What do we do when we disagree with some of the fundamentals not only of the faith but of the created order? What do we do when we live in a culture that desires to redefine not only right and wrong but what is true and false?
1. First, Paul is addressing not simply a particular sin – a man sleeping with his mother or step-mother – but the attitude of the church toward it. They are not only accepting of it but actually proud of their attitude toward it. They have no shame or guilt about the issue. They are completely gone over to the other side and see accepting the man and his behavior as something good. It is not only permissible or a situation of “don’t ask/don’t tell” but it is something they consider to be a mark of distinction for their congregation. They are not only accepting the behavior. They are proud of their tolerance for it. They are boasting about it to others.
This is partly a problem Paul has with not only the Corinthians but with other churches. They have taken some of the things he has said about freedom and twisted them to mean there are no rules. For example in 1 Corinthians 6:12 he quotes himself as saying, “Everything is permissible for me” but then has to go on to explain what that really means.
In Romans 3:21 Paul writes about “righteousness apart from the Law” and some in the early church took that to mean there were no laws and rules. They could do as they pleased with their bodies and their minds. In fact, one of the earliest heresies was about this very point. Gnosticism taught that our bodies were evil and our souls were good. Therefore, it did not matter what we did with our bodies because it was only our souls and minds that mattered.
In 1 Corinthians 2:15 Paul wrote to them, “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment..” and people took that to mean one could do what they pleased if they were spiritual. No one could judge their behavior.
In Galatians 3 Paul scolds the church for returning to the Law after having begun in the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
It was a constant battle then – and now – for the church to decide what is legalism and what is proper order. What is Law and what is License? This is why there seems to be a growing rift between our perception of Jesus and of Paul. Jesus was loving, accepting and tolerant of sinners of all kinds while Paul seems narrow-minded, opinionated and harsh. It’s a false choice.
The Church saw themselves as separate from the world but separate in the sense of not being one of the common people. Their separation was really elitism that only compounded their desire to be progressive and accepting. They were not “holier than thou” at all. They were fighting over status and whose teachers were held in highest esteem. They were so busy creating celebrities and followings that the effect of the teaching on their lives had been lost. They were so caught up in their superficial games they had lost all sense of the corruption of sin in the church.
2. Paul is not addressing those who struggle with sin but those who have chosen sin intentionally. You may recall the words of C.S. Lewis on this: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
There is another way of looking at this issue of choosing to sin. Look at Luke 17:20-21. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Or, as Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When Paul says the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God, we have often taken that to mean these people – thieves, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers and greedy people among other kinds of sinners – will not go to heaven. If that is the case then what hope do any of us have? Where does the list end? What about child molesters or serial killers or people who hack Facebook to manipulate elections? Maybe another way to read this is these people or insofar as these words describe us will not experience the kingdom of God here in this life as much as we might. Our sin separates us from our inheritance – but not condemning us to damnation. If drunkards do not go to heaven or if thieves do not go to heaven then how many other sins will keep us from the same fate? Perhaps we inherit as much of the kingdom of God as we choose in this life as well as in the next. The more we choose the kingdom in this life the more we will enjoy the complete kingdom in the next.
The church was choosing to redefine right and wrong – true and false. I like what the theologian N.T. Wright says. “You can vote on making black white and white black and pass it with an overwhelming majority but that does not make it true.” We can redefine what is right and what is wrong but we cannot redefine what is true and what is false. It was not only a particular kind of sin that was growing in the church. It was an attitude toward sin that was destroying the church. “We can vote on what is true and what is not.”
Paul is fighting to keep these corruptions from infecting the rest of the church.
I say “infecting” because that is how some sins operate. You’ll remember the parable of the wheat and the tares.
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from? ’An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
Some divisions are “wheat and tare” issues. If you try to resolve them completely you will destroy the church. However, there are some issues that are life and death because they attack the life of the church. Tares are weeds that grow up and cause divisions and disagreements. What Paul is addressing is “leaven and yeast” that destroy congregations. They destroy trust and the entire fabric of a community.
We’ve been reading about the Russian strategy of playing on our divisions and rage over our differences. It was generally non-partisan but focused primarily on stirring up and increasing our anger and stoking mistrust. “The overarching goal, during the election and now, is to expand and exploit divisions, attacking the American social fabric where it is most vulnerable, along lines of race, gender, class and creed. The broader Russian strategy is pretty clearly about destabilizing the country by focusing on and amplifying existing divisions, rather than supporting any one political party.” Jonathan Morgan
Paul is not simply addressing personal holiness here. He is fighting for the life of the church as a body. He is talking about an infection that will destroy trust and eventually kill the church.
3. Why is he so interested in immorality and sexual sin? Because the broken connection between immorality and our understanding of God and ourselves infected Israel over and over again. Look at Deuteronomy 12:4: “You must not worship The Lord God in their way.” Deuteronomy 12:30: “…be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”
The destruction is not immediate but it is inevitable. These issues are not up for a vote. They are life and death.
