Christ's Body—All Things Are Yours (The Response)

 

This is the response of our team member Mark to an inquiry by an inmate named Baron. You'll find the exchange deep, probing,and indicative of the seriousness with which believers behind prison walls approach their faith. Mark's reply does justice to the sincere nature of Baron's questions. Read and be edified!

Dear Baron,

Great to hear from you! Thank you so much for your letter. I love your interest and thoughts on the topics you mentioned in your letter. My head is swimming with ideas to share with you to get your feedback. But, in this letter, I want to share some thoughts on your interest in the church and Paul’s teachings regarding its purpose and function under the New Covenant period, which I believe is the last paradigm shift of how God relates to His people prior to the Judgment Day. Hebrews 8:7-13; I Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:5-6.

As you know, the church is seen as the family and flock of God (Eph. 2:18-19; 3:15; 4:6; John 10:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), His Israel (Gal. 6:16); the body and bride of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:22-32; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9-27); the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; cf. Eph. 2:19-22) and the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2; Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22). Those in the church are called the “elect” (chosen), the “saints” (consecrated ones, set apart for God), and the “brothers” (adopted children of God) (Titus 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:10; Rom. 11:7; 8:33; Luke 18:7; Mark 13:27; Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Rom. 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:1, 2; 16:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1, 15, 18; Rom. 14:10, 15, 21; 16:23; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:6; 7:12, 15; 2 Thess. 3:6; James 1:9; 2:15; 4:11; 1 Jn. 2:9; and many, many more).

Thus, there is little doubt, during this New Covenant period, the church is of primary importance and concern to God. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the most meaningful and enduring activities in which we can engage as servants of Christ Jesus are those activities that result in the edification of His church. This truth is spelled out for us in 1 Cor. 3:10-23, which states:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you£ are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, £“He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, £“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:10-23 ESV) .

Knowing this, however, is just the beginning. The ultimate challenge is to gain the wisdom and understanding to discern which actions would result in the building up of God’s temple with material that will survive the test of fire. I’m sure you are very familiar with the gifts of the Spirit given to each of the saints that can be exercised for the benefit of the church. See 1 Cor. 12. Yet, the exercising of gifts alone is not enough to ensure the contribution to the church will endure for eternity. There is a necessary impetus that must not only be present but must dominate the motivation behind any lasting contribution made to His temple. The impetus is love.

1 Cor. 13 is quoted very often but rarely is it quoted in its intended context. Paul had just finished discussing at length the variety of gifts of the Spirit dispersed among the members of the body for the benefit of the whole. Then Paul segues into chapter 13 with the statement, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Immediately after this statement, Paul makes the following bold proclamations:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,£ but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 ESV)

Contemplate for a moment the shocking ramifications of Paul’s statements above. Also, keep in mind these statements are coming from a man who I believe was given more understanding of God’s mysteries than any other man in history, apart from Jesus Christ. The epistles of Paul demonstrate a level of understanding that surpasses all others regarding the ramifications of the death and resurrection of Jesus with respect to the initiation of the New Covenant, the fulfillment of the Law, and the establishment of the New Covenant church. Of course, this might be expected when considering (1) his initial Pharisaical training as an expert in the Scriptures (which, of course, comprised of our Old Testament today) and a top student of the revered rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; 5:34; Gal. 1:14), but more importantly, (2) his later training in the desert, taught by Jesus Christ Himself for about 3 years, and then (3) there is his trip to the third heaven where he learned of mysteries of which no man can speak. See Gal. 1:11-12; 15-19; 2 Cor. 12:2-4; 7-10. And yet, though possessing all of this unique understanding and knowledge, Paul, without hesitation, considers such gifts worthless without love.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t imagine many in the contemporary church would agree with Paul on this one. If any had new understandings of God’s mysteries of the same magnitude as revealed to Paul, they would likely be touring around the nation or the world, staying at plush hotels, speaking at high priced seminars, filling stadiums with paying listeners, and selling books, CDs, and videos while touting their unique gifts as the most valuable contribution to the church in centuries. Yet, Paul gave away all his insights and understanding to the extent his listeners could handle it, for nothing in return, not even room and board! See 2 Cor. 12:13-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-3; Phil. 4:15-18; 2 Thess. 3:6-12; Acts 20:33-35 (Paul speaking to the Ephesian elders regarding his three year ministry with them. Cf. Acts 19:10).

