Christian congregations can divide for the most puzzling reasons. It’s one thing if a church has truly abandoned the gospel. But it’s another to come to blows (sometimes literally!) over what color the new carpet should be. But people are people, even in the church. And when they feel slighted, disrespected, or disempowered, what should be molehills become mountains–and mountains, sometimes, become volcanoes. (Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our lava.)
Sad to say, pastors often become the focal point of the negativity. Church members may march up to them in righteous indignation and demand to know what they’re doing about this or that. Or they take the more anonymous route, avoiding direct confrontation but quietly sowing dissension in the hallways and parking lot.
Is that how it was in Corinth? Many of the Christians there seemed to have a rather low opinion of Paul and made no secret of it. Paul’s response was to insist that as a servant of the gospel, he answered only to Jesus–and that therefore their judgment of him was of little consequence.
As noted in the last post, this can be a dangerous way of thinking, if wielded by pastors who consider themselves above human censure. Many passages of Scripture have been twisted to serve the needs of those in power. And you can bet that when Paul’s letter was read aloud in the public assembly, as it surely was, that some would have thought Paul hopelessly arrogant.
But they probably thought that already, before the letter was even written.
We should always keep in mind that Paul was not merely trying to change their behavior, but their way of thinking, shaped as it was by the social-climbing values and class consciousness of Corinth. Their imaginations needed to be reshaped to see beyond the matter of passing judgment on others in the present to the final judgment that awaited them in the future:
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. (1 Cor 4:5, NRSV)
Unless they took the long view, they would continue to be caught up in the worldly distinctions of status that seemed so precious at the time. Paul wasn’t rhetorically sticking out his tongue; he was pointing them to the eschatological reality that defined his whole way of thinking about his life and mission. He anticipated the day in which he would stand before his Lord to give account. He knew that on that day, nothing would be hidden. And he wanted more than anything else to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”
I don’t know about you, but I have “purposes of the heart” that I would prefer to keep shrouded in darkness instead of being brought into the light of day. What would change if I consistently imagined myself standing before the searching gaze of Jesus? What would it take for me to anticipate that day as one of joy rather than fear?
And if all believers were so transformed, what might change in our self-righteous and judgmental behaviors toward each other?