Fractured: Christianity in Corinth. and my own contribution to the fractured state of the American Church
Beautiful Mornings. Don’t you love them? You wake up early. Hear the birds chirping like they are praising the creator of the universe. You stumble over the pile of clothes, books, and bills at the foot of your bed reaching for the day. You flick the light on in the kitchen, open the fridge and scratch your rear as you smell the creamer that expired two days early. All of this coincides with the inner dialogue you are having with God. You thank him for another morning, confess your deep love and just commune with him in the bliss of your kitchen. The coffee pot beeps letting you know all is perfect in your world. You flip through the pages of your ragged Bible and read something that jars you awake. Something about justice, loving your neighbor, or turning the other cheek. At this you feel inspired and you want to share your profound experience in scripture with the world- on facebook.
And then all Hell breaks loose. Yes, you have just managed to irritate half of the world with a mere statement about Jesus and loving the marginalized. And then the emails begin to flush in. Your blog just got 15 hits by some “heresy hunter” and your Aunt Martha is concerned about your salvation.
The letters always start out the same. They say they love you. They say they care. They say you are going to Hell. You wonder why your world is so fractured. And then you wonder if you are fractured.
You wonder if you are the “prideful idiot” they have called you.
You wonder if you have been rejected because of your heart or because of your choice of words.
Then the super apostles come at you. They send you private messages telling of their great feats and how the “spirit of GAWD” fell in the service last night and how four hundred people accepted Christ as their personal savior. The next letter tells you to “keep up the Good work and to keep focusing on God” even though someone siphoned gas out of the very vehicle with which you minister to the homeless.
Then the text messages start.
“Can you pray for me, my mom told me she hates Gay people, and I think I am a lesbian?”
“ABC church just split up because Pastor Somebody told Bishop So-in-so that he doesn’t believe in the rapture anymore.”
“My medication ran out and I have been having psychotic episodes.”
“My wife is going to leave me because I don’t make enough money.”
Then that one acquaintance from high school you mistakenly gave your cell number to beeps on your phone. You know the one who thinks you are the devil’s advocate. “I hope you turn away from tickling of ears.”
You want to defend yourself to everyone. You want everyone’s life to be better and to get their nose out of your business. After all you are trying to be a pastor and the haters have you locked in their sights! You want to scream bloody hell and murder, call down fire from heaven, and through your credentials out before all these people.
But what good will it does?
Did God not approve you?
Who are these super apostles?
Why are these churches splitting?
Why does everyone use labels to prove their ability to be called pastors and preachers?
And somewhere in the back of your head, you are haunted with your own sense of calling and Pentecostal prophecies from 1999, some random encounter with Jesus Christ and your own talents and skills fractured by your own need for approval and the competition of others in the body of Christ.
Think that sounds crazy? Think it sounds familiar?
