If you have had read my previous two posts about Paul’s example of patience, you will have gleaned that I believe that the example he set in his dealings with the Corinthian church is a great example to guide us as we work our way through any controversy. Paul sets another kind of example in those letters, too, in statements such as these:
For our reason for confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that with pure motives and sincerity which are from God – not by human wisdom but by the grace of God – we conducted ourselves in the world, and all the more toward you. (2 Cor. 1:12)
For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity… (2 Cor. 2:17)
…we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God. (2 Cor. 4:2)
I have tried to live up to that standard of integrity ever since I first studied the Corinthian epistles 40 years ago, and it is the standard that I am still striving for as I contribute to current debates. Unlike Paul, my conscience is not clear that I have constantly achieved it. On a number of occasions I have seen in hindsight that something I said or wrote, or some action I took was self-serving or manipulative and I have been ashamed when I realised it. Nevertheless, it remains my aspiration, and it is the standard by which I try to evaluate my words in this blog before I click the “Publish” button.
Paul said (1 Cor. 4:4-5), “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord… [Who] will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts.” Bearing in mind the scrutiny which our motives will receive from the Lord, I value every piece of constructive comment I receive on what I post, and I hope that those who comment value my responses for the same reason.
And, is not Paul’s example one that we should all strive to imitate as we engage in the great controversies of the present time? It is so easy to charge into battle believing one is waving Christ’s banner, only for his searching eyes to see a quite different flag in one’s hand. Let us love one another and let us help one another.
My topic here as in Part I is Paul’s example of patience. To expand this topic further I now need to sketch the sequence of events that occurred around the time of the writing of the two epistles that we know as 1st and 2nd Corinthians. (There were in fact four letters, fragments of some of which may possibly be found in “2nd” Corinthians.)
Paul wrote 1st Corinthians early in his final year at Ephesus, sometime before Pentecost, as we can see from 1 Cor. 16:8. Later, in the third or fourth quarter of the same year, he wrote from Macedonia the letter we have as 2nd Corinthians (see 2 Cor. 7:5).
We can now infer from the content of 2nd Corinthians some other events that must have occurred in between the two epistles.
- Paul learned that his earlier letter had been rejected by the Corinthians.
- To try to deal with the situation, he paid a quick visit to Corinth sometime during the summer months, before he left Ephesus permanently. We know this from 2 Corinthians 13:1, “This is the third time I am coming to visit you.”
- The visit was a painful one: “I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1).
- During that visit, he had indicated that when he finally left Ephesus he would come to Corinth first before going on to Macedonia: “I intended to come to you first so that you would get a second opportunity to see us, and through your help to go on into Macedonia and then from Macedonia to come back to you and be helped on our way into Judea by you” (2 Cor. 1:15-16). However, he subsequently changed his mind and reverted to the itinerary that he had described in 1 Corinthians 16:5-6, because, “I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23).
- On his brief visit, he was treated scornfully by some of the Corinthians, but chose not to use his apostolic authority to silence his opponents immediately, as is apparent from 2 Cor. 10:1, “I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away,” and 10:10, “…some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but his physical presence is weak and his speech is of no account.”
- After he had returned to Ephesus, he wrote the letter he describes in 2 Cor. 2:3-4, “… out of great distress and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears, not to make you sad, but to let you know the love that I have especially for you.” We do not have a copy of that letter, unless some fragments of it have found their way into our “2nd” Corinthians. (As that question does not affect the points I want to argue, there is no need to discuss it here.)
- He entrusted the letter to Titus to deliver to Corinth, and was delighted to learn when he met Titus again in Macedonia that the letter had been effective and the Corinthian church had repented of its errors, as we can see from 2 Cor. 7:6-9.
Look at the example the great Apostle give s us! Bad-mouthed by some of the Corinthians during his brief visit, he does not exercise his supernatural apostolic authority to silence them. He does not yet implement the warning he had given in 1 Cor. 4:19-21, “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing, and I will find out not only the talk of these arrogant people, but also their power. For the kingdom of God is demonstrated not in idle talk but with power. What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” No, he meekly retreats and continues to try to win the Corinthians over by whatever he wrote in the letter that – praise God – was to cause them such fruitful pain.
My previous post drew out from 1st Corinthians that, whatever particular error he was dealing with, Paul exhorted his hearers in the patient confidence that the Holy Spirit was present and able to make his words fruitful. We also saw that he often gave two kinds of corrective teaching, dealing first with the presenting issue as such, but then adding teaching that encouraged his hearers to reconsider the whole issue from the perspective of the body of Christ and their relationship to it.
