Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saints, or (Miserable) Sinners Saved by Grace?

If any group of Christians deserved to be called “sinners”, it ought to have been the Corinthian Christians. However, the Apostle Paul never—that’s right, never—uses the label “sinner” to identify any of them. How then does Paul identify and address them (emphasis mine)?

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)

To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: (2 Corinthians 1:1b, ESV)

This is in quite a contrast to many contemporary preaching and teaching that consistently tries to reinforce the idea that Christians are “sinners saved by grace” and similar phrases. In all cases, the implication is that the core identity of Christian is still “sinner” whose rottenness is just covered over by “Christ’s righteousness”. If that covering disappears or is taken off, what is revealed is what was there all along.

I believe anytime a preacher or teacher uses “sinner” to identify Christians, be it themselves or their audience, it is a false gospel message. It demeans the work of Christ. Not only that, it conveys the message that the power of the cross of Christ is/was not enough.

I used to accept this idea as true, that it was a statement of humility, that this kind of talk elevated the grace and power of God to save. Now I see it as a message, if not from the devil, then something very close to it. A message that cannot change the core identity of persons has no power at all. It is a false gospel.

Both Jesus and Paul are quite clear that “sinner” refers to those who have not yet experienced the redeeming and restoring power of God. Those who have, have had their core identities changed. They are no longer “sinner” but “saint”. This is the foundation of Paul’s appeals to the Corinthian believers: because they are no longer sinners, they really do have the power to behave in Christ-like ways. If Paul thought they were still sinners, he could not make that appeal—he would have written very different letters.  For both Jesus and Paul, a “sinner” is a slave to sin and has no power to do anything other than live out their condition. A “saint” is no longer a “sinner” and therefore has the power to choose to live the way of Christ.

None of this is to say that Christians, therefore, do not or cannot behave in ways that are sinful[1]. Far from it. Christians are saints who continue their struggle with their former habits resulting from sin. Saints are even free to choose to revert to their former ways (which is what Paul sees many of the Corinthians having done, and thus writing them a reminder and a warning, but even that choice does not change their identity!).

Some readers here may object on the grounds of a few passages that appear to identify Christians as “sinners”. These are primarily found in non-Pauline epistles (Hebrews, James), and one sentence found in 1 Timothy 1:15. A more comprehensive discussion of this overall topic that includes some of these texts can be found here: “Sinners” Who Are Forgiven or “Saints” Who Sin?—Robert Saucy

[1] I try to parse vocabulary here in a nuanced fashion. I define sin as being in a state of anti-God. Behaviors, actions, thoughts, etc. are not in themselves sin, but rather effects of the power of sin (c.f., Romans 1:18-2:11), i.e., sinfulness.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(1b) Three Roadblocks

Outline: 009-E2.1b-Three Roadblocks
Passage: 1 Corinthians 5:6b-6:8
Discussion Audio (1h25m)

The effectiveness of a Christian community’s mission is
directly affected by the quality of its relationships with those outside her.

Paul addresses three objections or excuses that the Corinthian Christians might raise toward his instructions to them.

The first excuse Paul anticipates is that the problems are a “small matter.” As far as Paul is concerned, there no problem is “small.” Just as leaven will eventually permeate an entire dough, a “small” problem will infect the entire community. The community must come together and do what it needs to do in order to remove itself of any “leaven.” The major issue is not any specific examples of problems, but rather, the result of allowing problems to spread: divisions and strife. A divided church community is powerless to perform its mission. A bickering church hold no appeal to those outside her. Paul must direct the church to come together and take action as a united community.

The second excuse Paul anticipates is that some among the community have wrong ideas about community and what freedom in Christ means. These seem to have an over-realized eschatology where they are already experiencing the full effects of salvation; i.e., the community of the saved is fully realized so they have no need to associate with those outside, and even more, there is danger with such associations; and, because salvation is fully realized, they can do whatever pleases them. The specific issue of immorality triggers Paul’s argument, but his main issue is with their misunderstandings around their responsibility to those within and without the community of faith. Their over-realized eschatology is compromising the church’s mission, and he must correct it.

The third excuse Paul anticipates is their lack of responsibility. There appears to have been a small, but powerful, faction within the Corinthian church. The other, larger group were unable or unwilling to directly confront the arrogant, powerful, and wealthy faction. Instead this larger group’s recourse (or at least some of them) was to take the problem to outside judges. The issue here isn’t about airing the community’s dirty laundry in public (most likely the public already knew quite well what was going on). The issue rather is that by doing so, the church community is admitting she is incapable of functioning as a responsible member of society. (Groups were expected to resolve problems amongst themselves.) The church would be shamed; she would lose honor. Not only that, but if the powerful group asserted that because freedom in Christ meant no responsibility to conform to societal norms and expectations, it would present the church as a direct threat to Roman rule. A church community that fails to perform as a good member of society has no power to perform her mission. Paul must remind her of her societal responsibilities.

The issue of a man’s sexual immorality in 5:1 triggers Paul’s three concerns in 5:6b-6:8. But immorality is not Paul’s primary concern. Paul’s primary interest is the church and her mission. Paul’s primary concern is that arrogance has given birth to a number of symptoms that are weakening and defeating the church and compromising her mission. Paul writes to bring attention to these issues and provide corrective guidance.

When this passage is read improperly (e.g., out of context, ignoring cultural norms, ignoring surrounding context), it gives rise to a number of misguided and harmful applications. First, churches can overly focus on sexual behaviors that are deemed “sin” when that was not Paul’s primary concern. Secondly, churches often miss the portion where Paul writes they are not arbiters of morality of those outside the church. Thirdly, the instruction to not bring matters to courts is misconstrued by churches and religious organizations and used as justification to cover-up misdeeds and criminal activity by members, volunteers, and employees, in the name of “protecting the organization’s reputation.” Doing any of these things goes directly against what Paul was trying to instruct in this very passage.

