Monday, November 25, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(5) No Identification in Mission

Outline: 019-E3.5-No Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22
Discussion Audio (54m)

What is Idolatry?

When we sit down to partake of Thanksgiving dinner, we in America don’t worry that somehow the turkey was first offered to idols to be blessed and think that somehow a demonic presence might have become a part of the flesh as a result. Or when we go to restaurants we don’t worry that in the front of the room is a altar where all the food is first offered to idols and blessed, the wait staff perform a ritual over them as we watch, and then they are cooked and offered to us.

This is the reality that was an everyday affair for the church in Corinth. This is the context to which Paul writes 1 Corinthians.

We have no way of truly identifying with the thoughts and emotions of the Corinthian believers. So it is easy to dismiss today’s passage as irrelevant to us. Or we reinterpret idolatry in a more general sense – which isn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe ends up missing Paul’s intent. For example, the consumerism, wealth, and preoccupation with material acquisitions during this time of year might lead to associating these things with idolatry of wealth. Idolatry can certainly be associated with wealth, but I don’t think this is a proper application of Paul’s words in our passage for today.

Paul affirms two spiritual realities: God’s and everything else. Paul’s words are directed against spiritual ideas, traditions, and practices that lead a person into communion with a spiritual reality that is opposed to God (which Paul describes as “communion with demons”). Here again the problem is that although most Christians still affirm two opposing spiritual realities, we really don’t live in an environment where reminders of these realities surround us.

The challenge for us is to find a way to bring home Paul’s message into our context without compromising his intent.

Throughout this third essay Paul’s concern has been around the issue of effectiveness in mission. He has written that the default position is to “become weak,” to become in need, and integrate into the community to become an incarnational missionary. He then wrote that some practices – those that are true to Christ and are reminders of his work – are appropriate to adopt and maintain, provided they do not become “magical” ends in themselves.

In today’s passage Paul writes about cultural practices that Christians ought never adopt. These are practices that are antithetical to the nature of Christ – his love, his compassion, grace, free-will, humility, faith. These are practices that if adopted by Christians and the church, will lead the community away from Christ and into the realm of “demons” – law over love, dogma over compassion, formulaic propositional “truths” over grace, manipulation and coercion over free-will, authoritarianism over humility, certainty over faith.

We might wish that Paul left a more concrete list of things to avoid, but he didn’t. No, what he left were principles by which we are left to judge for ourselves (v15) as we encounter our own questions about what practices to adopt and what to avoid. What will build up the community of Christ? What will destroy? What is motivated by love? What is motivated by self-interest?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(4) Partial Identification in Mission

Outline: 018-E3.4-Partial Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Discussion Audio (1h33m)

Sacraments are Reminders of Your Identity

If we are truly honest with ourselves, most (all?) of us would prefer a magical religion; a happily-ever-after, fairytale religion – a religion where a deity magically makes everything better and we are lifted out of all the trials and temptations of life. If we can’t have that, the next best religion is the kind where everything is prescribed: follow these exact steps and you can better the odds of blessings. We prefer religions that can do something for us.

Some of the Christians in Corinth seemed to hold to a magical view of Christian sacraments. They apparently thought that Baptism and Eucharist conferred some kind of divine warding against paganism and idolatry. Thus, they reasoned, it no longer mattered where and what they ate and drank, or whether or not they participated in some of the pagan temple rituals, as long as they continued to observe Christian sacraments. Not only that but they were trying to force this magical view as “Christian” upon others who had questions and reservations about this line of reasoning and action.

In today’s passage – 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – Paul works through Hebrew history of the exodus to correct the errant view of sacraments. He writes, by analogy, how the Israelites were afforded experiencing the great sacraments of miraculous deliverance and provisions, yet most failed to respond in an appropriate manner to these sacramental signs. Paul writes that those in Corinth, because of their erroneous reasoning, are likewise in danger of failing to fulfill the purposes that God desires for and through them. Paul explains that the sacraments are not magic that provides benefits to those who participate in them, but rather, the sacraments are reminders of what God has done for them in the past and present reminders of who they are in Christ: the sacraments have no innate magic or even value. They are reminders that we are nothing apart from Christ.