Knowing that, we can understand why he chose not to make use of his disciplinary power during that summer visit. He still believed that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Corinthians could be won, and he was willing for the sake of the Corinthians and the sake of Christ’s body to accept seeming humiliation in the meantime.
Applying Paul’s Example to the Motion 30 Controversy
Paul was humble, loving and patient. This is the example he gives us in the Corinthian epistles and the example we should surely aspire to.
Some will correctly observe that there was a limit to Paul’s apostolic forbearance. If the final four chapters of our 2nd Corinthians are in their correct place (and I believe they are; these chapters are not the “painful letter” that Paul wrote between our 1st and 2nd Corinthians), a minority at Corinth still opposed him, but Paul would deal decisively with them on his next visit:
This is the third time I am coming to visit you… I said before when I was present the second time and now, though absent, I say again to those who sinned previously and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone…
(2 Cor. 13:1-2)
Paul was patient with the Corinthians, but his patience expired after perhaps nine months. The matters that led to Motion 30 have been under debate for decades; can those who believe themselves correct on these issues therefore appeal to Paul’s example and say, “Time’s up – no more debate”? Perhaps – but only if you can swear that these decades of debate have been carried out in the same spirit of humility and concern for the Church that Paul showed in all his dealings with the Corinthians. In my opinion, that’s not the case – or not the case on a large-enough scale. Instead, I seem to have seen two castles built on opposite hills, with the residents of each castle shouting across the intervening valley, “Repent,” but (unlike Paul) giving the opposing side no sufficient grounds why they should do so. Sufficient grounds in terms of the shouter’s own presuppositions, for sure, but not in terms of the presuppositions of the other side.
An occasional envoy has been sent from one castle to the other, only to be wined, dined, tested against the host’s favourite shibboleth, found wanting and dismissed. An occasional book written in the library of one castle has been read in the library of the other, but principally so its weak points could be identified and the whole dismissed thereby. There has been a pretence of God-fearing debate and dialogue but only a smattering of the real thing.
Or my perception may be totally wrong! I would therefore be glad to be pointed to the records of genuine heartfelt debate and wrestling together over these matters, with each side prepared to recognise, at least in principle, that they might be wrong in this or that point of their platform.
I need to say, finally, that in this posting I have mentioned two castles, but there is of course a third building in the vicinity, the building where the neo-Arians dwell. I believe it is a shanty of wood, hay and stubble and not relevant to this posting; therefore I have ignored it.
The patient way that the apostle Paul dealt with the problems that had arisen in the Church at Corinth gives us an example that can guide us when we think we perceive problems in the Church. His humility shows us the attitude that we, too, should manifest, and his ongoing forbearance gives us an inkling of the time-span over which we also might need to remain patient.
The Starting Assumption
(Note: all Biblical quotations below are from the NET Bible, © 1996-2005 Biblical Studies Press).
Consider Paul’s words that follow immediately after his opening salutation in 1 Corinthians:
I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus. For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge –just as the testimony about Christ has been confirmed among you – so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
Paul is about to enter into a long struggle to correct errors of doctrine and practice that had crept into the Corinthian Church, but he does so from the premise that the Corinthians are true believers in whom the Holy Spirit is working, and that God Himself is committed to enabling them to stand firm. Paul of course personally knows the people of Corinth, but I am convinced from his whole process with the Corinthians that he would have acted in the same with a Church whose people he knew only by reputation.
There is another factor, too, that would have been part of Paul’s understanding from the beginning, even though he does not put it into words until the closing chapters of 2 Corinthians:
…[some] people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness… (2 Cor. 11:13-15)
As is clear from reading the whole of 2 Corinthians 11, Paul does not mean that everyone who is swayed into adopting a pernicious doctrine is him or herself a false apostle. There is a battle for souls going on, during which even some of the saints may be temporarily deceived. The right response is not to excommunicate forthwith every holder of the wrong doctrine but – to the degree that God has laid a responsibility on you – to fight for their soul, even at considerable cost to yourself.
How the Assumption is Played Out
1) Divisions Around Particular Leaders (1 Cor. Chapters 1-4)
Paul describes the error (chapter 1:10-12), then over the next 3½ chapters delivers teaching that aims to call the Corinthians back to their foundation in Christ. He Intermixes reproof with the teaching, and chapter 4 ends with a stern warning, but even there the warning is tempered with love (4:14), and as the saga continues to unfold we discover that Paul will again and again postpone the exercise of Apostolic discipline, hoping instead that the message will get through and those in error will come to their senses.