Moreover, Paul did not stay at plush hotels when planting churches throughout Asia (present day Turkey), Macedonia and Greece (both present day Greece). Instead, Paul endured vicious persecution, incarcerations, severe beatings, and intense hardships just to gain the opportunity to freely share the revelations given to him to all who would listen. See 2 Cor. 11:23-29. You see, Paul was the real deal. This is why he could confidently say to those who knew him well: “Imitate me.” See 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17.

Yet, the vast majority of Christian leaders in the United States do not imitate Paul, far from it. In fact, I do not believe they even try. It is my opinion that once one makes preaching and teaching his sole source of income, it is a slippery slope of compromises, misinterpretations of Scripture, and deliberate delusions that will follow, mostly for the purpose of protecting and growing that income for him and his family. Of course, there are always those few exceptions that are truly called (when I say “called” I mean more of the knocked off your donkey, blinding light, voice from heaven type of calling than the inclination of the heart type that passes for a “calling” today), but those exceptions are much fewer than the large numbers of active “pastors” and seminary graduates would lead us to believe.

There is much more I could say on this topic but I do not want to drift too far afield from the main points I want to make in this letter. Suffice it to say if you feel there are significant inconsistencies between the way Paul describes the church and the way church is practiced today, I believe your feelings are very legitimate and you are not alone. For me, it is not so much that the leaders fail to imitate Paul, because to do so is extremely difficult, but more that they are not honest in their failings and make no attempts to correct their errors.

Notice also Paul ascribes no value to tremendous sacrifice for the sake of the church if done without love. Paul states one can give away all his possessions or his very own life for the sake of the church, but without love such sacrifices are of no merit. Consider the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), which I call the first example of church politics. The couple was surely sacrificing a great deal for the church; yet, they were not doing it out of love, but rather out of a desire to be recognized by the members of the church as generous and fully committed followers of Christ in order to achieve a top ranking among the church members. By their deaths, God sent an early message that when you lie, or put on a false front to His church for personal gain; you are lying directly to the Holy Spirit, who is not deceived.

I believe God wanted to lay a foundation of authenticity and purity for the early church just as He did for early Israel when He put to death so many of those rebelling against Moses’ leadership. However, just as Israel slowly became corrupted though sometimes refreshed with periods of obedience, I believe the New Covenant church has also lost its way in many areas as it is practiced today, at least in the United States and many other parts in the world. The familiar enticements of power and money as pursued through church politics, individual talents, and outright false teachers and leaders, have slowly eaten away at the authenticity and purity of the church, though just as with Israel, the church does enjoy brief periods of purification and obedience.

I knew a young man, a fresh graduate from a prominent seminary, who wanted to demonstrate his commitment to service to show he didn’t just talk the talk as so many others do. So, he took in a believing homeless woman, cared for her needs, took her to the hospital when she fell ill, and visited her often. Yet, throughout this period, he suffered and complained about the tremendous personal sacrifices he needed to make in caring for her. He also complained about the woman’s ungrateful attitude though she was being provided such wonderful care. He wore his sufferings as a badge of honor, believing that through his personal sacrifices he was demonstrating his sincere commitment to fulfilling his calling as a follower of Christ. However, he did nothing of the sort.

A true follower of Christ will imitate not only the actions of Christ but also His motivations. Christ gave himself up for us, a sacrifice so extreme we cannot comprehend it. Yet, a fact just as important is that He did it because of His intense love for His Father and us, not to prove anything to Himself or anyone else. See Eph. 5:2; 5:25; 29-30; Gal. 2:20; Rom. 8:35; Jn. 13:1; Jn. 13:34-35; 15:9-13; Isa. 40:11; 63:7-9; 53.

Love is the magic additive that will turn otherwise straw contributions into gold. The church may actually benefit from certain wood or straw contributions but the benefit will be temporary and will be of no lasting value to the contributor once all contributions are tested by fire. 1 Cor. 3:10-15.

Finally, and this is of utmost importance, when Paul talks of love in 1 Cor. 13, he is talking primarily of the love the members of a local church gathering are to have for each other. Paul’s statements on love are not made in the context of a husband and wife relationship, or a parent and child relationship, or a relationship between a believer and an unbeliever, or even a relationship with all individuals that identify themselves as followers of Christ. He is talking specifically in the context of a particular church gathering (the church in Corinth) and the members therein. In this context the words of Paul take on a fuller meaning. Let’s take a closer look at how Paul discusses love in verses 4 through 13.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 0but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-13 ESV)

1. Love is patient and kind: Paul could have begun his description of love in a variety of ways. He could have started with the statement, “love is obedient” or “love is sacrificial” tracking the words of Jesus (Jn. 14:15, 21, 23, 31; 15:13). He could have said, “love is merciful” or “love is forgiving” (Eph. 2:4; 4:32; Col. 3:12-14; Jn. 3:16). However, I believe Paul began the way he did in order to address what he believed to be the primary problem of the Corinthian church.

