If the warning theme of the Old Testament was idolatry, then false teaching would be the central warning in the New Testament. Paul cautions and gives counsel to such warnings, defending the truth to the many creative ways people distorted Jesus and His message, particularly from those who did not have eyewitness accounts of Jesus and his teachings. Paul had an eyewitness account of Jesus who revealed Himself on the road to Damascus, diminishing all doubt in the apostle’s mind that the Messiah had come.
Paul embarks on his legendary mission journeys which fall into three trips between AD 46 to 57. He travels to Asia Minor and Greece eventually ending up in Rome in AD 60. Total travel miles calculated at 10,282 miles takes about 1285 eight-hours a day to walk. Paul, of course, stopped, rested, visited and planted churches. His ministry spanned a little more than thirty years of his life.
In this letter, Paul is in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, responding to a disturbing report of quarreling within the Corinthian Church challenging his apostolic authority from the false apostles who moved onto the scene. The report came from Chloe, a prominent church member, and Titus.
It has been said that the best part of the church is the fellowship of the people, and the worse part of Church is in the fellowship of people. The recurring biblical theme continues: God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chooses the lowly things of this world, the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1Cor. 1:27-29).
Paul planted this church in Corinth. The church ministry was beginning to corrode with misconduct on a variety of fronts in a city of that era with encroaching cultural lifestyle without thought to the consequences. Monogamy and chastity were not upheld, particularly with the new converts. Paul provides a written model for church conduct and how to handle the worldview pushing its way into the church. Paul’s ultimate response can be found in his immortal verse on love, which is a classic cited at weddings today. He reminds us (paraphrasing) that love is patient, kind, does not envy nor boasts, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking and does not easily anger nor keep score. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth, always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Love never fails…. And now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1Cor. 13: 4-13). He also reminds believers of the coming advent of Jesus (1Cor. 15:20-24) with words concerning lives lived not worthy of a Christian.
St. Mother Teresa suggests a way to love each other, “Do not think that love, to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”
What better way to deal with “people” challenges than through love? Once dealing with a difficult person, I consciously made a decision chose the route of love through my communication. If given a choice I would not have chosen to associate with her, however, sometimes, that option is not always feasible. When I initiated conversation with her, I got into the habit of praying for her beforehand. Admittedly after the conversation, I would remind myself (emphatically) that I (and Jesus!) cared about her. I used to put a post-it note in front of me on the wall I was facing while on the phone with her with the command: “Love Donna!”. In praying for someone I perceived unlovable, I asked Jesus to love Donna through me. Serendipitously, my heart did begin to soften, and working with her became easier. Prayer does not change others; it changes the person who is praying and how they see the world. The mystic and Muslim poet Rumi said, “I wanted to change the world. Today I am wiser, so I am changing myself.”
If you could see God today, who or what would you see? St. Augustine further asks, “What sort of face does love have? What shape is it? What size? What hands and feet does it have? No one can say. And yet it does have feet, those feet that carry people to church and walks in faith and not just in talk. It does have hands, that reach out to the poor. It has eyes, those through which we consider and respond to the needy: ‘Blessed is the person,’ it is said, ‘who considers the needy and the poor.’”
The word love is an elastic word stretched to mean many things (i.e. “I love red shoes!”). The ancient Greeks added to the discussion of love with their seven terms (agape, philia, storge, Ludus, storage, pragma, philautia and eros) to defining its types.
Agape love is the unconditional one that sees beyond the outer surface and accepts the recipient for whom they are, regardless of flaws, shortcomings, or faults. It is the love God has for us.
Philia love is an affectionate yet platonic love. It is a committed and deliberately chosen kind of love. It’s the one we hold for siblings. I would go so far to say even for our pets.
Storge is defined as the love between parent and child. This love can extend easily into Agape with its aspect of unconditional love. It too is a form of philia love, with traits that include acceptance and empathy.
Ludus love is a playful one like between children, young lovers and even fun-loving adults (like strangers dancing together). Pragma love is the longstanding or mature love that develops between long-married couples. Philautia is the love of self. This type of love can go one of two ways: to narcissism or to a healthier balanced version of self-love like taking care of yourself.
Eros is typically associated with a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic notions. Eros misdirected is lust, love pointed in the wrong direction. Plato expands on the definition of eros to include the appreciation for the beauty within (not just the physical or outside) of a person, to a sensitive appreciation other beautiful things. This includes an appreciation for music, art, being in nature, the art of creating, or watching random acts of kindness. Eros acknowledges the beauty of things. Plato suggests that this sensually (gratification found through all the senses) based love can reach a spiritual plane of existence of finding a truth that leads to transcendence. Who hasn’t gotten lost in the wonder of a sunrise or sunset, a flower, a beautiful painting, or music? Nature is one of the ways of general revelation, along with common grace as mentioned in the last chapter, where God reveals himself and provides for everyone. It’s his orderly provision of sun and rain, for plants, food, and eventually for mankind.
