gotten it. For instance, he had explained the need to separate from immoral people, but the Corinthians had either ignored his command, or the faithful had been overwhelmed by a powerful element in the church. Either way, the problem persisted. All these things made “true Christian spirituality” an even more potent issue.
Outies, not Innies. So what does Paul conclude about this? (I’m looking only at 1 Corinthians here.) First, the Corinthians had externalized spirituality. They had made the so-called manifestation gifts (especially tongues) a litmus test for authentic faith, perhaps also for church leadership. In addition, they seem to have denigrated the other gifts in favor of those gifts.
In contrast, Paul said, the gifts are equal works of the same Spirit. And they are all given for the same purpose: to build the church. Far from condemning these gifts, Paul says they are essential to the life of the body. This includes the gift of tongues–the “shock and awe” gift, if you will–but also less “glamorous” gifts–like prophecy and teaching and administration. But they must be exercised with the whole body in mind. Which brings me to point #2.
Exaltation, not Edification. Second, they used the gifts for their own self-interest, to exalt themselves, rather than the whole body, to build up (edify) the church. The results of the Corinthians’ conceited approach included envy and despair. Some desired to be a hand, not a foot, or vice versa. And some might despair of their place in the church and assume they were second-class citizens of the kingdom. Their divisions were thus more marked than ever.
But the gifts aren’t meant for such selfish use. Tongues can edify the individual, sure, but Paul subordinates that goal to community edification (14:5). Paul even suggests that his flock grow up in their thinking about spirituality. None of Paul’s letters puts the underlying principle better than Philippians: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look inot only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Let Love Rule. Sandwiched between Paul’s description and defense of the gifts, and his exhortation about their use in public worship, lies the hinge on which the doors of the church remain wide open. Love, Paul writes, is “a still more excellent way” (12:31). The things the Corinthians had been doing–in their divisions, in their lack of discipline and sexual immorality, in the food/idols controversy, and even in their exercise of the Spirit’s good gifts–had made the way of love a battleground, and few of his addressees seem willing to fight.
But he ends the letter with a powerful exhortation: “Let all that you do be done in love” (16:14). This is not to say that churches cannot discipline the flock, or even put someone out of fellowship. Both of these are deeply biblical responses to unrepentant sin in a community of believers. But even these “nuclear options” should be taken in love, with the requisite sorrow for those involved.