Of all the serious problems entangling the Corinthian church at the time, the first problem addressed by Paul in his letter was the problem of division. 1 Cor. 1:10. It is clear there were numerous disagreements among the members of the body. 1 Cor. 1:11-12. Rather than working out these disagreements with patience and kindness, the members were forming separate fan clubs choosing as their leaders different well known teachers of the true Gospel. In response, Paul pleads with them to agree with one another and stop the divisions. He exhorts them to be united in the same mind (i.e. mind of Christ, who is the head of the church) and in the same judgment (i.e. purpose of Christ). Paul goes on to describe what the mind of Christ isn’t. It isn’t the wisdom of the world. After all, “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God.” (v. 21) Instead, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (v. 27) He did this “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (v. 29) “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’.” (vs. 30-31, NASB)

If it was by “His doing” the members became united in Christ in the first place why wouldn’t they choose to pursue growth in Him by continuing to follow Christ “who became to us wisdom from God.” Instead the members were choosing to follow individuals manifesting worldly wisdom in opposition to the wisdom from God. So, what does this “wisdom from God” look like? James states, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” James 3:17 ESV. This is the mind of Christ into which we all are to be united.

In short, when in a situation where true and sincere believers (apostates and blatant disobedient members are another matter) disagree on certain issues; I believe Paul instructs us to exercise patience and kindness in accordance with the wisdom from above to preserve unity in the body. Paul links together patience and kindness with the preservation of church unity in other epistles as well:

Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6 KJV)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)

Patience and kindness are friends of unity. Paul also goes on to highlight the enemies of unity.

2. Love does not envy or boast: Baron, notice in Paul’s description of love he speaks of what love isn’t almost as much as what love is. I believe this is because Paul is trying to spell it out to the Corinthian church, trying to rattle their cage, hoping they may be convicted of their fleshly attitudes as reflected in their conduct within the gathering and toward other members.

The Corinthian church was infected with “gift envy” and “role envy.” It is apparent from Paul’s lengthy discussion of the limited value of the gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 14:1-25 that this gift was coveted by many Corinthian church members. It is also evident from Paul’s pointed instruction on the proper conduct of women in the gatherings that many of the Corinthian women desired to engage in conduct reserved for the men in the church. See 1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33b-35 (Whether one believes the instructions for women were cultural or not is irrelevant to my point here. Everyone must agree the instructions were applicable at the time they were given. Thus, Paul’s need to repeat these instructions might suggest there were women in the church rebelling against them.) See also 1 Cor. 3:3 (“jealousy and strife among you”).

As for the problem of boasting by the Corinthian members, where do I start? Paul warns them of the foolishness of worldly wisdom and human boasting right from the beginning when he rebukes them for the divisions among them. 1 Cor. 1:18-31; 3:18-21. He then proceeds to chastise them for their arrogance with regards to the favoring of “one against another,” the gifts given them, and their presumptive spiritual maturity. 1 Cor. 4:6-20. Again, Paul rebukes them for their arrogance and boasting with regards to the toleration of blatant sexual immorality of a member in their gatherings. 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6. (Most likely the Corinthian members believed themselves to be remarkably enlightened and mature in their continued love and acceptance of the unrepentant sinner.)

Jealousy and boasting (which are very much related, if not conjoined to self ambition) are enemies of unity, and if not rooted out may destroy the entire gathering.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18 ESV)
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:1-3 ESV)

(Note: In the verse above, it is not hyperbole when Paul instructs the Philippian believers to count the other church members as more significant than themselves. If not already shown, I hope to persuade you below that the church gathering IS more significant than any one of its members alone. Paul is just requesting the Philippians to acknowledge this truth within their gatherings."

Jealousy and boasting were a big problem back in Paul’s day (especially with the Corinthians) and it remains a big problem, or worse, today. There are numerous Christian celebrity teachers and preachers today pastoring large “churches” or leading “nonprofit” organizations, selling CDs, videos and books, all promoting their individual talents and gifts. God is not impressed, unlike the vast majority of American believers. These celebrities compete for tithing dollars from the rest of us unfortunate believers that couldn’t quite make it in the upper class of God’s kingdom. Most believers easily accept their lower class status and flock to the large “church” of their choice to provide financial support while enjoying the productions designed by the leadership.

