Hope for Struggling Churches (1)
Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all thatyou dobe done with love. 1 Corinthians 16.13, 14
“Observe, too, that pride or haughtiness is the cause and commencement of all contentions, when every one, assuming to himself more than he is entitled to do, is eager to have others in subjection to him.”
- Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4.6
The Church in Corinth in the days of the Apostle Paul was a struggling church, not unlike many of our churches today. They knew they had problems. But they also had problems they’d not yet recognized, and that were threatening their grace and peace.
In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul addressed the problems that were threatening to tear the church apart and bring disgrace on the Gospel. Essentially, the Corinthians were guilty of two failures: they failed to obey the teaching of Scripture they had received, and they were beginning to go beyond what the Scriptures require or permit in certain ways. They weren’t living up to what they’d been taught, and they were making up the rules about being a church as they went along.
They had reached the end of their rope. Schisms, scandals, lawsuits, misguided teaching on marriage and spiritual gifts, and a service of worship that had become a platform for parading individual “spirituality” – all these problems were threatening to split the church and compromise their witness for Christ.
And there were more problems: immorality, lack of discipline, spiritual stagnation, vain boasting, and a compromised witness.
The Corinthians sent messengers to Paul, explaining their dilemma. Paul’s assessment of the situation led him to call for repentance and a return to the true teaching and practice of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Our text represents his concluding charge to the Christians in Corinth, and it sums up his message for struggling churches in every age.
Such as ours.
Appearances can deceive
At one level, the Church in America appears to be anything but struggling. Everywhere we look, new churches are beginning, mega-churches are flourishing, older churches are holding their own, and a Christian subculture of music, media, publishing, online presence, and more is thriving.
Christian schools abound, and abundant resources are available for Christian parents who choose to school their children at home.
The numbers look pretty good, too, with nearly 72 million Americans professing to have been born again through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Opportunities for Bible study, ministry activities, prayer groups, and mission or service projects can be engaged with a phone call in most communities; and, on any given Sunday, church parking lots would seem to indicate that all is well with the City of God in America.
But this is an illusion. For wherever you look in churches in America today – and doubtless elsewhere – it’s not hard to find areas where the plain teaching of Scripture has been set aside, or at least badly compromised, and the influence of the world and its man-centered ways is well-established and growing.
Many pastors have come to realize they are presiding over struggling congregations. And while many churches do not appear to be struggling, yet the rising tide of narcissism, materialism, and sensuality is beginning to lap onto their decks. Churches everywhere are taking on water, to quote Columbanus, and are becoming heavy with the flotsam and jetsam of our secular age. Many churches are struggling and know it, while others don’t know it but are struggling all the same.
Are we even aware?
The Corinthians were struggling and knew it; that’s why they sent messengers to Paul, explaining the problems (some of which he’d already heard) and seeking his help in sorting things out.
While there are doubtless problems and disappointments in every church, most Christians in this country today appear to be fairly content with the state of things. They would perhaps echo the sentiments of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, “We are rich, we have prospered, and we need nothing.” If the unbelieving world would just leave us alone, we’d be fine, thank you very much.
But Jesus, I believe, would conclude otherwise.
The Church in America is struggling. Increasingly, churches are drifting from faithful obedience to the plain text of Scripture, setting aside whatever strikes them as inconvenient or out of date, to focus only on what draws and keeps the crowd.
Or we are going beyond the teaching of Scripture, looking to the world and its ways for how to grow the church, worship the Lord, make disciples, and more. Many churches today are seeking their welfare not in the all-sufficient Scriptures, but in the ways of the world.
We could stand to reflect deeply on Paul’s concluding charge to the Corinthians.
Twelve Questions that Could Change Your Church
What can we learn from Celtic Christians?
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“Where there is strife and dissension, there is no love."
- Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles
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T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).