“4 Sure-Fire Ways to Undermine Gospel Ministry”
There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
He writes to a church that is divided, that has shifted its focus from the Gospel to cultural concerns, that practices individualism to the detriment of community, that aligns itself with government instead of critiquing it, and that (to put no fine point on it) is not following the Way of Jesus.
In the opening verses of this letter, Paul offers the insight of a pastor who truly loves the flock he shepherds. Despite their failings—which are addressed throughout the bulk of this letter—Paul sees their heart, their possibility, and the promise they can live into in Christ.
In the verses we read last week, Paul offers six commendations—six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that are present-but-latent in the Corinthians. These are:
- the church is rooted in grace
- the church is mature
- the church embodies its gifts
- the church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return
- the church has a sustaining spirituality
- and the church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice
All of these things, of course, are descriptive of what it means to be the embodiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection depict for us the power of the liberating love of God.
It is important to note that Paul is not tickling their ears with empty praise so they’ll be more open to hearing his criticisms. He truly sees these qualities deep inside them, even if they are not living into them fully. Like all humans and human organizations, the church at Corinth is a study of paradox:
They are rooted in grace but do not show grace to each other.
They are mature but act like little children, unwilling to digest the meaty portions of faith.
They are deeply gifted yet fail to share their giftedness with one another
They know all about Christ’s return yet they do not allow it to drive them to compassionate and urgent action.
And so on.
We—as humans and as a church—embody the same paradoxical reality. There is light and dark in us. We cannot see the planks in our eyes while we pick the speck out of the eyes of each other. Part of the model Jesus demonstrates for us is giving others the freedom to encounter God on the terms of their own life, rather than ours. It means we do not dismiss or judge others because of what is obvious to us. We—if we will look like Jesus—have to trust God enough to believe that God is working in them……in a way that is unique to them……in order to bring us all to our knees before Jesus our Savior.
I think this is why Paul so rapidly changes gears early in this letter to the Corinthians—from its commendable characteristics to its self-defeating practices. He highlights (in our Scripture reading) what I believe are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry—four ways of obstructing what God is trying to do through us and others—four “planks” that may be in our eyes which circumvent the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. Divided (v.10)
The first of these is this: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.
If I had a dollar for every time someone said the reason they don’t go to church is because of how divided and divisive the church is, I’d be fairly well off. Our history—especially as Baptists—is that of schism after schism, splitting from and excommunicating one another over issues that are trivial compared to the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and redemptive power.
In my short lifetime and ministry, I have personally witnessed people breaking fellowship with one another:
because they didn’t like a song leader,
because they didn’t think people of two races should be married,
because a church dared to treat women as fully human,
because a seminary tweeted a bible verse they thought was critical of their chosen politician,
because they didn’t like the contractor the church used for building repairs,
because the pastor was too young,
because the pastor was too old,
because the music was too contemporary,
because the music was not contemporary enough
because the church did not have enough programs,
because the church spent too much on programs,
because so-and-so attends that church,
because that church reads from the wrong bible translation,
because ten or twenty or fifty years ago they had a disagreement with a pastor or church member who has long since gone elsewhere……
It may be that the only thing I have not witnessed is the proverbial conflict over the color of the carpet—though this late-70’s green isn’t going to last forever.
Why are we so divided?
Part of it is certainly that we are human and fail to allow each other to be human. But I believe a bigger piece is that division is the most powerful tool that the powers of darkness use against the cause of Christ. There’s a reason that not one but three words for division appear among the works of the flesh listed by Paul in Galatians 5: “rivalries, dissentions, divisions” (Gal 5:20).
The most effective means of disarming any movement is to divide it: a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Jesus proclaimed in Mark 3:25. From the “union busters” of the last century sent by corporations to cause fights among union members, to the rioters that emerge coincidentally with peaceful protesters today, and back again to the time of Jesus and before—the fastest way of undermining the credibility and mission of any group is to divide them.
The divisions among the Church of Jesus Christ have been sown by powers that work against his cause of love and life, and we as his followers must—MUST!!—recognize and stand against them. In this regard, I believe we are making strides forward. Just days ago, Pope Francis acknowledged that “the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her” (link). That is a huge step toward the reconciliation of our divisions.
But change in our world never comes top-down. It must be Christians—each of us, in grassroots efforts—who chose subversively to live in ways that unite instead of divide, that follow the Jesus who reached out to those different than himself instead of following the world that teaches us to fear those who are different.
Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.
2. Follow Worldly Leaders (vv.12-13)
Second: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church follows worldly leaders instead of Christ.