These celebrity pastors create the worst kind of division within the body. Isn’t this exactly the type of divisive conduct of which Paul disapproves in 1 Cor. 1:10-13 and again in 1 Cor. 3 and basically throughout the entire letter? If you read the passages carefully, you will understand why Paul is so adamantly opposed to such behavior in the church body.

But I, brothers,£ could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9 ESV)
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers,£ that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:6-7 ESV)

(Note: In the above passage, it is apparent that Paul intentionally did not name the individual members that were promoting themselves as leaders for a portion of the Corinthian body to follow. He did this to avoid offense or ill will that could result from attacking individuals. Instead, he substituted his name along with Apollos and Cephas to demonstrate that division would be wrong even if the elite teachers were leading the divide.)

You see, the gifted “pastors” and teachers do not impress God, since He is the one who gave them the gifts in the first place. They will receive their wages as God’s fellow workers IF they do their job. However, their job is NOT to merely entertain, inspire, or “educate” as many members of the body as they can attract. As I will show below, their JOB is to equip the members to minister to each other in order to create a synergistic union orchestrated by the Holy Spirit that results in a spiraling growth of the body in love. Make no mistake; it is the CHURCH BODY that really matters to God, not the brilliant performances of gifted individuals.

Do you not know that you£ are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV )

Yet, what typically happens in a body led by a celebrity pastor is that an ecclesiastical welfare system is created whereby the vast majority of members become dependent upon the gifts of the pastor to guide them to the truth, rather than the Holy Spirit working through all the members of the body to discover God’s truth. And, of course, the pastor does not need to be a celebrity for this tragedy to occur. This was the great danger of which Paul so fervently warned the Corinthian members.

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, £“He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, £“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:18-23 ESV)

What does Paul mean when he says “all are yours?” I believe he means God’s focus in this New Covenant period is on each of the gatherings of sincere believers that function as a church in the manner described by Paul. The individual teachers and pastors are just there as God’s fellow workers to serve and support the gathering as a whole, not the other way around. (Note: I intend to show later that these fellow workers are assessed and judged on how well they facilitate the growth of the gathering in making wise and mature decisions together in love on behalf of the body in which the fellow workers serve. Of course, if the fellow workers always treat the members as children by never allowing the body to make critical decisions on her behalf, the body will never have the opportunity to grow up and the fellow workers will be assessed poorly.) In fact, all events, present and future, are designed to make ready the bride of Christ in preparation for that glorious wedding day when Christ and His bride will finally be united forever.

Moreover, the gathering itself forms a unique temple of God where God’s Spirit dwells. This temple continues to grow through contributions of its members. See 1 Cor. 3. I imagine the more precious metals contributed to the temple, the more beautiful the temple being built, and the more comfortable it becomes for God’s Spirit to dwell. (Of course, if a gathering is conducted in a manner to discourage participation from the vast majority of the members, the construction of God’s temple would be hindered dramatically and far less precious metals would be among the contributions made.) Now, if God’s Spirit is dwelling within your gathering, it is the Spirit (not the nearest celebrity “pastor”), working through various members on which you should rely to receive insights and guidance. There is no one more qualified to reveal the thoughts of God.

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11 ESV)

(Remember, however, all prophecies must be tested and evaluated. 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thes. 5:19-21; 1 John 4:1-3)

3. [Love] is not arrogant or rude: We have already discussed the arrogance of the Corinthian members and how that arrogance led to division. However, because Paul includes the idea of rudeness in his statement, I believe he is targeting the rude and arrogant practice of some of the more wealthy members meeting earlier to begin the love feast while other members were still at their jobs. 1 Cor. 11:17-34. As you may know, the early church met on Sunday, which was a work day at that time. Accordingly, they typically met at night after work though some members could be held up at work longer than others. Of course, those wealthier members that did not need to work may have decided to meet earlier to feast on the finer foods while the working class was still at their jobs. After all, why should the wealthier be forced to share their finer foods with the working class every week and be forced to wait long after their regularly scheduled meal before eating? In the above passage, Paul basically tells them if they wish to eat their finer foods earlier, they should eat at home so as not to dishonor the love feast with their selfish attitudes. This is a perfect example of how arrogance and rudeness causes division within the body.

Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. (Romans 12:16 NASB)

4. [Love] does not insist on its own way: Here, I believe Paul is referring to his discussion of eating food offered to idols. See 1 Cor. 8. In fact, it may be the case that this topic was one of the issues that divided certain members of the body. In chapter 8 Paul agrees that eating foods offered to idols is theoretically harmless since idols have “no real existence.” However, Paul also states if you insist on exercising your freedom in Christ (rather than your love for the members) in eating offered foods at the expense of your weaker brothers who believe it is wrong to eat and, thus, jeopardize the unity of the body, you not only sin against your weaker brothers, but you sin against Christ.

Paul continues in 1 Cor. 9 to give an example of himself, who has the right to financial assistance from them while he preaches the gospel to them, but refuses to exercise his right so as not to “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” 1 Cor. 9:12b. See also 1 Cor. 10:23-24 (“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful . . . .not all things build up.”)

5. [Love] is not irritable or resentful: I believe one good summary of this statement is that love is not easily offended. The King James Version states it this way: “[Love] is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” The term “thinketh no evil” is said to mean that love puts the best possible construction on the motives and the conduct of others. See also, Prov. 19:11 – “Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.” (NRSV); 12:16 – “Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult.”

It is critical this character quality be predominant in the body. This was clearly not the case in the Corinthian church. Division among the members was the result. Little growth can occur if each of the members feels they are walking on eggshells when speaking with one another. As I will show below, the key to the growth of the body is that each member is able to speak the truth in love without other members becoming offended and looking for the exit. Too many times the members do not feel free to do this. Consequently, certain truths are not spoken. As a result, the body suffers and becomes impaired.

However, I should note it takes time for this quality to grow. The members need to mature in their love to one another and their desire to bring glory to God, apart from themselves. This is a process that can take a long time, sometimes too long. People tend to be offended and do not have the energy or patience to work through it. In fact, in human terms, it is impossible. As Paul states in 1 Cor. 3:6, God must cause the growth. This is why for any gathering to function properly an enormous amount of prayer is required.

6. [Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth: This is the last of Paul’s description of what love isn’t. In this statement, I believe Paul is primarily referring to the sexual immorality infecting the body.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.(1 Corinthians 5:1-2 ESV)
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)

Instead of mourning over the great sin that had entered their gathering and the loss of a member from whom they must now separate themselves, the Corinthian members could not stop patting themselves on the back for the enlightened tolerance and love they were showing the unrepentant sinner. It is ironic that the Corinthian members were so eager to divide themselves when they shouldn’t and so reluctant to separate themselves when they should. The members were getting it all backwards because they were operating according to the wisdom of this world rather than the wisdom from God. This is why Paul extensively warns the Corinthians not to follow the wisdom of this world, which God has sworn to destroy, but rather to submit themselves to the wisdom of God wherein lies the power of God and the glory of God. See 1 Cor. 1:18-31; 1 Cor. 2; and 3:18-23.

Of course, the wisdom of God is “first pure.” James 3:17. Accordingly, no rejoicing or celebration by the body should take place while wrongdoing is in their midst. Rather, the evil must first be removed before the body can celebrate in sincerity and truth.

7. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things: This statement by Paul appears to me as a love sandwich, with patience and endurance acting as the slices of bread while faith and hope make up the sandwich filling. The critical point here is that the only way one can successfully bear all things and endure all things, with respect to a gathering and the members therein, is to proceed in faith and hope. In other words, it is not so much that one commits to love a particular gathering as it is, but rather what God has promised to make it. We have faith in God’s promise to purify and perfect us as individuals and the gathering as a whole. It is this hope to which we cling that serves as our motivation to continue to bear and endure all things with regard to the gathering and the members therein. One day our faith and hope will be realized and our perfected love for each other and our groom will make us a beautiful glowing bride ready for the marriage ceremony. Until that day, we must actively seek to find all evidence, no matter how small in some cases, of the work God is doing in each member and the body as a whole. We must thank and praise God for the evidence we find while working through prayer and the exercising of our gifts to encourage each other to produce more evidence. If each of the members would contribute to the body in this way the resulting spiraling growth would be truly miraculous.

8. Love never ends: This truth is why love is the magic additive that turns otherwise straw contributions into gold. Genuine love is eternal and cannot burn, always surviving the test of fire. Knowledge and prophesy are temporary as they are only partial revelations. Such contributions will not survive the test of fire if love is not included. Moreover, we can never presume our contributions are motivated from genuine love. Even Paul dare not presume that. See 1 Cor. 4:3-5. Thus, the fact that one member may have higher gifts than another means nothing. The fact that one member may play a more prominent role in the gatherings also means nothing. It is not about the importance of the role given you; it is much more about how you perform the role. One could have a very important role and be contributing straw while another could be given a relatively minor role and be contributing gold. This truth should humble all of us. For all one knows, the member hardly recognized by the church on Earth may be greatly recognized in the heavenly kingdom. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Everything will be revealed in the end, but not now.