This is exactly what Paul would be dealing with in Corinth if it were a modern day city and a modern day church. Paul loved the Church at Corinth so much. But Corinth had its own background that made it a regular “Church of the Misfits.” The four mile thick land mass served as a port and transportation center for the known world. To sail around the jagged rocks of the Mediterranean was to commit suicide. Sailors and pirates alike would dock their ships into port, Lift their goods, or even their ships, onto ancient trailers and pull them across the isthmus back to the Sea. Rome had indeed conquered the world, but not the cultures. They melted together in Corinth, offering the best delicacies of the world and customs of many tribes to any spectator or participant. Philosophy was in its hay-day. Great orators gathered at auditoriums across the land to entertain the masses with their rhetoric. Bronze smiths casted small idols for the faithful. Stone masons and artisans crafted trinkets for temple worship. In modern excavations of the ancient town of Corinth, carved and chisled body parts were found everywhere. It was a practice of the Roman worshippers to deliver a body part along with meat, food or monetary offerings to plead to the gods for healing. Many different people groups had gathered here in Corinth with some communicating in Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, various romantic languages, and perhaps even early Germanic tongues and some eastern expressions. The languages of trade and money unified the people, mostly. But still the society seem fractured. In this amazing port city you could find anything that would fulfill your desire. With Epicurean and Hedonistic philosophies abounding, you could go to an all you could eat style buffet. Several times a day if you so desired. Right outside would be public vomitoriums for you to expel the excess. Or you could go get drunk and pray to Bacchus, and hope that he made your vineyards more fertile. Or you could just pop right into any fertility cult celebration and fornicate for favor from the gods. Most of the priests in these temples had been de-sexed, so you could enjoy sexual relations with a “eunuch” or a “woman” for a price. And if religion wasn’t your bag, but you were still horny, you could fetch a young sex slave to be your lover. Children were imported from all over. Even England. Many people suspected the northerners to be angels because of their blond hair and blue eyes. Sexual trafficking was big business. And it was a no rules society. Even Paul questions some of the “korithianzai” behavior in chapter 6. He uses words that suggest many people lived for their loins or stomach instead of for their heart. The words malakoi and arsenakonai are debated hotly by scholars today. The former word, which implied man-boy sexuality, or pederasty, was quite common in the culture. It was considered virtuous to take the innocence from a slave youth. Roman society was patriarchal. Or better said “Males on Top of society.” To be passive receiver sexually was to be weak and reserved for slaves and women. The other word, arsenokoitai shows up little in other Greek Literature. Man-bed, as it is roughly translated could mean a myriad of things. It could mean gigolo or pimp. So Corinth was known for its fascination with pleasure even in the ancient world. And poor Paul, He’s stuck in the middle of this new message of radical grace and the craziness that is human existence.
He gets a letter from one of his elders, Chloe, telling him about the state of the fractured church in Corinth. Not only were there divisions in the Church, power plays, political maneuvering, and contentions, but the church were money hungry, taking one another to court, forgetting the poor, exercising liberty in front of those with weak conscious, having sexual scandals, and caught up in speaking in tongues over acting with mercy, justice, and humility. Sounds like a regular Jerry Springer episode, and a bit too familiar, like our lives today. Paul writes the letter from Ephesus, scholars suggest around the middle 50’s. The Gospels have yet to be written. Paul’s letter would be circulated among many churches, but his audience was Corinth. In researching this letter from Paul, we must remember we only have half of the dialogue so we aren’t really seeing the picture fully, but more like a darkly lit glass or a fogged mirror. One thing we can know for sure is that Paul suspecting the soon return of Jesus Christ. He wrote with this in mind. Scholars argue over some of the letter, and wonder if the second letter to Corinthians contains some of the first letter. Some parts, they even suggest, were added much later to the text during the second century. But most do agree that the main parts of the letter utilize the language and communication style of Paul.
So Paul finds out this information about Corinth from Chloe. Obviously his heart is breaking as he begins the letter in a very humble manner:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge — 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Look at Paul. He first prophetically calls the Church at Corinth holy in Christ Jesus.
This doesn’t say they aren’t holy.
It says that they have been made Holy already in Jesus. Despite the fact that their behavior isn’t lining up with their identity, Paul believes that they are holy already. He loves them. He gives thanks for them. He could have come down scathing and reprimanding them immediately for their strife and immorality, but instead he gives an account of their talents, abilities, gifting’s, and beautiful souls.
He chooses to see them as God has seen them, righteous. It seems almost ironic, because although they are completely talented, credentialed, intelligent, and full of supernatural gifts they are using these things to boast instead of the righteousness provided in the blood of Jesus. But Paul, Like Christ decides to walk in grace by viewing Corinth as God’s Holy Church. Perhaps, we could interact with one another like this more often. He finishes the introduction to his letter, and cuts to the chase:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul writes to Corinth in humility. He addresses them as brothers and sisters, not as followers of Paul or as children, students, or as a diminutive, but as fellow equals in the Kingdom of God. He asks them to walk in love with one another.
To agree, and to be united.