We can easily turn our religious beliefs and traditions into magical wishes, or idolatry.

Jews thought of idolatry as a matter of worshiping the wrong gods, and therefore something that only Gentiles could do. Paul thought more deeply on the matter. He saw that idolatry was a disease of human freedom, found as widely among Jews as among Gentiles. Idolatry begins where faith begins, in the perception of human existence as contingent and needy. But whereas faith accepts such contingency as also a gift from a loving creator from whom both existence and worth derive, idolatry refuses a dependent relationship on God. It seeks to establish one's own existence and worth apart from the claim of God by effort and striving ("works '') of one's own.[1]

Whenever we look upon beliefs and traditions as somehow granting, or helping us to maintain, a right relationship (righteousness) with God, we turn religion into an idol whereby we try take control of how God relates to us and to other people; i.e., idolatry.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13 ESV)

This is a text that is too frequently misunderstood and misapplied. Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians explains,

Dealt with in isolation from the passage in which it occurs, this verse is sometimes turned into a quasitheological philosophical explanation of human suffering, evil, and divine will. The statement is elaborate and does perhaps invite such exposition and speculation. Yet, one must see that this verse is not an isolated philosophical statement that purports to delineate intricate facets of life. Paul speaks to the Corinthians in context: They are arrogant, overly self-confident, believing themselves to be "standing firm." But, Paul says, "Watch out!" The Corinthians are not above the unpleasant complications of normal human existence, and facing that fact they have one hope: the faithfulness of God. God is trustworthy, and even if the situation seems impossible, nothing is beyond God's power and grace. When the Corinthians confront times of trouble they should not deny their susceptibility to temptation or trust their own superspirituality to see them through. Rather, they need to remember, to know, and to act on the one ultimate assurance that is their real security: God is faithful. The tendency to overread this verse is a temptation within itself, but despite the mysterious matters that it raises, the plain sense of the verse is a call to recognize and to trust God.[2]

When seen in context, verse 13 contains words of encouragement specifically in regards to the tension that Christians face when dealing with the question of how best to “become weak” and “identify fully” with those whom they are called to minister to. The text is not a blanket promise that Christians will never face any trials or temptations beyond their ability to cope.

What the text, in context, promises is that in mission work Christians will be given wisdom and strength to avoid succumbing to idolatry. The text does not promise that difficulties in making appropriate decisions will be magically removed. Rather the text implies that mission work will always involve difficult issues. The promise is that Christians will be “able to endure it” because God is faithful. This returns to the end of chapter 9 where Paul wrote about discipline: effective mission work requires great energy and discipline. In 10:13 Paul writes that God will reward those who discipline themselves for mission with the strength to sort out the tensions such work involves.

Christianity does not promise magic for us.
It promises the faithfulness of God and the strength to endure
so that Christians can be effective in their incarnational ministry
for others.

[1] Reading the New Testament Series: Romans, entry for Romans 3:9.

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 10:13.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(3) Full Identification in Mission

Outline: 017-E3.3-Full Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
Discussion Audio (1h05m)

Flexibility requires enormous effort and discipline

In my experience, the passage for today – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 – is frequently treated as two separate topics: 1) vv.19-22 dealing with how Christians need to adapt their behaviors and message to their audience; and 2) vv.23-27 dealing with how Christians need to discipline themselves so that they will receive the “prize” and not be “disqualified.”

The problem with looking at this passage as two separate topics is that v.23 begins, “I [Paul] do it all for the gospel…” Paul refers to his words regarding adaptation as the goal of his discipline. When seen this way, the commonly given interpretation of “prize” as heaven/eternal life/salvation no longer makes much sense.

Christians often have trouble with the first part as well. Paul seems a bit wishy-wash, an accommodationist. “Why can’t he be consistent in his behaviors?” we might ask. Or, “Why can’t he stick to his principles?” – if he really believes the Torah has no bearing on salvation and righteousness, why does he admit to kowtowing to the Jews?