Accordingly, it makes little sense to covet other roles for which one is not suited and was not given from above or presume to have gifts one has yet to obtain. Unfortunately, there are members who do these things as if recognition by other members of the church on Earth will translate to recognition in His kingdom in heaven. Paul admonished the Corinthians more than once to stop acting like children in chasing personalities of men or “look at me” gifts. See 1 Cor. 3:1-2; 13:11; 14:20. Such pursuits help no one and may create a lot of damage. Instead, the gathering as a whole and the members therein need to grow up to maturity, put aside all childish churchly ambition, and engage in the pursuit of a genuine love for the gathering and the members therein, always seeking an opportunity to edify the same. 1 Cor. 14:1-5. To do otherwise is to set yourself up for a rude surprise. On that Day, I imagine there will be plenty of those presenting their list of accomplishments recognized by one or several churches on Earth only to be interrupted by the remark, “But, I never called you to do those things.” Such believers will hardly be able to watch as their contributions are put through the test of fire.

Well, there it is. The above is what I believe to be a description of the type of love to exist between the members of a body of believers. However, such love does not happen overnight. It takes time. Each member should become intimately familiar with the genuine spiritual gifts given to each of the other members of the body. A real bond between the members should develop as acts of love: the Lord’s Supper, hymns, personal thoughts, prayer, encouragement, teachings, prophecies, Scripture readings, exhortations, and other forms of edification are shared within the body. It is essential that a strong foundation of love between the members of the body is established before any real growth can be achieved. So, it all starts with love, as it is the glue that holds the members together as the body struggles as a unit in search of the truth and the leading of the Spirit.

Baron, I discuss these matters because I believe they form the underlying principles supporting my response to many of your questions. It appears from your letter that you left the home church of your youth to go solo in your sanctification journey. I know you felt compelled to do so because you believed the teachings there “contradicted some basic Bible teachings.” However, unless those teachings were blatant heresy, your concern would not constitute a compelling reason to leave in my view. Having said that, it might be acceptable to leave if you first found another body with whom you could fellowship with a clear conscience. But, I hope the above discussion persuades you that God is not pleased when you reject His bride to go it alone.

Though it is true all church gatherings fall short, in varying degrees, of the ideal gatherings described by Paul, this fact cannot justify the withdrawal from all church bodies. As shown above, the church is the bride of Christ, a bride who is and will be loved and cherished by Christ for all eternity. Thus, it is inconsistent to claim a love for Christ while neglecting His bride. Moreover, as referenced in 1Cor. 3 and 13, we cannot engage in activities more valuable than those that are motivated by a genuine love for the body and performed for the purpose of building up that body and the members therein. Such actions will indeed qualify as eternal contributions to the building up and purification of His bride. Yet, if you do not belong to a body, (1) you show disrespect to His bride, (2) you cut yourself off from any possibility of engaging in the most valuable activities available to us in this lifetime, and (3) as shown below in a discussion of Ephesians 4, you deprive yourself of the principal means by which we are sanctified as individuals.

Notice Paul did not instruct any of the more mature Corinthian members (there were some mature members like Gaius, Chloe’s people, Crispus, see 1 Cor. 1: 11-16; and I’m sure there were more), to abandon the other infant members acting like children to form another body. Notice also that Paul did not speak to the Corinthian church in a manner even approaching the maturity level on which he spoke to the church in Rome. Paul knew the majority of the Corinthian members were not mature enough to handle it. See 1 Cor. 3:1-4. (Note: Yet Paul did not love the Corinthian church any less because of their immaturity. See 2 Cor. 2:1-4; 7:2-4; 12:14-15.) Paul spoke only of the foundational principles of body life. Not to say these principles are easy or can ever be mastered, but a certain level of competency must be reached before the body can move forward to tackle other challenges, such as those addressed by some of your questions.

You ask in your letter how we resolve differences of opinion on doctrine or interpretations of Scripture. This is a higher challenge and before it is attempted the body should have a solid foundation of genuine love between the members of the body who are all in full agreement with the true gospel. (What constitutes the “true gospel” is an issue I will address later in this letter.) In addition, and this may be the hard part, such a challenge requires each member to have the ability to speak the truth in love. This is easier said than done. Let’s look at a passage that deals directly with this topic.