The eros love experience when transcending to something beautiful is satisfying. It helps expIains how those who are called to it take vows of celibacy. They experience eros love just like everyone else. Eros is commonly thought of as erotic love because that reference is more popular and attention-grabbing.
When it all comes down to it, a life without love for mankind is a waste. Rumi asks, “Should I look for spiritual love or material or physical love? Don’t ask yourself this question. Discrimination leads to discrimination. Love doesn’t need any name, category, or definition. Love is the world itself.”
Agape love is the kind Paul describes in the 1Corinthians letter as one to aspire. The other kinds of love will blend their way into the many facets of love throughout the different seasons of a married relationship, making the rapport and developing a bonding developed beyond our imaginations. It is not surprising how many people think, in the most common use of the word eros, that when this kind of love tapers off (often initially experienced in the stages of courtship or during the honeymoon) that the love is gone. It is not. Love exists in many hues and shades, transcends into the other types of love, then back again, reaching toward agape love towards the other.
A follow-up letter to the Corinth churches speaks to the same problems that continue to grow greater than what was experienced in other early churches. He writes in hopes of offering a remedy for the church. The advice is so sound it has become timeless for other churches who may find themselves in the same situation.
Specifically, 2Corinthians addresses the false self-ascribed apostles who are becoming widespread. One category of false teaching was this depiction of the Divine Man or Super apostle that place more emphasis on charisma than on the message of Jesus. More self-glorification than Jesus’s glorification. Parts of this letter, found in chapters 10-13, refer to Paul’s “painful letter” (2Cor. 2:3–4, 7:8). Scholars think there were four letters written to the Corinthians but only two preserved (1Cor. 2:1-5, 5:9-13). It’s presumed the contents are in defense of his ministry and credibility. Theological commentary on the painful letter topic is speculated to addressing sexual immorality between a son and a stepmother in the church.
Paul’s ministry was not remotely associated with leisure travel as he was persecuted, tortured, imprison and probably in perpetual physical pain. Legend has it he was short (does this make him quick as well as quick-witted?) hooked nose (sign of royalty?), his eyebrows met in the middle (a unibrow in vogue?), balding, and bowed legged (creating a firm stance of conviction?), and very muscular according to a document found in AD 150. This description is given by Titus to described Paul so another could identify him for a first meeting. Paul was not what today standards would call attractive, although for them he had attributes (listed in the parentheses) that were redeeming when compared to other Roman leaders. I can easily imagine, though, how the “Super Apostles” mocked and tore him down.
Question: What if Paul did not have a physical pain in his side as conjectured previously but instead these false prophets were the “thorn in his side” (today’s version of calling someone “a pain in the neck”)? It is another twist of thought or a trajectory of interpretation, about Paul’s lingering thorn. He asks God to remove false prophets, but God refuses. Paul knows God is sovereign and in control even in his sufferings. Paul states, “Therefore I am well content…for in Christ when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor. 12:10).
Sooner or later, there will be people trouble in the church body with petty infighting or power struggles. The relationships in the church’s life should be above what is found in the real world. The church is to be a sanctuary, more than just the name of the room in a church, but a place to go that shelters while equipping believers for ministry to the world. Churches have in-house squabbles that often spill outside its doors and onto media headlines.
Another place we can find ourselves in is the Christian or church bubble. As much as I would prefer to associate with like-minded (particularly morally) people, we are not called to stay inside this bubble as the OT Hebrews tried to unsuccessfully do when they were called to be God’s chosen ones. I admit I can see the attraction of living separately from the world at times. Yet a challenge arises from being too comfortable in life it becomes a stumbling block to personal growth (sanctification), it robs us of our strength and dependence on God. A friend, in a successful career within a para-church organization, decided to apply for employment to another company that was in secular business. She reasoned that everyone she worked with was saved, all her associations were in this Christian bubble. She felt she was in a mutual affirmation society. She felt she had gotten too comfortable. She decided to step out in the mission field of secular corporate America to make an impact on God. She ended up hosting a Bible study during lunch hours at the new company and volunteered to do an in-house newsletter on the multiple studies that grew and the community service that came out of it.