The range of interpretations that has been suggested by commentators is remarkable, moving from an understanding of Paul as being totally selfless—perhaps in a psychologically unhealthy manner indicative of a loss of identity—to the contention that Paul was an opportunist in his dealings with potential converts. Careful reading of the text, however, indicates that such extreme interpretations are stereotyped, falling short of full comprehension of the subtlety of Paul's methods of mission and ministry.[1]

To put it in more contemporary terms, when he was among Jews he was kosher; when he was among Gentiles he was non-kosher—precisely because, as with circumcision, neither mattered to God (cf. 7:19; 8:8). But such conduct tends to matter a great deal to the religious—on either side!—so that inconsistency in such matters ranks among the greatest of evils… The difference, therefore, between his own behavior and that of his social companions is not in the behavior itself, which will be identical to the observer, but in the reasons for it. The latter abstain because they are “under the law”; it is a matter of religious obligation. Paul abstains because he loves those under the law and wants to win them to Christ. Despite appearances, the differences are as night and day.[2]

The first part of today’s passage is Paul’s defense of his approach to mission. He will go as far as he must to become “weak,” to participate in the incarnational mission pattern of Jesus, to be among the people, to identify with them. Paul will not serve from a position power.

D. T. Niles of Sri Lanka wrote, “To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence… We run schools, hospitals, orphanages, agricultural farms, etc. But what we do not adequately realize is that these institutions are not only avenues of Christian service but are also sources of secular strength. Because of them, we can offer patronage, control employment, and sometimes make money. The result is that the rest of the community learn to look on the Church with jealousy, sometimes with fear, and sometimes even with suspicion.[3]

The second part of today’s passage is actually Paul’s description of how he is able to work cross-culturally. It has nothing to do with personal salvation or his own eternal life. The “prize” is the progress of the gospel. Paul writes here of acquiring and maintaining skills and abilities that will allow him to become a part of each people group that he goes to. Paul writes of the tremendous effort, energy, and discipline that is required to work cross-culturally.

“Disqualification” is not a loss of salvation, eternal life, or heaven. It is about not being fit enough to participate in mission work that Paul was commissioned to do.

With the Isthmian Games sponsored by the city of Corinth, the citizens of that city could not help being fully aware of the time commitments and energy required to complete in those games. Paul builds on that awareness and tells his readers that the same level of discipline is required to cross cultural lines in the name of Christ…

Paul is not talking about ascetic disciplines, he is discussing the high commitment required if one is to successfully cross cultural barriers in the name of Christ. He is discussing mission

He warns his readers that the task of “all things to all people” takes enormous energy He is discussing the cost of crosscultural, incarnational mission

Language, culture, history, art, literature, politics, worldview, music, civil unrest and war—all must be experienced, comprehended and embraced if one is to effectively enter into another culture.[4]

According to this passage, the purpose of spiritual disciplines is not for yourself.

  1. Discipleship and spiritual disciplines aren’t about me. It’s not spiritual self-improvement to express gratitude, to keep in Jesus’ good graces, to prove that I really belong, or even to be a better evangelist and witness (at least not in the usual way of thinking about it).
  2. Spiritual disciplines are about learning and finding ways to partner with God’s Spirit in the work of the gospel that is already happening.
  3. Spiritual disciplines are less about an individual’s personal spiritual condition and more about how to benefit others.
  4. You don’t have to participate – you can be a spectator. Your salvation isn’t the issue. But you might lose out on the greater joy and satisfaction of going beyond the minimum call.
  5. Spiritual disciplines include more than just the usual prayer, Bible study, and church attendance. It can and should include learning about anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, literature, music, arts, language, mythology, sciences, pop culture, etc. Anything that will help you integrate better with the people you have been sent to.

Paul does not argue that he “must become all things to all people” so that the gospel can receive a hearing and be accepted. For him, God, through the gospel, was already at work across cultural lines and he wanted to become its partner. The gospel train was moving and he could jump on or get left behind.[5]

[1] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry in section 25 (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

[2] NICNT, 1 Cor. 9:20.

[3] Bailey, location 2995.

[4] Bailey, locations 3043, 3048, 3065, 3069.

[5] Bailey, location 3031.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(2) Paul’s Freedom and Responsibility

Outline: 016-E3.2-Paul and Freedom
Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:1-18
Discussion Audio (1h19m)

The Gospel is offensive because it is free, not transactional.