And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,£ to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,£ to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)

Notice the church leaders are to equip the saints for “the work of ministry,” which is defined to be the “building up [of] the body of Christ.” So, in reality, the “ministers” are all the members of the body and the “ministry” is the building up of that body. As a child growing up in the contemporary church, I was always taught the “ministers” were those select few behind the pulpit and the “ministry” primarily involved activity outside the church in foreign lands or the surrounding community. Yet, I do not believe such typical teachings of the contemporary church reflect a fair reading of Scripture.

In any case, the passage states the primary goal of the church leaders is to facilitate the transformation of children in Christ into mature men in Christ, able to speak to each other in a manner that communicates the “truth in love.” In fact, the passage makes clear it is through the speaking of the truth in love that each member of the body grows to maturity. This can be a problem if elders insist on excluding the members of the body from the decision making process affecting the body. How can children in Christ ever grow into mature men in Christ when they are never trained through example, experience and guidance on how to effectively speak the truth in love?

By the way, the thoughts shared above are very consistent with the word chosen by Jesus to denote the gathering of His followers. As you probably know, the Greek translation of the word chosen by Jesus to describe His followers as a group is the term ekklesia. Yet, as you may not know, the term ekklesia in the time of Jesus was used to describe a political gathering where the citizens of a city would gather to make a decision affecting the city in which they lived. In this ekklesia, the citizens were free to debate and discuss the issue at hand as long as it was done in an orderly fashion. The purpose of the ekklesia was to come to some resolution of the issue by a consensus of the voting citizens present. In fact, ekklesia is used to denote the public assembly of craftsmen in Ephesus called by Demetrius, a silversmith, in an effort to expel Paul from Ephesus as he was apparently hurting the sales of silver shrines for the goddess Diana. See Acts 19:23-41.

There were other non-political words Jesus could have chosen to denote His followers, yet, He deliberately chose the term translated as ekklesia. I have enclosed an article discussing in more detail the ramifications of this term with regards to a primary purpose of the church gathering, i.e., to debate and discuss matters for the purpose of making decisions affecting the activities of the body. This observation fully supports the points raised above regarding the importance of involving all the members in the decision making process of church matters and equipping each of the members to resolve such matters through example and guidance on how to speak the truth in love.

However, due to a lack of such examples and guidance, many gatherings will emphasize the “truth” more than love. Such gatherings can become cold and competitive, as theology and learning is valued higher than intimacy and the leadings of the Spirit. Or, the gathering may become full of dissension and division resulting in a split or several factions leaving to become independent. Other gatherings will focus more on maintaining apparent “peace” and ostensible “unity” over truth. Consequently, disagreements are swept under the rug without discussion where they may ferment and grow sometimes resulting in the withdrawal of a member or members without any explanation. At a minimum, there is a loss of authenticity and transparency in the group, limiting the level of intimacy the members can share, as there is always a fear that a topic may arise on which the members disagree.

This is why it is so critical to have wise, discerning, loving, godly, and very knowledgeable leaders to shepherd the gathering through this treacherous process. Even more important, there is absolutely no chance of success unless the vast majority of the members are in constant and fervent prayer over the health and growth of the body. However, to be frank, this combination rarely occurs. The leadership will always be flawed to varying degrees and the members generally are distracted with worldly concerns that do not leave time for prayer or to properly address the needs of the body. Typically, I would estimate an average member will devote 2 to 4 hours a week total to the gathering in meetings, prayer, and preparation at home. In my opinion, to even have a chance of achieving the goal of speaking the truth in love, the average member would need to devote a minimum of 6 to 8 hours a week to the gathering with at least 4 hours spent meeting together. This means the leadership would need to devote a minimum of 10 hours a week. Of course, if there was a special need to address, more hours would be required by all.

Having said this, I would never advocate an arrangement where the gathering would provide financial support for one member to devote all his time to the needs of the body. This, to me, would bring about a lopsided affair that does little to facilitate the transformational growth of the body from infancy to maturity. The price of maturity that comes about through the speaking of truth in love by ALL members is that ALL members devote themselves to this goal through sacrifice. This means that ALL members will need to sacrifice certain worldly concerns to devote more time to the growth of the body that is obtained through speaking the truth in love. Moreover, the decision to make these sacrifices should be motivated by a genuine love for the body and the members therein.

