Trouble In Corinth

1Corinthians 4:14-21

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 7, 2003


            Comparatively speaking, St. Giles Kingsway is a healthy church. We are, by no means, a perfect church, but we are—in my mind—a healthy church. It would not be accurate then, to substitute Corinth with St. Giles Kingsway. Today’s sermon title should not read ‘Trouble at St. Giles Kingsway’.


            With that being said, our congregation has no shortage of challenges in front of us. And what does one do when faced with a significant challenge? You look for help. You seek advice.


            Beloved, the Corinthian church has gone before us and we have the advantage of seeing how Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, instructed this troubled congregation.


            We who grew up as the younger sibling understand how this principle works. We see our older brother or sister do something that invokes the wrath of our parents, and we quickly learn what we are not to do. And here we see that the New Testament is replete with examples of what the Christian, and what the Christian Church, should not be engaged in.


There is much for us to learn from Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian Church. My prayer is that, for the next 4 months, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church would be a guide and strength to our own congregation.


            It is probable that some of you are like me in that you have a habit of reading the signs in front of other churches. Perhaps you have noticed that some churches pride themselves as ‘New Testament Churches’. The sign on the lawn reads, ‘So-and-so Community Church – A New Testament Church’.


            Whenever I read a sign like that, my reaction is the same, ‘Which one?’ Is this the Galatian church, which has so quickly deserted the Gospel? Or is this the church in Ephesus, which has reportedly ‘left its first love’? Or is this the church in Pergamos, which has tolerated harmful doctrines and immoral behaviour? Is this the church of Laodicea, which had become lukewarm? Or is this the church in Corinth, which, quite frankly, had a myriad of serious problems?


You see, to be a ‘New Testament Church’ is not necessarily a good thing. Our goal then, is not to be a ‘New Testament’ church; our goal is to be a church that is faithful to New Testament instruction. There is a difference. The New Testament is filled with examples—individual and corporate examples—of what not to do. So as we make our way through 1Corinthians we should be mindful of the examples that are meant to persuade us away from certain behaviours, and we should also be attentive to the instruction that calls upon us to do certain things.


My reason for beginning a study in 1Corinthians in chapter 4 is that, here, we get a glimpse into Paul’s motivation for writing this letter.


Acts chapter 18 provides us with a brief summary of Paul’s founding visit to Corinth—a visit that lasted a year and a half (Acts 18:11). After helping to establish the church in Corinth, Paul did not return there for many years. It appears, however, that Paul was quite diligent in following up with this congregation through correspondence and by sending delegates.


We should also note the fact that 1Corinthians is not the first letter Paul wrote to this church. In chapter 5, Paul refers to a previous letter of his that was sent to the Corinthians (5:9). And, in chapter 7, Paul refers to a letter that he had received from the Corinthian congregation (7:1). What we have then, in First and Second Corinthians is not the exhaustive correspondence from Paul to the church in Corinth, but the authoritative correspondence. That is to say that, the early church regarded two of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to be relevant and authoritative for the Christian church of every age.


So why did Paul write such a forceful letter to the Corinthian church? Paul’s answer: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ I became your father through the gospel”(4:14, 15).


Paul does not want to embarrass the Corinthian church with his words. Paul’s desire is to spur them on to greater faithfulness. This should be the goal of every preacher. If ever my words appear unduly severe, please know that the message from this pulpit is never meant to shame you, but it is intended to lovingly admonish you.


With each passing month, my affection for the people of this congregation grows stronger. And yet, as I consider the depth of my affection for all of you, I recognize how Paul was more uniquely bound to the people of the Corinthian church. When Paul describes himself as their “father through the gospel” he means to remind the Corinthian church that it was his teaching that brought them to Christ in the first place. Paul was, in a real sense, their spiritual father.


I pray that 5, 10, years from now I can look out and say the same for some at St. Giles Kingsway. But as I look out now, there are some who are here today because Clyde Ervine brought you the gospel. Some of you are here today because Bill Adamson brought you the gospel. And, some of you are here because you responded to the gospel preached to you by a minister from your childhood.


Beloved, consider how unique, consider how special, your relationship is to that minister who first presented you with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This was the nature of Paul’s relationship to the Christians in Corinth.


Paul was extremely close to the Christians in Corinth, but this did not preclude him from exhorting them, and even rebuking them, for engaging in behaviour that was harmful to the body of Christ. We learn from Paul that the Christian life involves more than an individual pursuit of godliness. The Christian life also requires a corporate response. The Christian life requires the healthy participation of individuals in a local community of faith.


The qualification of ‘healthy’ participation is my own, but Paul inspired my qualification. Paul does not ask for just any kind of participation; he exhorts them specifically, “be imitators of me”(4:16). And, if anyone wonders whom Paul is following, he explains that in sending them Timothy he means to “remind (them) of (his) ways which are in Christ”(4:17).


We participate in the body of Christ then, not according to our own design, but according to the design of Christ. We see this design of Christ in the Gospels, where His life and teachings are revealed. We also see the design of Christ in the life and teachings of His disciples—“be imitators of me”, Paul says.


This, of course, is easier said than done. Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians to imitate him while he, at the same time, battles individuals within the Corinthian church who are challenging his apostolic authority. Paul describes these individuals as “arrogant”(4:18,19).


Paul’s warning to the Christians of Corinth is a sober reminder that the local church is seldom free from conflict. As Howard Hendricks is fond of asking rhetorically, ‘Do you have people in your church? Then you have problems in your church!’


Thankfully, St. Giles Kingsway does not share the same troubles as the ancient church of Corinth, but again, we are not without significant challenges. And, if we are going to effectively address these challenges, it will require the healthy participation of our membership.


It is an easy thing to criticize the Christian Church; it is an easy thing to throw stones and to point fingers. The local church is fallible enough in its efforts that it is not difficult to find a target for our complaints. It is a much harder thing to serve the church sacrificially. It is a much harder thing to look in on a church in need and respond to a plea for help.


Beloved, I exhort you to choose to serve Christ’s church here at St. Giles Kingsway. Because, if we are busy rowing the boat we will not have any time left to rock the boat. So, I ask you this day: Are you willing to grab an oar? Are you willing to pull your weight in this boat called St. Giles Kingsway? Because the truth is, we need you—we need all of you.


I am glad to have a Sunday called ‘Rally Day’. I hope that ‘Rally Day’ is more than a neat slogan to get the children to return to Church School. I pray that ‘Rally Day’ reminds us that there is important work to be done in this place. I pray that ‘Rally Day’ reminds us that our efforts, and our gifts, are needed here.


            During my most recent holidays I officiated a wedding for a friend from high school. At the reception, I had the opportunity to speak to many old friends. One of these friends asked a most peculiar question. Obviously influenced in his thinking by his own line of work, this friend asked me, ‘Bryn, is your denomination setup in such a way that in 4-5 years from now you can leave for a better church?’


My response to my friend’s question was this, ‘If St. Giles Kingsway lives up to its potential there will be no better church.’


Will you join me in meeting the challenges that lie ahead? Will you contribute to the health of St. Giles Kingsway by giving your time and talents?


Come all Christians, be committed to the service of the Lord. Make your lives for Him more fitted, tune your hearts with one accord—for Jesus’ sake. Amen.