15. Built up

This week in our study, the apostle Paul continues his discussion on spiritual gifts. Paul reinforces in chapter 14 that all spiritual gifts are “so that the church may be built up” (verse 5). Over and again Paul emphasizes, “…since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church” (verse 12). In worship, Paul writes, “Let all things be done for building up” (verse 26).

Any time something in the Bible is repeated in a short span of space, we need to take note. Repetition is a literary device used often to drive home a point, and Paul certainly does that here in this letter. In a community like Corinth, diverse peoples express faith and worship in a variety of ways. The temptation to rank or prioritize certain gifts over others is strong, then and now. The measure is whether they build up the church?

14. Tuning our hearts to love

In this New Year, we pick back up this series on the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. This letter was likely written some 20-30 years after the resurrection of Christ to the nascent Christian church in this metropolitan city.

Young and fragile, their divisions over several matters (see earlier posts) threaten to unravel their Christian community. Paul has spent considerable time addressing the particularity of their conflicts but in this famous 13th chapter he moves away from the specific and casts a vision that gives them the foundation for all unity – “a more excellent way” (12:31) for them to be the church

13. Activated gifts

Thus far, Paul has dealt with fairly specific causes for division in the Corinthian church. Now he turns theological about the body of Christ. His ecclesiology (theology of the church) is fleshed out in I Corinthians 12, beautifully: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” 

These verses (4-6) sum up a positive understanding of the body of Christ in every time and place. Paul gives to us a lens through which to see our differences. When it works for the mission of God, a diversity of giftedness serves in a complementary way for the strength of the whole church’s mission. Gifts are given differently to each but unity is found in the God who energizes and brings all of them to life. …

12. At the table, we are one

During the history of the church there have been many expressions of worship.

The early church used the psalms as its prayer and song book and still does in many parts of the world. Worship styles and order often emerged from the culture of the people and still other times heavily influenced by missionaries who evangelized those cultures. Sometimes there has been a colonial element to worship styles as indigenous peoples were more or less forced to conform to the style of the missionary who came from abroad. All along the way many had different opinions as to “true worship.” 

It is tempting in every age and location to think that “we” have “true worship.” …

11. The past as prologue for the future

The apostle Paul consistently reminds the new Christian community—the Corinthians—of their ancestors. Paul roots the Christian message in stories of old.

Chapter 10 starts in that way with Paul recalling the challenges the Israelites had with idolatry. Idolatry is not a term we use much today and it remains a particularly religious term that doesn’t translate easily to other social and secular conversation. Idolatry, in short, means to substitute fake gods for the real God. The past challenges of the people remain ours too. Past is often prologue to future…

10. "I decide, every day..."

This last month, beloved writer, pastor, and theologian Eugene Peterson died. Best known for his paraphrase translation of the Bible he called The Message, Peterson was a wise and forceful teacher. He believed in forming disciplined disciples steeped in the Scriptural tradition. 

One of my favorite of his many books is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. One great nugget of a quote from this book is, “I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily — open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.” 

The life of discipleship, of following Jesus, is understood as a long obedience in the same direction…

9. Food fight

Whoever knew that food could be a source of church conflict? 

That being said, I can think of a few lively impassioned conversations had about church potluck dinners with strong opinions about what the main courses should be, how much dessert to offer, whether there should be a vegan option and so on. Whether wine is served at a church function also comes to mind as quite contemporary. 

So, all of a sudden the Corinthian situation does not seem so remote…

8. Marriage and mutuality

Much of the first letter to the Corinthian church is Paul’s response to letters written to him (see I Corinthians 7). Most of this chapter is concerning the place of human sexuality in the Christian life. While contemporary debates in The United Methodist Church are about who can marry whom, the debate for the early Christians is about whether marriage at all is a good thing for Christian people. 

Paul himself refrains from married life and shares “I wish that all were as I myself am,” that is, single. Here the implication being that single life is more conducive to the person’s undivided attention to a life of prayer and Christian service…

7. When we disagree

The holiness of the church is at the center of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In chapter 6, Paul criticizes lawsuits among believers as a violation of their covenantal life together. Specifically, Paul is addressing those conflicts that could have been settled in the church community but were instead taken to Roman courts for settlement. How do we translate such a teaching today? The issues are complex. 

And yet, I do think there are times when we could bring peace at a personal and micro level among us that would avoid larger entanglements.

6. Sincerity and truth

In the previous entry to this series, Lessons on Unity from a Church in Conflict, based on I Corinthians, we ended with the apostle Paul’s general conclusion about his parental love and concern for them and the special concern he has for their particular struggles.

Chapter 5 launches into one of those very particular concerns — a sexual scandal in the life of that church. It seems that the church has not dealt with the gravity of the situation, so Paul compares it as worse than that which is found among pagans in Rome. This incestuous affair was bad enough, but the church’s toleration or laissez-faire response seems to infuriate Paul.

5. Who is our leader?

“For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

This is how the apostle Paul concludes chapter 3 of I Corinthians. As one commentator has noted about this, “It is foolish to boast in human leaders since God’s ownership of the entire universe is shared with those who have been united with Christ.” 

4. Foundation damages

After spending two chapters of introduction and presenting a healthy description of Christian community, Paul gets precise in chapter 3 in his concern for the Corinthian church’s unity. 

The Corinthians are brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are behaving in “unspiritual” ways with their quarreling and division. With their little allegiances, the people are indicating their immaturity and are acting more as “human people” than “spiritual people” in Paul’s words.

2. Alignments and alliances

After the apostle Paul’s greetings and expressions of confidence in God’s strength for the church, he launches into very specific and targeted concerns. Paul names names. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”  (v. 11). Chloe’s people were likely business persons who had traveled to Corinth and witnessed the church infighting and reported it back to Paul. 

1. Same mind, same purpose

While away on sabbatical earlier in the summer, I began reading through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and it spoke to me in a very contemporary way. The church of Corinth was extraordinarily divided. The Roman empire around Corinth was very complex and had its own conflicts. 

The time we live in is also very divided along many different lines. The Church, in many unfortunate ways, mirrors that culture of division.