Recently I saw this post on a blog: “The Apostle Paul was never a member of one church and one church only.” Other people who posted to the comment section quickly agreed with the statement.
Here’s a cultural truth: we bring to our reading of scripture whatever values we currently hold. Our eyes and hearts are sensitized to recognize the things we already agree with, and to ignore those things which run counter to our convictions (and yes, I will readily acknowledge that I do it, too).
And here is a cultural challenge for those who live in North America: part of taking the yoke Jesus offers is our continued association with other believers. This association is more than friendship—it is a calling to become part of the people of God. When God graciously saves us, he also has a plan to plant and nurture us.
The first three verses of Acts chapter 13 are clear beyond cultural leanings—Paul and Barnabas were fully invested in the body of believers at Antioch. The church in Antioch was a powerful testimony of a multi-ethnic community that embodied the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Just look at the very diverse list of people in leadership at Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas were a part of a leadership team who heard the voice of the Spirit together and, even after hearing, prayed and fasted together before ordaining two of their own to mission the “mission field.” Then to drive the point home the Scripture reports that at the end of this journey Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church and gave a report of what God had done (Acts 14: 26-28).
From time to time someone I don’t know comes to me at our church—I’m one of the pastors—and says to me, “I need a ‘covering’ for my ministry. Will your church be my covering?” My response is usually something like “Yes! We’re all about releasing people into their calling and ministry. Why don’t you hang out with us for six months or so and we’ll consider laying our hands on you and asking for God’s blessing on your calling.” It only takes about two weeks, and usually that guy is gone!
Is six months too long to get to know someone and—together—to affirm God’s calling on someone? How about ten-to-fourteen years? Depending on how you read Galatians, Paul indicates that he was a part of his local church for a considerable length of time. Take just a moment and compare Acts 11: 19-26 with Galatians 1:11 - 2:5. These two passages show a man possessed by the sovereign call of God, who displayed radical obedience to the voice of the Spirit, and still respected the Church. I’m willing to give way to an interpretation that comes up with the shortest possible length of time, but that’s still more than a decade. And then there’s always the danger of comparing ourselves to Paul, the giant of the faith who influenced Christianity more than anyone other than Jesus Himself.
It’s true that the Apostle Paul had a unique and powerful ministry on the road. It is also true that he did more than “preach the gospel.” The record of the book of Acts and the epistles is that he planted churches. Everywhere he went he shared the good news of Jesus and, significantly, established bodies of believers to provide a context for living out the gospel. Each of his letters testifies to this second fact—establishing churches. Even the letters to Timothy and Titus are about corporate church life. That leaves only the letter to Philemon, which was likely read out loud in front of Philemon’s home church.
So are pastors simply those who are out to prevent people from following God’s sovereign call? It must be recognized that there are probably pastors out there like that. But most are trying their best to follow a Biblical model of church-life as they understand it. Even if local church leadership is lacking in some way, should we ignore the example of Scripture just because other people have not fulfilled their roles?
Part of Spirit-led Bible study is to ask for the grace to open our hearts to His value system, not ours. And in North America and Europe, we should be on guard against Biblical interpretations that simply affirm our biases. It is deeply ingrained in our culture: "be yourself." But Jesus came not only to save us for heaven, but to save us from ourselves.
Here’s my prayer: “Gracious Lord and Savior, please save us from being ourselves.”
One of the reasons I like watching the “reality shows” on TV is that compared to those people my life seems pretty squared away. It’s too bad that there aren’t any shows like that about churches, so I could compare the “reality church” to my own congregation.
Actually, there is a place observe struggling churches that don’t have it all together. It’s the New Testament. This history book of the early church shows things the way they really were, complete with greedy people, religious crazies, hurt feelings, and racial prejudices—and these are the good guys! It’s one of the reasons I love the scripture so much: it casts a cold hard stare on its subjects.
For example, take the church in Corinth. There are plenty of Biblical resources available if you’re interested in a real “reality show.” The church in Corinth was a crazy mix of spirituality, worldliness, excess, and beauty. In others words a church very much like the most churches in North America today.
The church in Corinth started off with a bang, God himself spoke to the apostle Paul in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t give up on this town,” God said. “I have a lot of people here.” (Acts 18: 9-10)
So “Apostle Paul” unpacked his suitcase and became “Pastor Paul” for a year and a half. Can you imagine having Paul of Tarsus, the towering colossus of Christianity as a pastor? This church must have been a model church right? Well, not exactly.
Paul invests 18 months of his life in these people, and then moves on to continue planting churches. Imagine the quality start the church in Corinth received: a year and a half of the very best in ministry, miracles, and teaching. But after he leaves, Paul gets a note from the folks who meet at Chloe’s house, “Paul, there are few problems here we’d like to ask you about.”
A few problems? Let’s make a partial list:
• Believers in Corinth were “choosing sides” concerning who was the best spiritual leader: some said Paul, some Peter, some Apollos, and the really spiritual people said, “I only follow Jesus!”
• A regular attendee of the church was sleeping with his father’s wife (yikes!). Everyone who attended the church knew about it, but no one was doing anything about it.
• Church members were racing each other to courts of law because they couldn’t settle their disputes between one another inside the church.
• There were major arguments over who should eat what kind of food, and why.
• People were getting drunk at communion or the equivalent of a church “pot luck” dinner (I know that sounds hard to believe, but you can look it up: I Corinthians 11: 20 -21).
• And we haven’t even touched on problems like worship services that were pretty strange: spiritual gifts, spiritual pride, arguments about dating, and incorrect views of the resurrection!
I don’t know where you go to church, but even the worst church in my town doesn’t come close to this list of problems in Corinth. If I want to gawk at a bunch of immature believers, I don’t even have to leave home. I can just open up my Bible and read about the church in Corinth.
Now, you might think that Paul wouldn’t have anything good to say to these believers. He had labored hard for a year and a half, and this was the fruit? What kind of words would he have for them?
“I always thank God for you . . .”
“You have been enriched in every way . . .”
“You do not lack any spiritual gift . . .”
“He will keep you strong until the end . . .”
And these words are just from the greeting in the letter—the first nine verses. Perhaps Paul was just “being nice,” or diplomatic—except this is Paul writing Holy Scripture, and I don’t think the Apostle Paul told polite white lies.
What lessons can we learn from a terrible church?
For one, Paul didn’t give up on them. There was a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Paul was committed to them the rest of his life.
Second, even though they questioned Paul’s position and authority, Paul responded with a passion that reflected his true fatherhood. “You really are my children,” he said. Even though they were unfaithful to him, he remained faithful to them.
Next, Paul continued to teach patiently. Even the greatest church-planter in history had things to fix. If someone like Paul can produce a church like Corinth, perhaps we should cut some slack towards pastors who don’t rise to the level of super apostle.
Finally--and this is the most challenging to me--Paul let them continue to operate even though they were making mistakes. If I had started a church that later went crazy with spiritual gifts, I think I would have been tempted to write to them: “Everybody stop! You’re doing it wrong! Just cut it out until I get there, then we’ll talk about it.” But Paul said, “Tongues are good, prophecy is good, and don’t forbid them.” Even though they were doing it wrong! The answer to the misuse of spiritual gifts isn’t to shut them down; it is to teach them up.
The church in Corinth is reality-TV written down for us in the Bible, and if they can go down in history (and scripture) as a that church God loves, a church to whom God speaks, and God nurtures, why can’t our churches be the same?