4. Then Paul goes on to address how they are handling the everyday issues of disagreements and disputes. He is appalled they are so willing to set aside all moral rules but they are caught up in fighting over the trivial. They are proud of how open and accepting they have become and yet the world sees them as devouring each other with lawsuits and fights. Of course, once we leave the protection of right and wrong/true and false we soon discover what happens. We turn on each other to protect ourselves from every slight and misunderstanding. We divide into camps and parties. We attack each other in public. We swallow a camel and choke on a gnat.
James 4:1-3: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Every culture has their way of handling disputes. The Eskimos have what is called a “singing-duel” where each party attempts to sing to the village what their complaint is and then go on to sing the most vicious and outrageous slurs they can against their opponent. It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Hook” with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. You remember the dinner where Robin Williams as Peter completely destroys Rufio with insults and not only wins the contest but recovers his identity.
“‘In Alaska and in Greenland all disputes except murder are settled by a song duel. In these areas an Eskimo male is often as acclaimed for his ability to sing insults as for his hunting prowess. The song duel consists of lampoons, insults, and obscenities that the disputants sing to each other and, of course, to their delighted audience…The verses are earthy and very much to the point: they are intended to humiliate, and no physical deformity, personal shame or family trouble is sacred. As verse after verse is sung in term by the opponents, the audience begins to take sides; it applauds one singer a bit longer and laughs a bit louder at his lampoons. Finally he is the only one to get applause, and he thereby becomes the winner of a bloodless contest.’”
The Choctaw play stick ball to settle arguments between individuals and tribes and these are all forms of community entertainment.
Unfortunately, our disputes have become community entertainment as well. We lash out at each other in public and completely ignore the one great command Christ left, “You will love each other.” The world looks forward to our next argument being played out in the media and it totally goes against how we should appear to an unbelieving world. They bait us with notoriety and influence and we respond.
There will always be disputes and disagreements but, for Paul, the larger issue was one of maturity and our preparation for something far larger than settling disputes and living in peace with each other. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels?”
We are being prepared to judge the angels and to do that we need to become wise in ways we cannot imagine. We are not just to live in peace with each other in this life. We are being prepared for a much larger role in the next. We don’t think much about this. It’s not simply a matter of “why can’t we all just get along?” but we are being prepared for something truly extraordinary in the future. We are being prepared to rule.
Again, conflicts and disagreements are different from infections. The goal of conflict resolution is unity and we all know that unresolved conflict does not go away. It festers.
5. Finally, Paul is not just interested in personal piety. We are a body with obligations to each other. That word “obligation” is not very popular today. We see ourselves as volunteers or as independent agents who are free to move around as we wish. If we are not getting what we think we need from one church we just move to another. In fact, one of the benefits of a large church is the ability it gives us not to get involved or obligated and to remain anonymous and free. We can come and go as we please. As one person put it we have become “spiritual connoisseurs” who, like the Corinthians, had highly developed religious tastes and preferences but no commitments. Membership but nothing that would restrict or limit our freedom.
I think this is especially appealing to those of us who have the sense of “been there and done that and got the t-shirt” related to church. We’ve been on the committees, served as teachers and done the mission trips. Now is our time to consider the church one of the many options for making our lives better. It’s one of a growing assortment of experiences we can choose to enhance our lives but not something that has priority. Our kids are raised. We have more time and outside interests. Why get tied down again?
But Paul is saying our lives are bound up with each other. We are accountable to each other in ways that make us uncomfortable. My life affects you and your life affects mine. Who you are in your behavior is more than personal. I like the way Dr. John English put it to me in talking about his view of leadership at Bethesda Clinic. He said his leadership responsibility was not just a personal responsibility of integrity but the responsibility of spiritual reality. His spiritual maturity matters to the organization.
In a very real sense you and I are not our own and our choices do not just affect us individually. My choices affect you and yours affect me. We often think of good choices and habits as being almost completely value neutral or completely personal. They are not. They are our contributions to this community. They are the ways we build trust and build up our resistance to infection.
Paul describes the things that dissolve trust and destroy community: greed, immorality, swindling and theft.
What are those things that weave trust as we practice them? Contentment, faithfulness, restraint, honesty, and generosity. Whenever we practice those things we are making others the beneficiaries of our behavior. When you choose them you are making a gift to me. You are not just resisting personal temptation or growing spiritually personally. You are building up the church in ways you cannot see.
The author Wendell Berry talks about being in a place that obligates you and you have rightful expectations of that place. It is a place that anchors you and has a claim on you. It limits you and at the same time begins to give your life definition and meaning.
You and I will make choices this week that affect each other. When you choose faithfulness it helps me be faithful. When I choose contentment it influences you. When you are honest in your dealings with people it builds all of us up. When I restrain myself it makes a deposit into the general fund we are building up with our lives. That is how we grow together. Choose well this week. It matters.