What the church really needs are examples of average members supporting themselves financially but sacrificing other worldly concerns out of a genuine love for the gathering to spend more time in prayer and in developing their gifts while pursuing more gifts for the purpose of edifying the body. A “full-time pastor,” no matter how godly he may be, does not provide such an example because, after all, it is his job. In fact, a full-time pastor, despite all intents and purposes otherwise, could actually hinder the maturity of the body by creating an ecclesiastical welfare system (discussed above) that may have been necessary in the infancy of the body, but when left in place too long, becomes a growth inhibitor.

At this point, you must be very weary of this letter and I do apologize for its length. Yet, your questions are very weighty and I wanted to respond in kind to the best of my ability.

Believe it or not there is still much to say but I need to wrap it up before this letter turns into a book. To answer some of your questions quickly, I found Faith Community on the Internet after searching and praying for a home church with participatory gatherings. I have been going there for a little over 3 years. I have been studying the New Testament church practice for a little over 5 years. This new realization of how God intended His church to operate has radically changed my life.

Your reference to Philippians 1:15-18 is a perfect example of how straw contributions to the bride of Christ (i.e., those spreading the gospel out of rivalry with Paul) can benefit the church, yet, not benefit the contributor once all contributions are tested with fire on that Day.

Your reference to Galatians 1:8 brings up an important point. I need to do more study on this issue but it appears that when Paul is adamantly concerned with false teaching, the teaching generally concerns a false gospel. By the way, I don’t think I would characterize the Mormon religion or the Jehovah Witness religion as just another denomination of the Christian religion. In fact, I may not even characterize strict Roman Catholic doctrine as a Christian denomination; although I would certainly need to study more about the Catholic doctrine before making any real decision on that issue. All of these questions concern the issue of what elements are necessary to constitute the true gospel. As I said, I need to do much more studying and research on this issue but I promised I would get back to this question, so here it goes.

Of course, one needs to be sure he is fellowshipping with the body of Christ before committing to a gathering. At a minimum, the members should agree on the essential elements of the gospel of Christ. Now, there may be some disagreements as to which doctrines are essential to the gospel. One passage I have found instructive with regards to this question is found in Colossians.

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits£ of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities£ and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.£ Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,£ puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. ( Colossians 2:6-23 ESV)

In the above passage, you can find:

  1. The doctrine of incarnation (God made flesh) – v. 9
  2. Sovereignty of Christ and indwelling of Christ – v. 10, 15
  3. Regeneration, Born Again, New Creation teachings – vs. 11-12
  4. Baptism teaching (favors immersion) – v. 12
  5. Salvation (from the penalty of sin and from slavery to our own flesh) through faith, not works – v. 12, 16-23
  6. Christ as the propitiation and final atonement for our sins – v. 13-14
  7. Establishment of the New Covenant church – v. 18-19
  8. The church as the principal instrument used by God for the spiritual growth of its members – v. 19

I’m sure there are other passages to consider when defining the essential beliefs that constitute the true gospel of Christ but the idea is to ensure the gathering to which you commit agrees on the truth of the gospel of Christ. Once that issue is resolved in the affirmative, a believer is free to commit to that gathering and begin building a foundation of love between him and the rest of the body. Again, this may take some time since genuine love does not typically spring up overnight. If the gathering is following the New Testament practice, this beginning period can be a truly wonderful experience as you enjoy the gifts of various members being exercised for the edification of the whole.

Finally, I am pleased to hear many have come to you suggesting you have the gift of teaching. Each gathering needs a few teachers in their midst, and it is not that common to find members with the gift of teaching. However, there is also a great responsibility that goes with the gift.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 ESV)
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant£ whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:41-48 ESV)

Because of the above passages I would urge you to work hard in your gift and do not presume too much. Also, remember always the goal of your teaching – it is not to simply educate or attract as many listeners as you can, but it is to equip the listeners to be better able to speak the truth in love for the purpose of edifying the body. Above everything else, be sure it is your love for the body and the members therein that motivates your teaching, otherwise your contributions will not survive the test of fire and you will suffer loss.

May God bless you richly, Baron. You and your mother are in my prayers. I hope this letter was not too tedious to read and you derived some benefit for your efforts. I’m sorry if I did not respond to some of your questions or did not answer others to your satisfaction. Please write back with any comments you may have and we can continue to correspond. I trust you are gathering together with fellow brothers to give and receive edification through the exercise of your respective gifts. May His grace and peace surround and fill you and your brothers and may the lampstand of your gathering always shine bright before the Lord.

By His grace,

Mark

Prison Ministry Team Member

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