The Corinthian Christians looked upon Paul with askance, harboring doubts regarding his status as an apostle, because he refused to accept their support (patronage) and instead labored to support himself. In their cultural beliefs and traditions, teachers needed to free themselves from labor so they could have time to cultivate their minds. Teachers were expected to be clients of wealthy patrons. “You give us teaching; we support you.” That was the expected transactional relationship.

… There was no doubt friction between Paul and the Corinthians because he worked with his hands. For most Jewish believers this would not have been a problem… The rabbis supported themselves financially, often through some trade or skill. Indeed they were required to do so… On the other hand, for Christians with a Greek background things were different. Intellectuals were expected to be financially independent. Only with the leisure that comes from such independence was it possible to cultivate the mind. How could Greeks accept the intellectual and spiritual leadership of a tentmaker? [1]

But Paul refused patronage. Why?

First Corinthians 9:1-18 can be seen in two parts. In the first part Paul vigorously defends his status as an apostle and defends rights to which he is entitles as an apostle. Paul must first establish that he knows full well that he is entitled to the support of the Corinthian Christians. In the second part Paul vigorously defends his reasons for refusing patronage.

Paul's response to this is not first of all to defend his renunciation of his rights, but to establish that he has such rights. This must be done because they have questioned his authority altogether. From their point of view his activity would not have been the renunciation of assumed rights; rather, he must have worked with his hands because he lacked such rights. Since, therefore, he did not do as the others—accept patronage—he must not be a genuine apostle. [2]

One of the foundational problems Paul saw in the Corinthian church was that of freedom and rights. The Corinthians had a distorted view of Christian freedom. Not only did they appear to believe that this freedom meant they could do anything, they were flaunting it and imposing it on those who did not believe this way or were uncomfortable with this particular expression. In other words, some in the Corinthian church were (ironically) becoming enslaved to freedom. This is the point at which 1 Cor. 9:1-18 ties into the issue of food offered to idols that Paul had touched on in chapter 8.

Some of the Corinthian Christians had come to believe that accepting the gospel and its freedoms meant they were obligated to perform and behave in ways that would highlight their freedom and rights. They were still thinking in transactional terms.

By refusing patronage, Paul holds himself up as an example of genuine Christian freedom. He illustrates the transaction-free nature of the gospel through his actions.

Like the Corinthian Christians, we usually don’t have too much problem understanding and accepting that there is nothing we can do to merit God’s grace to us. But we often have a real problem in accepting that there is nothing God demands from us in return. (This is different from God desiring much from us.) There is nothing we can “do for God” for us to keep his grace.

This is why the gospel is so offensive. It is not so much the content of the gospel as it is its very nature. In the honor-shame culture in which this was written, to accept a gift without strings attached, without demand or expectation of reciprocation, was to suffer shame. The gospel is a stumbling block, it is shameful, because its recipients must acknowledge their shamefulness. There is no personal honor in accepting the gospel.

The parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) brings home this point. In this parable Jesus says that the tax collector is the one who was justified. The tax collector receives God’s grace. He, unlike the Pharisee, offers no good deeds as an offering. The tax collector offers no promises of sacrifice, offerings, or to even change his ways. He only acknowledges the reality of his condition. That is all grace requires.

The Corinthians wanted to bring transaction back into the gospel so that it could be used as a means of gaining personal honor.

Paul would have none of that. He would not place himself back into the slavery of the honor-shame system. And he warned the Corinthians of the path they were on. Genuine Christian freedom is found in rejecting the relational systems of this world and allowing only Christ to have a claim on one’s life.

In one sense his "pay" is in fact to receive "no pay"! But in the present argument this nonpayment "payment" also gives him his apostolic "freedom" from all, so that he might the more freely make himself a slave to everyone (v. 19). Thus in terms of his own ministry, his "pay" turns out to be his total freedom from all merely human impositions on his ministry. [3]

Freedom found in giving up one’s personal rights.

[1] Bailey, location 2874.

[2] NICNT, introductory text for 1 Cor. 9:3-14.

[3] NICNT, entry for 1 Cor. 9:18.