2) A Heinous Moral Error (1 Cor. 5)
Here, the issue is black-and-white. It is not that the Corinthians have been misled by the spirit of the times, they have run ahead of that spirit and condoned a relationship that even the world around them thinks is scandalous. Paul gives no latitude here; the Corinthian Church is called upon to act immediately and decisively. As usual, Paul couples his injunction with teaching that turns the readers’ eyes back to Christ: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
As we will see over again, Paul’s nouthetic method is not to say, “What you are doing is disgusting – stop it.” Instead he says, in effect, “Please, please see how badly your action injures Christ and harms his body, the Church.” Indeed, if someone refuses to see and does not repent excommunication must happen, but Paul’s first desire is always that we should see.
3) Legal Disputes and Fraudulent Behaviour (1 Cor. 6:1-11)
Much needs to be said about this passage because of the relevance of its final paragraph to the present controversy – so much that I will not try to do so here. I will come back to it in a later posting.
In the meantime, I appeal to readers on both sides of the controversy not to prejudge what I might say!
4) Another Moral Error (1 Cor. 6:12-20)
Here Paul deals with a misunderstanding of what our freedom in Christ means. Yet again, Paul tries to direct his reader’s thoughts to their relationship with Christ, and their debt to Him:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body” – but the immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.
5) Meat Offered to Idols (1 Cor. Chapters 8-10)
Paul approaches this divisive problem in two ways. He does does not challenge the freedom, as such, that Christians have to eat meat that has been offered to idols, a freedom that some in Corinth had clearly grasped and some had not. The first lesson that Paul teaches, therefore, is that we must use such freedoms – if we use them at all – in a way that does no harm to the wider body of Christ: “…by your knowledge the weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed. If you sin against your brothers or sisters in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
Chapter 9 gives us an example of this principle in action, in Paul’s refusal to require financial support from his churches, even though as an apostle to do so he had every right to do so.
Having given in chapters 8 and 9 one important reason for the Corinthians to change their behaviour, Paul then in chapter 10 gives an even more sobering one, in case any in Corinth are tempted to extrapolate their freedom into liberty even to be present at pagan rites:
So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? No, I mean that what the pagans sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
6) Selfish Divisions at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-33)
I will bypass the first part of chapter 11 because of the disagreement that exists about how it applies in the modern church. The message of the second part, though, is clear: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk,” and, “the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.”
Paul’s corrective is yet again to turn his readers’ attention to the fundamentals, this time to the solemn meaning of the sacrament, so that, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
7) Jealousies About Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor. Chapters 12-14)
In chapters 12 and 14 Paul gives teaching that is aimed to correct the Corinthians’ understanding of the function and purpose of the different gifts. In those two chapters, he repeatedly directs the readers’ attention to their part in the body of Christ and their responsibility to it, for example: “God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another.” (12:24-25) and “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12). In those chapters he gives teaching that addresses the specific issue, but he places them either side of what we know as chapter 13, where he gives even more profound instruction; exhortation that is applicable to every eventuality that the Corinthians – or any believer – might meet in their life.
8) Denial of the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)
Here, Paul gives teaching that contradicts the error and couples it with a firm reproof: ‘Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God – I say this to your shame!’ (15:33-34), Nevertheless, he does not demand excommunication of those holding the errant belief. It is evident that he intends to allow time for the readers, even those whose faulty belief and immoral behaviour demonstrate the paucity of their knowledge of God, to reflect on the teaching he has given and mend their belief and their actions.
Do you see a common thread here in the way Paul has approached all of these problems? We are not islands unto ourselves; as believers in Christ, every step that we take and every word that we speak and every sentence we write must be done in an awareness of our relationship and Christ and our interconnectedness with every other believer in His body, the Church. He does not seek mere “tick the right boxes” obedience from his readers; he wants to see them transformed by the renewing of their minds.
Paul dispatched this letter, full of such wise counsel so lovingly framed, and it was not received well. In Part II of this essay, I hope to explore what we can learn from Paul’s actions as he dealt with the ongoing recalcitrance of the Corinthian Church.
[For readers who stumble upon this post without knowing the background, it concerns efforts being made within the Anglican Church of the Province of New Zealand to find a way to allow two practices to coexist within the denomination with regard to the acceptance or not into the Church of couples in faithful same-gender relationships. Motion 30 is a motion that was passed at the Church’s 2014 synod, authorising a Way Forward working party to consider this question.]