Words attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer include “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the cross He was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause, He has come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So, the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”
What does the homogeneous of people showing up in the church pews say? Does everyone look the same? What is the majority age of attendees? Or is the population of the pews such that there is no sign of the downtrodden and marginalized found in our communities? What does this say about our comfort level? A hindrance in worship communities can come from fear of experiencing too much change or growth too fast.
Struggles strengthen faith muscles because it turns us to God. Contemporary musician, Laura Story lyrics in her song Blessings asks, “What if the trials in life is mercy in disguise?” To be at your wit’s end when attempting to be that self-made person, to know you have come to the end of yourself; leaves nowhere else to turn except to Him. It is one of the ways God makes Himself real. In this process, the Holy Spirit becomes more alive within us, and we sense Him teaching, guiding, and shaping us. Occasionally, Pastor used to say while preaching something that was hard to hear that if he was stepping on anyone’s toes, it may be because their toes were in the way.
A period of special growth occurred when I struggled with my church. I was transitioning out of a volunteer leadership role I was vested in, mentally and spiritually. Unaware of the continuing growth or solutions going on behind the scenes once I left that role, I started to grumble after worship services on the way home from church about what was wrong with this or that. Not a lot but enough that my kids took up my grumbling gauntlet and did likewise. As the saying goes, “out of the mouths of babes,” I heard myself. I knew I either we had to shut up with the negativism and give things time to work itself out or confront the situation. One thing we did was periodically visit other churches worship services on Sunday morning.
One Sunday, my youngest was indignant about not being in our home church. When I reminded her to participate in the service at this church, as she normally would, her response was a glare. I tried again asking why she was not participating in the worship. She quickly said, “Because God isn’t here. He’s in our church.” I had the presence of mind to refrain from laughing because I knew she missed her friends, familiarity, and format of our home church.
If that was not enough of a hint during this period, we were volunteering as hosts for speakers at a camp in Colorado. This camp became an annual family ministry for about eight years with our family made up of a half dozen serving during the summers and winter holidays. One of the role requirements in this context was to attend to and meet the needs of the weekly guest speaker. At dinner one night, we inappropriately complained about our church situation to the speaker in attempts to make conversation. This speaker agreed with us and told us we were right in our opinion and for church shopping. He instructed us to leave our church and find the perfect one. He then added when we do find it to please let him know.
Meanwhile, back home, the Sunday morning grumbling hadn’t ceased. To try and rectify this, I took the message of Matthew 18:15 to heart. Instead of talking about some action in a negative light, let us talk to them directly. As a family, we scheduled an appointment with the pastor.
Slowly, each one of the children backed out, shying away from going to that appointment and confronting the pastor, so it ended up just being their parents. I told Pastor I felt there were those in the church getting too critical of what we were or were not doing. The backstory was an innocent mistake of over-scheduling our participation in different worship services on the same day (lecturing in one, singing with the choir in another, and then acolyting in another service). When our family showed up late that fateful Sunday overlooking the earlier commitment, I was teasingly reprimanded about missing one of our obligations. I was embarrassed. To cover up my mortification, I asked if it was communion Sunday. When told yes, I said, “Good.” I was going to go through twice for what I was thinking. What I wanted was more understanding of why it happened, not a reprimand. There was enough blame to go around about who was responsible for the overbooking and not catching it.
At the scheduled appointment, the pastor graciously explained that he thought the real angst was in our transitioning out of our volunteer church leadership positions. Nature abhors a vacuum and the empty space eventually fills up with something. Because we took a break and did not fill it, negativity set in because we did not fill that gap of time. Before, I saw the hard work behind the scenes and now could no longer see the progress behind those doors. Pastor acknowledged not being able to see what it took to get our rowdy bunch out the door all at the same time, which only happened on Sunday morning. The other mornings during the week we each had different daily departing schedules which made things somewhat easier.
He then made an interesting proposal based on a cognitive psychology theory: for the following six weeks all of us, himself included, would deliberately be more supportive, understanding and kind to each other on Sunday morning. He acknowledged it would feel fake at first, but then we would develop a habit, would not recognize we are doing it then it would become a natural part of us. From this episode in my life, I learned a lot. It is better to confront an issue privately with a commitment to work through instead of perpetuating an issue by making one-sided accusations and conveying the wrong message about the fellowship of the church.
It is a personal decision to find the right church to attend and there are many extenuating circumstances in those decisions. One aspect of that decision shouldn’t be that a church meets all our individual needs. We may think we are church shopping, looking for the right church. Meanwhile, God has already selected the worship community we should attend. Believers are ambassadors for Christ (2Cor. 5:20) and represent that to the world as well as within the walls of the church.