In First Corinthians the apostle Paul wrote what was probably one of the most difficult letters of his life, he was writing to a church that was in crisis, in every sense. There was no unity and mutual love in the church, instead they were breaking up into individual cliques and parties. Theologically, on several issues they were in danger of leaving the faith once for all delivered to the saints and becoming heretical, morally they were fostering a spirit of permissiveness that was causing them to tolerate gross immorality. In terms of their worship, they were becoming addicted to excitement and showy sign gifts, and were turning up their noses at the solid preaching and teaching of Christ crucified. They were showing themselves to be desperately immature, not able to absorb the solid meat that they should have been craving. They were a sensual people addicted to sensation, and showed themselves to be carnal and not spiritual. Paul lamented: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal.”
It’s almost like Paul was writing to the church today rather than in the first century! I hope that if we learn anything from the eerie similarities between the church then and now it will be that the problems of modern evangelicalism are nothing new, and that the answer to the problems of the Corinthian church are also the answers that we desperately need to be applying today.
Paul wrote and told them to turn from serving self, to serving Christ and his people and from doing what seemed right in the eyes of the culture or their own eyes, to doing what the Lord commands in scripture. He wanted them to return to the path of love and the single-hearted devotion to Christ they had started off on when they were first converted.
And so in the closing his letter to the Corinthians in chapter 16 verses 13 through 18 Paul gave them a summary of what they needed to do, and then a sermon illustration wherein he actually pointed out people in their midst who were worthy of imitation. Its almost like he is saying, this is what you should be doing, and this is what it will look like when you are doing it! He had said to them “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” but obviously he couldn’t always be there, so he points out others worthy of imitation as well.
“Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. I urge you, brethren — you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints — that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.”
So what are the qualities in this conclusion that he says the Corinthians, and by extension the church in our own day needs?
1) Watchfulness – Be vigilant in the faith, be on guard! The word he uses here gregoreite is the same that is used for watching for the second coming by Jesus. Stay awake, don’t get lulled to sleep, watch out for your enemy the Devil. And he moves on to tell them what in particular they need to be watchful for in particular: bad doctrine and false teaching.
2) Stand Fast in the Faith – These were people (sadly like many today in the Reformed camp) who were beginning to question even the “fundamentals” of the faith like the bodily resurrection. False teachers had grown up in their midst who were drawing them aside after worldly and deceptive philosophies. Paul was rebuking the beginnings of teaching that 50 years or so later would blossom into the full-blown Greek heresy of Gnosticism. I do not doubt that at the time Paul wrote they had their own equivalents of what we see everywhere in the church today; people writing books and conducting bible studies and starting up their own ministries that draw the saints away from the truth. Today its worse than ever because of the speed at which bad doctrine can be disseminated – blogs, radio, TV. You can write, publish, and distribute a new book every month these days – and there are some men who are doing exactly that.
In the midst of this Paul calls us back to the faith that he preached, the unchanging faith that Christ’s apostles set down that faithful deposit of doctrines that isn’t constantly moving back and forth like the waves of the sea. Jude calls this “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
As Charles Hodge put it: “Do not consider every point of doctrine an open question. Matters of faith, doctrines for which you have a clear revelation of God, such for example as the doctrine of the resurrection, are to be considered settled, and, as among Christians, no longer matters of dispute. There are doctrines embraced in the creeds of all orthodox churches, so clearly taught in Scripture, that it is not only useless, but hurtful, to be always calling them into question.”
Hundreds of years earlier God had said the same thing through Jeremiah to another generation going off after false teachers, false prophets who contradicted the teaching of the world: “Thus says the LORD: “Stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is, And walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls.” That advice is just as sound today as it ever was which is why here at Building Old School Churches we strive to call the church not to try the latest gimmicks or adopt the newest of the new perspectives, but to return to the OLD PATHS which are and ever have been THE GOOD WAY.
3) Be Brave, Be strong – I love the way the KJV renders BE BRAVE – QUIT YOU LIKE MEN, it is a phrase that conjours up images of soldiers, who tenaciously and unflaggingly fight to hold the line. It reminds me of the reply of John Paul Jones when asked to surrender his ship: “I have not yet begun to fight!” As Leon Morris pointed out “They must be like responsible adults. Moreover they are engaged in a desperate strife with the forces of evil, and it is imperative they play the part of men.” Be strong he says, stand against the tide of the culture and of deceit.
If there is one thing I wish the modern church had more of, apart from LOVE amongst the brethren, it would be this spirit – more maturity and an unwillingness to compromise the truth.
4) The thing they most desperately need though, and without which nothing else will happen is Love - Let all things be done, en agape. Not just with love, but in love. It is love to Christ that will keep them in the faith, and it is love for the saints that will keep them persevering with one another. In Christian marriage counseling, the one deficiency that can never be overcome or worked around, is a lack of love, for one another, and most importantly for Christ. Every other problem can be fixed, but where there is a lack of love for Jesus, and through him, a truly biblical marriage cannot be built. That is why I try to concentrate on the nurture of that love first and foremost.
It is the same in the church. Where there is bad doctrine, it can be fixed, where there is a lack of maturity it can grow. But if we have not love for Christ and our brethren, we are not Christians:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
So wishing to teach us what this biblical pattern will look like, Paul sets before us as an example – the Stephanus family. And he points out that not only were they the first converts – he mentions baptizing them in 1:16 – they were also worthy of emulation because they had shown this love of Christ by devoting themselves – the word he uses is literally “addicted” themselves – to serving others.
Now we know of many things we can become addicted to, but of how many people can we honestly say “he or she is addicted to serving Christ and his people.” Would that we all had such an ADDICTION!
Now the Stephanus family did not become worthy examples by appointing themselves to office, or demanding a place of priority, rather they became examples in their lowly service – literally Diakonia – from which we get the word deacons. Paul says we should submit ourselves in particular to this kind of person, we should let them be your examples, the people we look up to and follow. And similarly all who labor like them, for they too are doing that same kind of work that Paul did, as devoted servants.
He goes on to comment on how they and other worthy men Fortunatus and Achaicus, had visited him in Ephesus, probably delivering the letter he was responding to and letting him know what was really going on in the church. They loved the brethren so much they were not content to let the church die. They were willing even to do the painful work of dealing with heresy and controversy, goring popular oxen, and calling for the kind of church discipline that the church is running scared from today. That is a mark of a true servant of Christ.
Those who labor the hardest and do the “dirty work” dealing with the bitter problems seldom get the most acknowledgment. We reward the ear ticklers, the superstars, the people who thrust themselves forward. But these men showed more of the self-denying spirit of Christ than any of them.
What we need today is men like these in the church! Men and women who labor to bring the aroma of Christ with them wherever they go. Men and women who are small in their own eyes, but who serve a mighty Christ. Men and women who are willing to do the unpopular but necessary work of restoring the church to the Old Paths, even if that involves church discipline and spiritual surgery.
Man the Lord grant us hearts like theirs!