Peter Carrell’s July 29 2014 blog post, http://anglicandownunder.blogspot.co.nz/2014/07/of-all-times-to-leave-our-church-now-is.html, discusses a question that had been put to him, “If a majority of the Church decided to adopt Arianism in place of Trinitarianism; would you be happy to accept that stance?” The mention of Arianism provoked my thinking. It seems to me that anyone who subscribes to the view, “God is that which concerns us ultimately – but we do not know what it is” (Tillich, as expanded by Geering), is already functionally an Arian. They have made God (whatever that is) so other and so incoherent that they have silenced the voice of “the God who is there and who is not silent” (to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer). They have replaced the voice of God with their own collective musings.
That led me to reflect that although Motion 30 looks for a way of recognising two integrities as regards the blessing or not of LGBT relationships, there are more than two parties at play in this debate. I believe that the Way Forward working party needs to be aware in its deliberations of all the interested parties, or it will not achieve a recommendation that will stick.
The Anglican/Episcopal communion worldwide and – I expect – in this country has tacitly accepted numbers of neo-Arians into its clergy and its people. Some of the viewpoints considered by the Way Forward working party will reflect that perspective. There is no possible meeting of minds between the conservatives and the neo-Arians. Any two-integrities “solution” that might be seen to validate neo-Arianism will not succeed. If two integrities are to be accepted, each must accept the other as Trinitarian in faith and truly striving to hear and obey the voice of the God who is not silent.
That brings us therefore to the divide between the evangelicals who hold firmly to their understanding of “sola scriptura” and those – typically but not exclusively Anglo-Catholic – who believe along with their evangelical siblings in the truths that are affirmed in the Creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon but who believe that the processes by which God makes his voice heard are more complex than can be encapsulated in the term “sola scriptura.”
These two groups – it seems to me – are united in their desire to uphold the sovereign glory of God and to hear what is truly God’s word, hearing it as a living word but not subordinating it to the fashions of the day. What divides them at present is their doctrine of how that word is discerned: whether the word can be derived in totality from within the pages of scripture or whether the Spirit of God uses other complementary means to move our understanding forward. Our outwardly united Anglican communion already tacitly tolerates two integrities with regard to that question. It has not previously become a potential cause of schism because it has not before brought the two parties to such opposite points of view on such a controversial and publicly visible question as this, the Church’s position with regard to LGBT relationships.
Heretofore, the gospel has been preached and people have come to faith under the ministry of clergy and congregations of both points of view regarding the word of God. God’s work could still be seen to be done and so each party could accept the other even if expressing brotherly criticism of the details of how the other was proceeding. Now, however, we have one party saying to the other, “You are withholding the promise of salvation from some to whom God freely offers it,” and the other party saying, “No, you are holding out a false hope of salvation to some who cannot be saved unless as part of their repentance, they are willing to live a celibate life.”
This is a hugely important difference. No one on either side wants to misrepresent the promises and grace of God, but clearly one side or the other is doing so. Paradoxically, though, this mutual sense of awe-filled responsibility to be true to our God is something that can unite us in mutual respect as we work through the present issue.
It is not the task of the Way Forward working party to resolve as such the different viewpoints regarding the hearing of the word of God. However, if two integrities are indeed to respect each other as Christ-centred integrities, I believe that any Way Forward process that is agreed to must include a commitment to work strenuously together to reach a common understanding of how God’s word is discerned. Without such a commitment, there will only be an ever-widening divergence of practice until the two integrities solution is seen as a sham and we divide.
In summary, there is a strong base for continuing unity where these conditions are true:
* Both parties share a Nicene and Chalcedonian faith as regards the Trinity and the person and work of Christ.
* Each party recognises the other’s reverential fear of misrepresenting the promise of God, and is willing to continue dialogue in that atmosphere of mutual respect.
* Both parties make a commitment to resolve the different viewpoints regarding the word of God into a common understanding.
The great ecumenical councils of the early Church – Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon – defended the faith against errors that in various ways would have silenced God and/or stripped Christ of his eternity. The Church Fathers assumed and used the Word of God in their deliberations, but they did not give us a creed or a synodical letter that summarises what they believed the orthodox doctrine of the Word should be. Can the ACANZP work now to produce a unified statement regarding the word of God – a statement that is scrupulously careful not to destroy the ramparts that those early councils raised, and that will allow us to hear the Word of God together once again?