He doesn’t mean here that everyone should stick to the same perception or experience or definition of things, but he tells them to agree on the Gospel. He doesn’t want them to negate their individuality or their diversity, but he wants them to work together. He wants them to stop running around forming various factions acting like one group is smarter,
More spirit filled
Or more apt to do social justice.
He begs them to stop comparing themselves and fighting like jealous siblings. It’s almost a flash back to the disciples muscling for rank in the kingdom to come, and Jesus just shaking his head. Are they really this insecure? This immature? I know sometimes I act like a baby. But we, you and I, have already been approved by God to do good works. So why are we using the factions and descriptive titles to differentiate ourselves from one another? Why do we spend countless hours arguing over Jesus instead of being Jesus?
Several years ago, I read a book called “Unchristian.” It made me not want to be a Christian. I never want to be associated with the religious right, bigotry, fundamentalism, Westboro Baptist Church, the holocaust or the crusades. But who can judge me? Only God. Paul says in Corinthians 4, that he doesn’t even judge himself. That is not to say he never takes an inventory or becomes introspective for a positive change. What it does say is that he doesn’t have to prove to himself. He meets the criteria for a servant of Christ. Human credentials are great, but not a thing to be boasted in. Love is the litmus test for a believer. John 17 says “they will know my disciples for their great love for one another.”
Labels are stupid. We learn in concepts and we are taught early to identify, sort, and store information in categories. At some point and time, we have to let labels fall to the ground, realizing our definitions are not absolute knowledge. Stereotypes defeat true unity, by supporting prejudice.
I carried this kind of pride in my life for so long. I would run around saying “I am not that type of Christian. I am semi-educated. I speak decent for someone from Georgia. I smoke cigars on occasion. I hang out at bars and rock concerts. And I care for the poor.”
Who gives a crap, right?
I was guilty of judging other Christians and trying assert my ability to lead postmodernity to Jesus. I use the word judge here to mean condemn. Not analyze. I think we should observe and analyze our own behavior, the behavior of others, and the behavior of the church, but we should view it through eyes of Love.
Although, I am sad about the state of Christianity in America, and should apologize to everyone I encounter for our mistakes, I am no better of a Christ-follower than any one of my predecessors.
Shame on me.
I can work together with a holiness preacher,
An Episcopalian Bishop,
A Jesuit Priest,
Or a Seventh Day Adventist Elder
To love my homeless neighbors. And I don’t need to argue over ever point of theology to do it. And who cares if I am a decent speaker, does that make me better than Charles Stanly, Greg Boyd, N.T. Wright, or John Shelby Spong? No. I need to forgo all my world-system credentials and humble myself so the power of Christ is evident in my life. And that is what Paul was calling the Corinthians to do: Be unified.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]
Paul starts getting a little more passionate. He suggests that most of us so called intellectuals can’t handle the cross. We are too busy trying to ego-masturbate with our own wisdom. He says that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who know-it-all. He rubs the various ideologies of Gnosticism, rationalism, platonic argumentation, stoicism, logos cult, and Sophia cults into the ground by suggesting that all these things- that supposedly have the market cornered on knowledge- are inadequate. Paul appeals to mystery, love, and faith. We don’t know it all. We shouldn’t revel in our ability to figure out God or stump other believers. God is not an equation and neither is the Gospel a syllogism. It’s great that we have knowledge, but Jesus is what we should be excited about. The mysterious love union with He and the saints should be what we boast in, and the cross that gives us righteousness. Paul kind of deflates egos in his statements that many of the Christians didn’t have influence, riches, celebrity, or wisdom. But the truth is they all had talents, gift sets, and abilities. Some actually were born into rich families. Some did have a major anointing. Some really did speak well. Some had been great actors and philosophers. But all that stuff was dog-dung to Paul. The mark of a true apostle was humility.
So how should we react to others in the church world? With pure disdain? With labels, dividing us into special categories? With egocentric attempts to inflate ourselves as leaders?
What is the way of Christ? What is unity? What does kenosis mean? Are we not all one?
How can I change my life to be a peace-making glue stick instead of jagged icepick intended to fracture?