03 September 2009

The Church and her Truth

The Apostle Paul begins the body of his first letter to the Corinthians by addressing the factionalism creeping through the Church. In so doing, he develops a vision of Christian identity based on religious truth rather than social association.

Brothers, I urge you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not to have factions among yourselves but all to be in agreement in what you profess so that you are perfectly united in your beliefs and judgments. From what Chloe’s people have been telling me about you, brothers, it is clear that there are serious differences among you. What I mean is this: every one of you is declaring, “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas [Peter]” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been split up? Was it Paul that was crucified for you, or was it in Paul’s name that you were baptized?[1]

The Corinthians had fallen into a pattern of identifying themselves with different teachers. Losing sight of the divine spirit that animates their faith, individuals were attaching themselves to its human vehicles. Paul highlights the absurdity of this arrangement with his rhetorical question whether it was he that was crucified for them or in his name that they were baptized. For Roman Catholicism, the problem of the Corinthians is at once the problem of the Protestant “churches.” By attaching themselves to different leaders, often switching from one to another quite casually, the universal element of messianic truth is reduced to community ideology. This critique has great force, nearly five hundred years since it was first advanced. But it turns against its wielders inasmuch as they might remain oblivious to the extent that this attitude predates the dissolution of the Roman Communion. After all, the schism with the Eastern churches was no less problematic, as was the vigorous suppression of the multitude of doctrines that had developed in the early church. Within Paul’s critique, individuals are not only declaring “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.” They are also declaring “I belong to Christ.” The Church is especially vulnerable to outward disintegration once Christ has been made into a faction, once “Christ” is the name attached to one human path among others.
Next, Paul goes into an extended discussion of the irreconcilable difference between the Gospel and the wisdom of the world. “The message of the cross is folly for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God.” The depth and implications of Paul’s powerful critique of the Greek Logos are far beyond this discussion. What matters here is that God’s standards are not human standards; that the truth of the Cross cannot be subsumed by inquiry reduced to its human dimension. This is why the Church cannot be a human institution, centered on the social association of particular human figures. Certainly, the Church involves social association. But this is not the entirety of its life. It must retain its connection with the truth of the Cross, the power of the Holy Spirit that is irreducible to any social or ideological construction.

As long as there are jealousy and rivalry among you, that surely means that you are still living by your natural inclinations and by merely human principles. While there is one that says “I belong to Paul” and another that says “I belong to Apollos” are you not being only too human? For what is Apollos and what is Paul? The servants through whom you came believe and each has only what the Lord has given him. I did the planting, Apollos did the watering, but God gave growth. In this, neither the planter nor the waterer counts for anything; only God, who gives growth.[2]

Paul, Apollos, and Cephas have of course made substantial contributions to the spiritual life of the Corinthian community. Had they not arisen to announce the Gospel, these people could never have been endowed with knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. Nonetheless, the vibrance of the community cannot be attributed solely to the labor of these steadfast teachers. It is God who gives growth. Only the hand of divine assistance can complete the process. And it is only in such completion that the service of the Apostles takes on significance. Otherwise, all they can boast of is wet seeds. Paul then goes on to elaborate a radical formula of spiritual life. In it, the reader can see a connection with the verse of Baha’u’llah: O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.[3]

There is to be no room for self-delusion. Any one of you who thinks he is wise by worldly standards must learn to be a fool in order to be really wise. For the wisdom of the world is folly to God… So there is to be no boasting about human beings: everything belongs to you, whether it is Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, the world, life or death, the present or the future- all belong to you; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.[4]

Through Christ, one comes in possession of all things, not in terms of this world and its standards, but in the sight of God which stands above the sight of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, and with them the world, life or death, the present or the future. While retaining their finite human existence, the faithful participate in God’s universal sovereignty.

[1] 1Cor 1.10-16
[2] 1Cor 3.3-7
[3] HWA 1
[4] 1 Cor 3.18-22

1 comment:

  1. For me this is a very welcome introduction to the New Testament and Christianity, and the universal message contained therein. Thank you, and I will read any upcoming episodes!