Choose unity (1 Cor 4:14-21)

As we come to the final instalment of our look at 1 Cor 1-4, Paul presents a choice. Will the Corinthian church – and will we – choose division or unity?

(If this is your first visit to the site, you might want to start from the beginning of our 1 Corinthians series a few weeks ago, or wait until tomorrow when we start something new.)

Because his intent in all of this – even the sarcastic rebuke we read yesterday – wasn’t intended to shame them, so much as correct their attitude and behaviour:

4:14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.

It was common for ancient orators and writers to make their motives explicit – that they had goodwill toward their audience, and their audience’s best interests in mind. Paul is no exception, wanting not to pronounce condemnation on the church, but to transform them.

In fact, he uses the language of family to remind them of their special bond in the gospel:

4:15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.

He’s reminding the Corinthians of how he founded their church, and this alone should be enough for them to follow his example in rejecting the world’s values and embrace the shame of servanthood:

4:16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.

Although Paul couldn’t be there in person, he sends Timothy along with the letter (there was no postal service in the first century). But Timothy isn’t just a courier; he’s also a model of how Paul lives and teaches, and thus a reminder of what the church should be doing.

4:17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

(Every church. Don’t think you’re special. Don’t think you’re different!)

In Paul’s absence, it seems, some have rejected Paul’s approach, perhaps swayed by the sophistication of other teachers like Apollos:

4:18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.

Paul gives a warning to such people:

4:19-20 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.

Or more literally, the kingdom of God is not by word but by power. That is, fancy rhetoric is irrelevant; it is the power of the Spirit that brings in the kingdom of God, which is why Paul rejected the eloquence the Corinthians so craved (1:17).

And then he presents them with a choice:

4:21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

In other words, will this letter and Timothy’s presence sort it? Or will I have to come and kick some heads?

Sadly, it seems, Paul had to come. He describes it in 2 Cor 2:1 as a “painful visit”, and it needed to be followed up by a harsh letter (2 Cor 7:8).* But it eventually had an effect, as a report from Titus tells Paul of the church’s repentance (2 Cor 7:6-7); 2 Corinthians was largely written to “clear the air” and repair the relationship between Paul and the church.

All this is of historical interest, and gives us some background for reading 2 Corinthians. But more importantly, it asks us the question: do we need to repent of our worldly way of judging things?

When God rebukes us, it’s in order to correct us. Like Paul, he doesn’t do it to shame or condemn us; it’s to give us the opportunity to repent (v14). He, too, is our loving Father, and longs for us to live like he intended (v15).

For this reason, he has sent us – well, maybe not Timothy, but the example of Paul preserved in Scripture, and the countless faithful leaders who have lived throughout the centuries (v17). They serve not merely to teach, but to demonstrate what it’s like to live by values that don’t belong to this world, but to the coming kingdom.

God, too, will come to judge (v19), even though some in the church act like he won’t (v18). And he gives us the choice: with a rod of discipline, or in love with a gentle spirit (v21). It’s like the two-edged sword of the sign of Emmanuel: God-with-us can be good or bad, depending on whether we are found faithful.

Now what kind of judgement are we talking about? From 3:17 we saw that those who actively destroy God’s church will themselves be destroyed by God. But perhaps also there are judgements – like Paul’s coming – that occur within history, rather than at the end of it. Jesus foreshadows as much in his letters to the seven churches (Rev 2-3) where he warns that a church may have their lampstand removed if they don’t repent. It may mean a church that continues to live by the values of the world around it, that continues to be divided, that continues to be ungodly – will cease to exist. (That seems to have happened to some of the 7 churches.) Or perhaps it means that God will bypass that church in his purposes; that he’ll do his work around them, rather than through them.

A friend told me of a church in which an incident had happened 80 years ago. Apparently there was a big tree on the church’s property, and one of the branches was overhanging into a neighbour’s yard, dropping leaves. The neighbour complained, and so one of the church members chopped off the offending branch. The problem was, that tree had been planted a long time ago in memory of another member’s grandfather.

And so began a long war between these two members. And their families. And their children. And their children’s children. Three generations of hostility with both sides opposing anything the other suggested on principle. And the church wonders why they haven’t seen a single convert in decades. Maybe their lampstand has been removed? Maybe God has come in judgement, because they allowed division and rivalry to reign, rather than the values of the kingdom.

Choose unity, says Paul.

1:10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,  in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

To think about

Are there any areas in which you, or your church, need to repent when it comes to bringing worldly judgements into the church?

We’ve been talking about this issue for nearly three weeks. Perhaps now is the time God has laid it on your heart to repent, or to do something proactive to restore unity in your community of faith.


* There is evidence for four letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians: in what we call 1 Corinthians he speaks of a previous letter (1 Cor 5:9) which we no longer have; he then wrote 1 Corinthians; he then wrote the harsh letter (Cor 7:8) which has been lost, although some think it got appended to 2 Corinthians, and is the last 4 chapters; and, finally, 2 Corinthians.

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