A community’s integrity in relationships within and without matter. They are the currency with which she gains a hearing among those not a part of her. Paul’s interest was to maintain the believing community’s honor so that her effectiveness for mission would not be compromised.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(1) Immorality and the Church

Outline: 008-E2.1-Immorality and the Church
Passage: 1 Corinthians 4:17-5:6a
Discussion Audio (1h26m)

Arrogance is the disease.
Immorality just happens to be one
symptom of arrogance
that Paul encounters in the Corinthian church

Although most English scholarship places the thought break between the first and second sections of 1 Corinthians at the ending verse of chapter 4, we follow Dr. Bailey’s rhetorical, historical, and literary analysis and begin the second essay with 4:17.

In many commonly held views of this epistle, Paul seems to be preoccupied with sex and immorality among the Corinthian church. Careful reading and interpretation show that this common view may actually be a misinterpretation and an overemphasis of something Paul indeed saw as a problem, but not the problem. Paul uses what he hears among the Corinthian Church as an example of something larger. A number of commentaries astutely note this observation. For example,

“As one sees through a careful, close reading of the text, Paul is upset because of the immorality in Corinth, but he treats that flamboyant phenomenon as a symptom of the true, deeper problem that he faces among the Corinthians, namely, their spiritual arrogance, which produces elitism or indifference that renders the congregation inactive and ineffective in living out God's will for their lives in this world.”[1]

For the modern Christian to use these texts then, as being primarily about sexual ethics places us in a dangerous position. The specific immorality that Paul condemns was certainly against Roman and Jewish laws and tradition, but in the modern West, legality of the practice differs from one jurisdiction to another. Thus some vital questions are raised in how modern Christians are to approach application of biblical text.

  • How much of what is considered ethical, moral, and legal are derived from cultural norms?
  • Does scripture prescribe/proscribe, or does it simply describe the way things were?
  • How can we determine when to apply specifics today, or to dismiss specifics and instead reach for deeper ethical considerations?

The purpose of laws regulating sexual practice and marriage in the ancient world were primarily for keeping clear legal heirs and lines of inheritance. The West, over the centuries, has assigned moral concepts to things in scripture whose existence was primarily legal, rather than moral or ethical in a universal sense.

Paul seeks to address the underlying disease: arrogance. It would appear that there was a small, vocal, powerful group within the Corinthian Church that flaunted and boasted about their supposed “spiritual freedom.” On the other side were those (larger in number) who saw the other group’s behavior as inappropriate but were afraid to do anything. Perhaps they were hoping that Paul or some other apostle would come and deal with the problem. Paul criticizes both groups. Both behaviors are equally bad, since both contribute to diminishing the true power that is found Jesus Christ.

Paul’s instruction is that churches must take responsibility for themselves to deal with issues that arise. By inference he states that he and the apostles do not hold any authority greater than that present in each gathering: the only Christian authority is found in “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul and the apostles will suggest and give counsel, but only the church can take action. Each member of the church has equal responsibility and authority to address and work out solutions to problems when they arise.

The counsel Paul provides is to throw the ____ (fool, idiot, or a stronger term) out of the spiritual body. The purpose is redemption. Based on our own culture we read “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” as some kind of punitive action where it is nothing of the sort. It is a metaphorical description of what Paul hopes to see happen when this man is shamed into repentance. Collectivism and shame/honor are so foreign to the Western mind that we too often fail to properly understand what Paul writes in this and other passages.

In a collectivist culture, the most important entity is the community—the family, the tribe or the country—and not the individual. Preserving the harmony of the community is everyone’s primary goal, and is perceived as much more important than the self-expression or self-fulfillment of the individual. A person’s identity comes not from distinguishing himself from the community, but in knowing and faithfully fulfilling his place… The highest goal and virtule in this sort of culture is supporting the community. This makes people happy (makarios).

Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become—permanently and spiritually—a part of the church. We become part of the family of God, with all the responsibilities and expectations that word connotes in the non-Western world. We don’t choose who else is a Christian with us. But we are committed to them, bound to them by the Spirit. And we are not free to dissociate our identities from them—mainly because once we are all in Christ, our own individual identities are no longer of primary importance.

Jesus viewed us—his church—as a collectivist community. He came to establish a people of God, over which he would reign as king. It is not really “me and Jesus.”[2]

For Paul there is no individual Christian or even individual congregations. All Christians and all churches exist as the universal church. In a mysterious way every Christian is spiritually connected to all others. What happens in one corner of the physical world does affect Christians on the other side of the globe.

Paul is unhappy with the whole of the Corinthian Church. He is displeased with the man who is violating legal codes and social taboos. He is displeased with the group that flaunts this as evidence that they are spiritually free and thus no longer bound by human traditions. And he is displeased with the silent majority that has failed to take action.

Paul appears to be of the mind that when the reputation of Christ is being tarnished, Christians must not remain silent, even if that means for a period of time it might result in strife and discord. The long term goals of Christ’s mission outweighs short term setbacks.

Christian unity is a foundational principle, but it cannot be achieved when one group arrogantly proclaims itself as true and silences everyone else. This is Paul’s primary concern in this section of 1 Corinthians.

[1] Understanding the Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians, entry 13 for 1 Cor. 5:1-13.

[2] Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understanding the Bible; E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien; Kindle edition, locations 1010, 1141, 1173.