Hope for the Church (7)
Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. 1 Corinthians 16.13, 14
A struggling church
Reading through 1 and 2 Corinthians can be a dismal and disappointing experience. The churches in that cosmopolitan city had real problems. They had left off many of the things Paul taught them, were compromising with worldly values and ways, and were going beyond the Scriptures in areas where they had no divine warrant.
The churches in Corinth were struggling with many issues and looking in all the wrong places for the solutions to their ills.
In consequence, problems abounded in a church full of infants in the Lord. They pitted leaders against one another. They bad-mouthed Paul. They fought with one another and made worship a thing of self-indulgence more than divine majesty. They scorned the poor and “spiritually weak” in their midst. They lorded it over one another in various ways. And they weren’t troubled by the presence of sin among their members.
In 2 Corinthians 13.5 Paul challenges the Corinthians, in the light of all these problems, to consider whether they are even Christians at all. Poor Corinthians, we think, upon getting through the last chapter of Paul’s letters to them. I wouldn’t have wanted to be them.
I wonder if we feel the same way about our struggling churches today? Or have we become so accustomed to struggling – decline in membership, lack of spiritual depth, little real involvement in ministry, indifference to mission, paltriness in giving, little evidence of real discipleship and witness – that we have simply accepted our struggle as the new normal? Is there any hope for us?
Not beyond the reach of grace
Because the Corinthians were at no time beyond the reach of God’s grace, there was always hope that things could improve. And, as it happened, by the grace of God they did.
Some years after the death of the apostle Paul, Clement, one of Paul’s traveling companions, became pastor of the church in Rome. This was late in the first century, around 90 AD. Clement was undoubtedly known to the Corinthians, as to many of the other churches Paul served while he was alive.
Again, at the end of the first century, a problem arose in the Corinthian church – no surprise there, we say – and the leaders wrote to Clement for advice. Same old stuff: divisions, hubris rather than humility, departing from Scripture. The Corinthians had seen this before and turned to Clement for help in their time of struggle. Clement took up his pen to correct the situation, and, in the process, he gave us a glimpse of what a struggling church – which had taken seriously Paul’s charge to watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong, and do everything in love – had become.
Clement’s portrait of the Corinthians in his first epistle presents a completely different look at this struggling church than what we find in 1 and 2 Corinthians. For, having taken Paul’s words to heart, the Corinthian church became a model of a healthy, growing church in less than a generation!
Clement extolled their gentleness and love for one another. He praised them for their hospitality, which was known around the world, and remarked the order and majesty of their worship. He honored their holy leaders and elders, and he commented on the peace, joy, and love that infused everything they did. The churches in Corinth had become solid, consistent, and effective witnesses for Christ, and glory-filled examples to people in Corinth and beyond.
Are we talking about the same people Paul took to the woodshed? Yes, we are!
By God’s grace the Corinthians received the apostle’s difficult challenge and took him seriously. They examined themselves carefully, began to watch more diligently over what they were taught, and labored to resist every temptation that came their way.
They got back to the Lord and His Word and stood fast in Him against the devil and every detractor.
They dealt courageously with their failings, took to heart Paul’s charge to grow up in the Lord, and became anchored in His strength. As a result, they abounded in love for the Lord, one another, and their unsaved neighbors.
They ceased being a church that was struggling to stay alive, as they had been in Paul’s day, and they became a church struggling together for the Kingdom of the Lord.
By every measure with which Paul had upbraided them, the Corinthians who wrote to Clement had upgraded their walk with the Lord and their life as a community of His people. They took Paul at his Word and discovered there afresh the hope of glory in Jesus Christ.
So there’s hope for us, beloved, that the God of grace may yet revive and renew us and make us the “joy of the whole earth” (Ps. 48.1) once again. But we must take seriously the apostle’s charge to our struggling churches, each one of us seeking the Lord earnestly, saying as He opens our hearts anew, “Here am I, Lord; send me.”
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Weekly Prayer for Revival
“For who ever dwelt even for a short time among you, and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire the sobriety and moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? And who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? For ye did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honour to the presbyters among you. Ye enjoined young men to be of a sober and serious mind; ye instructed your wives to do all things with a blameless, becoming, and pure conscience, loving their husbands as in duty bound; and ye taught them that, living in the rule of obedience, they should manage their household affairs becomingly, and be in every respect marked by discretion.”
- Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians
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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).
The Church Fathers. The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 1,000 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16 Million Words (Kindle Locations 2903-2909). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.