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The Corinthian Prescription for Church Health

by John Crowe


A long time ago, a church leader in a foreign country wrote to a church in another far away country. He describes that church as being involved in “…matters of dispute…which a few headstrong and self-willed persons have kindled to such a pitch of madness that your name, once revered and renowned and lovely in the sight of all men, hath been greatly reviled…Your division hath perverted many; it hath brought many to despair, many to doubting, and all of us to sorrow. And your sedition still continueth. Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What wrote he first unto you in the beginning of the Gospel?”

This story happened 40 years after the apostle Paul wrote I Corinthians. It is a story of how a church can fall back into dishealth when it fails to practice Paul’s prescription for a church health via his focus on the church as the body of Christ. Clement of Rome wrote them again and quoted Paul at length. Not only had the Corinthians church fallen into dishealth again, but their unhealthy state hindered the growth of the church at Rome. From this story, we also learn the truth that church health does influence church growth.

Today, the UMC finds itself in a state of dishealth and in need of hearing the Corinthian prescription for church health once again. Our doctrinal statement from the former E.U.B. defines the church as “the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic.”

The apostle Paul describes the church at Corinth as being called to be holy along with all those everywhere who call on our Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1:2). He also defines the church as the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12. My study of the Corinthians epistles, the epistle to the Ephesians along with I and II Timothy lead me to see four levels of the church’s health as the body of Christ. These four levels of church health sheds light upon the current attack upon the health of the body of Christ called United Methodists.

  1. On one level, dishealth entered the Corinthian church via a divisive focus upon favorite preachers instead of on the Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 1:10-17; 3:1-9). Divisive disease also entered the church through false preaching concerning the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Christ (I Cor. 15). Not only did a poor relationship to the Lord Jesus as the head of the body and to basic Christian doctrine hurt the church’s health, but so did a poor relationship to basic Christian sexual morals (I Cor. 5).

    The health of churches today is being attacked on the same level. People in favor of condoning homosexuality lead people into a divisive focus upon another Jesus by discounting the historic doctrine of Jesus Christ. From the basis of their selective handling of Scripture, they proclaim a Jesus who demands the church to condone homosexuality as a moral Christian lifestyle. Christ’s holy church, the body of Christ called to be a holy people, again needs to hear Jesus’ calling for his body to be healthy by being in the world and yet not of it.

  2. Jesus also said that people would know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). The divisive disease of unloving relationships showed itself in the Corinthian church in the law suits between Christians, viewing spiritual gifts as signs of superiority, not appreciating each member of the body’s role with their own unique gifts and graces, and a selfish participation in the Lord’s Supper. Paul also rebukes their lack of love seen in tolerating sexual immorality among them of a kind that did not occur even among the pagans (I Cor. 5).

    Again, the health of the body of Christ today is being attacked on the same level. People in favor of condoning homosexuality lead people into a divisive focus upon a view of Christian love that is neither Christian nor love. Their boasting of being so loving is not good. Within this level of loving Christian relationship, people need a reminder that healthy Christian loving relationships have their boundaries as well. Christian love does not contradict the holiness of Jesus Christ that he calls his body to live in every arena of life as outlined in more detail in the epistles.

  3. Paul’s focus on love in I Cor. 13 within the context of the body of Christ and spiritual gifts and in Eph. 5 within the context of the unity of the body of Christ and the gifts of ministry leads us to a third level of church health. While the close of I Cor. 12 mentions the place of ministries within the body of Christ before writing about love in I Cor. 13, Eph. 4 describes the functions of these ministries within the body of Christ before writing about love in Eph. 5. The function of these ministries of “apostles…prophets...evangelists…pastors and teachers, is instrumental within the theme of unity within the body of Christ. Such ministries are called to equip the unity of the body in the bond of peace to mature to the unity of the faith where people are no longer tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine. In light of Ephesians 4, pastoral ministry seeks to equip the health of the church’s unity toward maturity in Christ from whom the whole body builds itself up in love. Such an equipping ministry calls for a dual focus upon both sound doctrine and sound Christian living as outlined in the epistles. Whenever such equipping is either not done or received then the healthy unity of the church breaks down.

    Again, the health of the body of Christ today is being attacked on the same level. Pastors and other church leaders in favor of condoning homosexuality lead people into a divisive focus upon a view of Christian doctrine and living contrary to the call of Ephesians and Corinthians. Such pastors and church leaders illustrate Paul’s warning of the savage wolves who do not spare the flock, but distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them (Acts 20:25-31). We must remind pastors and church leaders of their biblical call to equip the church toward mature Christian love and to stand firm against Godlessness and false doctrine as Paul warned Timothy in his epistles. Also, church leadership needs to remember that Jesus’ prayer for unity among his disciples for the sake of effective evangelistic outreach also included a prayer for sanctification through the Word and protection from the evil one (John 17).

  4. Paul’s focus on the role of pastors and church leaders in equipping the healthy, loving unity of the body of Christ leads us to a very deep and individual level of church health. I & II Timothy sound a clear call for a concern about the character of pastors and church leaders. Even Timothy is exhorted to watch his life and doctrine closely (I Tim. 4:16). This is important, for even today some have wandered from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith and turned to meaningless talk (I Tim. 1:5).

    Again, the health of the body of Christ today is being attacked on the same level. Pastors and other church leaders in favor of condoning homosexuality make personality sovereign over character. They re-make spiritual formation to serve the sovereign inner self and not the sovereign God who is distinct from the self. Pastors and church leaders need to be called to abiding in the vine, Jesus Christ, for the sake of his reforming character work in every area of their lives.

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection in a few weeks, let us consider the health of the church, the body of Christ, which Jesus bought with his shed blood. Wherever you find yourself in the Body of Christ, are you practicing the Corinthian prescription for developing a healthy church or are you a Corinthian crippler destroying the health of the body of Christ?

In Christ,

Rev. John M. Crowe, A.P.C
http://www.gbgm-umc.org/gibsonmemorial/pastor.html
Academy of Parish Clergy http://www.apclergy.org


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