Every four years in our country, we cast a ballot for a messiah. No, of course we don’t frame it in those terms, yet republican, democrat, green party, and everyone else argues that their candidate will be the “savior” of our nation, while the other partys candidates will drive us to apocalypse and the brink of extinction. This past year’s process has been particularly vivid in this regard.
This has also been a year where a significant dimension of American Christianity has sacrificed its moral voice on the alter of political power. Now I’m not trying to be political here—I’m trying to be a Christian and a pastor. But when we excuse and condone behaviors that are contrary to the ethic of Jesus, we have undermined the cause of Christ and further silenced the voice of the Gospel.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that words have power in the lives of other people. When we call people names, we do a violence to them that is like committing murder. Rather than disadvantage people, he suggests it would be better to have an eye plucked out or a hand cut off.
I was reminded this week of some other ancient words, penned by a Christian writer early in our history, well before our beloved faith became the tool of an empire. He wrote:
[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory.
(Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century AD)
As Christians, our most basic confession is “Jesus is Lord.” That is, in its heart, a political statement. It means Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. It means we are Christians first and whatever else second. It means our citizenship in God’s Kingdom trumps any patriotism we may feel for our home country.
The only one we follow is Jesus. For whenever we follow worldly leaders, we undermine the Gospel, and we alienate people from the liberation Jesus desires for them.
3. Complicates the Simple (v.18)
Third: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church complicates God’s mission.
This one is really tough for us. The core message of Jesus—the core reality of our faith—the essential heart of the life to which we are called—it is quite simple: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1John 4:7-8).
God’s mission is simple: God seeks to use God’s transforming power to love the world into wholeness. Jesus himself sums up our responsibility as faithful people with the twin commands of loving God and loving our friends and enemies alike as ourselves. When we don’t know what to do, Jesus provides us with this simple test: How do I love him/her/them in this moment?
It’s a simple thing, really. But we—deceived as we are—work to complicate it.
Do they deserve it, we ask?
Does it cost me too much, we inquire?
Did I get the same breaks, we query?
And soon we look little like the Jesus who laid down his life for those who sought to kill him. As Paul says a few verses down from our scripture reading: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Corinthians 1:27 NIV11)
Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when we complicate God’s simple mission of loving the world.
4. Pride (v.19)
Fourth and lastly: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is haughty.
Now there’s a part of me that would like to make examples of public religious leaders whose pride has undermined the ministry of the church and disadvantaged the cause of Christ. But I remember the ancient wisdom of the early Christians who suggest doing so brings the same sins and criticisms on your own head. As Jesus says in Matthew 7, the judgment we use against others will be the same judgment used against us.
So let me offer this instead: Pride is antithetical to who Jesus is, and so it should be the furthest thing from who we are as his followers.
Our Savior is one who demonstrated servant leadership time and time again, most vividly by performing the most menial of household duties in the first century—washing the feet of guests. He took towel and bowl and insisted that the only way to have a share in what Jesus was bringing into existence was to be washed and to wash each other. In fact, washing each other’s feet is one of the few times that Jesus directly tells his disciples to ritualize what he is doing. He says in John 13:14-15
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (NIV11)
When was the last time you obeyed Jesus and washed someone’s feet?
We do not often obey this very direct instruction of Jesus to wash each other’s feet. And why? Well, feet are icky and we we feel more humiliated than humbled when we do it. Am I right?
But that also means we don’t get the benefits that come from washing each other’s feet, either. Our pride runs unchecked. We begin to think we are better than others. Then we start to think others are lower than us……maybe even undeserving of grace. And that (in turn) allows us to pat ourselves on the back for not doing a job that we think is pointless—loving someone who won’t accept it anyway. And just like that we have undermined our participation in God’s mission, and we have probably compromised someone else’s ability to do it too.
When a church is haughty—when we fall ill to the pride that Jesus says in Mk 7:22 defiles us—the advancement of the Gospel of Christ is severely impaired.
That’s it. Those are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided, when it follows worldly leaders instead of Christ, when it complicates God’s mission, and when it is swelled with pride.
All four of these are present—and even central—to the identity of the American church. But they hold us back—and they hold others back—from the redemptive power of God’s love.
But just as Paul doesn’t give up on the Corinthians, so we must not give up on each other. One by one, as we live into God’s redemptive love—as we exchange our own ambitions and perspective and sense of fairness for that of our savior—the mission of God is expanded. The cause of Christ is advanced. The kingdom of God is brought nearer, as God’s will is done, on earth just as it is in heaven.