Who is the Church?
Church, Division, Conflict
Over the last several months I have had opportunity to visit with a number of people who attend various churches in the area. It’s always fun to visit with these people and learn what other churches are doing (we get some good ideas from others). However, it seems lately that many of our conversations have focused on the problems that exist in these churches. There are church splits, people dissatisfied with the leadership of the church, and even occasions where people are trying to get rid of some of the lay leaders in the church.
These conflicts inevitably rob people of the peace that God intended us to have. They pit friend against friend and people who once sang about being one in the spirit suddenly are plotting against each other. Many of you have been scarred by some kind of conflict or division in your past. You understand those who say, “I love Jesus, but I hate the church”. This is not the way our Lord intended things to be.
When Jesus prayed His High Priestly prayer on the night he was betrayed (recorded in John 17) he repeated a simple request: “May they be one; may they be brought to complete unity” (John 17:11, 20, 22, 23). Four times Jesus mentioned this desire for the people of the church to work together.
The reason we are starting this new series in 1 Corinthians is to try to avoid division and find the unity that our Lord prayed for. I’ve titled the series: “Solving Problems in the Church” because the letter to the Corinthians was written to address issues and questions in the church in Corinth.
In Acts 18 we read some of the background of the founding of the church in Corinth. We read that Paul began the church and spent a year and a half teaching them the Word of God. (Acts 18:11) Paul faced opposition in Corinth and eventually left town. There is an interesting sidelight in Acts 18:17. The Jews had brought charges against Paul and when they were dismissed we are told that the Jews beat up the synagogue ruler, a man by the name of Sosthenes. In verse one of 1 Corinthians we are told that the letter has come from Paul and “our brother” Sosthenes. It is likely that this is the same man; he would have been someone the church in Corinth would have known.
1 Corinthians was part of an extended correspondence that Paul carried on with the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul wrote, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people”. Since Paul had not written this in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians it would seem that Paul had written a letter before the letter we will study. The first letter is lost. In response to that letter the people appear to have responded (cf. 7:1) with a letter of their own with various questions for Paul to address.
This morning we will look at Paul’s introductory words in the first 9 verses. In these words I believe Paul was laying a foundation for the rest of the letter. In Paul’s words he describes the characteristics of those who are to make up the church. As Paul describes the church he touches on several themes we will return to in more detail as we continue our study.
The Church Has a Divine Creation (2a)
Paul addressed his letter “to the Church of God in Corinth”. Immediately Paul emphasized that the church does not belong to a particular board or denomination. It is not MY church or YOUR church. It is HIS church. God has brought us together. We are HIS body on earth. We are brought together by God the Father through the work of Jesus and we are empowered by God through the Holy Spirit. No matter how long we have attended a particular congregation, no matter how much we contributed to various projects . . . it is not our church, but His.
When we forget that “we are not our own but we are bought with a price” we get into trouble. We start to become territorial and feel that the church should function in our timing, should pursue our purpose, and approach things our way. It’s not our church and we need to understand that clearly.
It is Made Up of Those Who Have Been Made New by Christ (v. 2b, 4-5)
Paul addresses his letter “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy”. Paul understands that the church is made up of people who have entered into a relationship with Christ that has changed them. The term “sanctified” means to be set apart for a godly purpose. In one sense we “have been” sanctified. In another sense we “are becoming” sanctified. Let me illustrate.
Suppose you broke a bone that required surgery. In one sense, as soon as the surgery was over you would be repaired. The bone would be realigned and possibly pinned to hold it in place. The break had been repaired. However, in another sense, the repair process had only begun. The bone still would need to knit itself together and there would inevitably be some physical therapy necessary to get your mobility back.
It is that way with a believer. When we put our trust in Christ for our salvation and new life, in one sense we have become holy. We are set apart and declared to be God’s child who has been delivered from sin. However, on the practical side, we are still in the process of overcoming sin. In our experience, we still have not gained victory. We are still in the process of rehab.
The point is that the true church is a group of people that are growing in their relationship with Christ. They have been changed by God’s grace and are continually being changed.
We must make a distinction between those who attend church and those who ARE the church. You can be IN the church without BEING the church.
Let me be as clear as I can. The true believer knows that the way to find new life is through Christ alone. In the first nine verses notice how many times the Lord’s name is mentioned. I count nine times in nine verses! The true Church is the one that is centered on Christ and not some prophet, teaching, experience, or celebrity Pastor. The true church is not those who have joined a cause or embraced a movement . . . .the true people of God are those who have entrusted their life and future to Jesus. Apart from trusting Jesus as your Savior and King, you are not and cannot be a true member of the real church. . . even if you are a member of a local congregation.
Our Identity is Found in Christ and Not in the Label We Wear (v.2c)
Paul described the church is made up of those who are “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ- their Lord and ours”. As we have already pointed out: ANYONE who has called on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and new life is a member of the invisible church of God. They are part of the true community of faith.
However, understand the other side of this statement. If someone has truly put their trust in the saving work of Christ, they are a genuine believer even though
- They have a different political outlook than we have
- They belong to a different denomination
- They read a different version of the Bible
- They worship in a different way
- They view the Baptism and Communion Differently
- They approach a particular doctrine differently than we do
Paul wanted to remind the Corinthians (and us) that what makes a person a true believer is not the label that they wear, the church they belong to, or the acts they have performed. What makes a person a child of God is that they have turned to Jesus as the one who can alone rescue them from their addiction to sin. Do we disagree on some important issues? Yes. These issues should be discussed and even debated because we seek a true knowledge and understanding of God. However, we must understand that these debates are intramural; they are debates between Christians. The debate does not determine who is a believer.
We Have Been Equipped With What We Need to Serve Him (v. 7)
Paul told the troubled church in Corinth that they “do not lack any spiritual gift”. Paul was not saying that every individual in the church possessed all of the gifts of the Spirit that Paul lists later in 1 Corinthians 12-14. He meant that they had everything that it needed to follow faithfully.
Sometimes when you buy some fancy toy for your child or even a less expensive piece of furniture you get all the parts, you get illustrated instructions, and often even with the wrench and/or screwdriver or other tools that you need to get the job done. You did not lack any thing you needed to get the job done. However, you will not get the job done unless you actually read the instructions and use the tools.
It is the same way with the church. God has given us the tools we need to fulfill his purpose. He has given us the people, talents, resources we need to do what God has called us to do. If we are unable to do a certain job it is not because God has not given us what we need. It is either because 1) we are trying to do something God does not want us doing or 2) people are not using the gifts God has given them.
Our Focus Should Be Beyond This World (7b)
Paul said they did not lack any spiritual gift “as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” This is a reference to the Second Coming of Christ. The true people of God serve the Lord diligently in this world but know that their goal is not to create Heaven on earth. Our goal is to point the people on earth toward Heaven. We are looking forward to the time when Christ is revealed to everyone as the great Redeemer and King that He is. Our faith in Christ is not just something anchored to history, it is something that fills us with anticipation for the future.
When we forget that this world is not our home it is easy to get mired down in the things of the earth. It is easy to start fighting about things that don’t ultimately matter.
Our Confidence is in God’s Faithfulness Not Our Ability (vv.8-9)
He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
Finally, Paul reminds the people that their confidence is to be in God’s promise rather than their schemes. We don’t have to fret, push or anything else. God is able to do what He has promised. His timing is perfect.
Many of the problems, conflicts, and casualties that come about in the church is because we feel we need to “make things happen”. When we start pushing we often end up running over people in order to produce “results”. When there is division we feel we have to “win”. We want change and we seem to feel we need to have it right now. We will not be effective because of change . . . we will be effective as we allow God’s Spirit to work freely in us and through us.
Let’s keep in mind that there are churches around the world that meet in primitive buildings, who are led by largely unschooled Pastors, and they lack the polish that we seem to feel is so vital. Yet these churches are filled with the presence of God. They are powerfully impacting communities and seeing thousands come to faith in Jesus Christ. This is happening because God is at work in their midst. They trust Him. They do what His Word says. They seek to be faithful and then watch to see what God can do through them.
We are not limited by the fact that we live in rural America . . . God can use us in ways we can’t imagine. We are not limited because our building is old . . . God’s Spirit is no respecter of buildings! If we want to be most effective we don’t need more STUFF . . . we need more of Him.
As we reflect on these verses I think there are a few lessons we should draw:
1. We must constantly remind ourselves of the characteristics of a true church,
- We belong to God
- We have been made new in Christ
- We are brothers and sisters with all who have trusted Christ
- We have been equipped by God
- We have an eternal focus
- Our confidence is in God and not in our programs, abilities, and power plays
We must remember these things because our goal is to do what He says and to serve as He pleases. Our goal must not be to follow the pattern of the “successful churches” of today but to follow Christ. When we lose sight of who is in charge we begin to drift theologically; we start determining truth based on preference rather than revelation. We start jockeying for position rather than serving with gratitude and humility. We start “pushing” rather than trusting. And we experience division rather than unity.
2. We must continue to remind people over and over that entry into God’s Kingdom is not about the good deeds that we have done, the offices we have held, the reputation we have developed, or the money we have given. Our standing in the household of God is anchored to our response to the offer of forgiveness and grace that God has extended to us in Christ. The question is not: “What Church do you belong to?” The question must always be: “Have you put your trust and hope in Jesus for your salvation?” Our goal is not to encourage people to be like us . . . our goal is to point people to Christ.
3. When conflict arises in a church we must do a couple of things: First, we must confess the sin that led to the conflict. Second, we must examine our own responsibility in that conflict. Are we being petty? Are we stirring the pot? Are we talking about people rather than TO people? We are good at seeing the faults and pettiness of others. However, we quickly look at our pettiness and call it “a matter of principle”.
Conflict in the church is a serious problem. Conflict in the church always stains the reputation of Christ. We must work hard to have a Christlike attitude in all we do.
I hope and suspect that over the next several months Paul will challenge us in his letter to the Corinthians. If we go into this study open to the truth and with a willingness to listen intently and apply his teaching carefully, God will draw us to His own heart. And if He does that, then we can be the kind of church that God wanted us to be . . . one that stand as one, even as Jesus and the Father are one.