Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict


God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

For an updated and reformatted version of this series, click here.

 

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God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict: Introduction

This is one blog series I wish were completely unnecessary. I wish
conflict among Christians were a relatively insignificant problem. I
wish we who believe in Jesus could experience the unity he commended to
us (John 17:20-24). I wish there wasn’t animosity within churches and
denominations.

Church-torn-5.jpgBut
all of this is, I admit, wishful thinking. The fact is that Christians
often have a hard time getting along with each other. This has been
true from the earliest days of the church. The Apostle Paul, who
planted the church in Corinth, wrote what we call 1 Corinthians to the
believers there principally because of internal conflict in the church.
By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, the tension was largely between
Paul and his church.

Even in a healthy church, such as the one
in Philippi, conflict was a problem. Thus Paul wrote in his letter to
the Philippians: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same
mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help
these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the
gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose
names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:2-3). Two prominent women in the
Philippian congregation, people who had been Paul’s co-workers in
ministry, were stuck in some sort of conflict such that they needed
help from Paul and others to try and get along.

When I was a
young Christian, I used to think that the solution to the ills of the
contemporary church was to “get back to the early church.” If we could
only believe and do as the first believers believed and did, we’d be on
the right track. But the more I have studied the early church, the more
I have come to recognize the manifold problems that plagued the first
Christians. Among these, conflict played a central role.

Perhaps
one of the most discouraging things about studying church history, from
the first century onward, is to see just how often Christians have been
mired in disputes and strife. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we have
actually put to death fellow Christians whose theological convictions
didn’t measure up to our personal standards. Not a happy story, not at
all.

This was not what Jesus intended, to be sure. In his so-called “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed:

“I
ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will
believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you,
Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the
world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given
me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them
and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world
may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have
loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

A little earlier, Jesus had
said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my
disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). To be sure,
there are times when followers of Jesus do love each other in an
exemplary way. But, far too often, such love is marred by conflict,
tension, and outright meanness. And, far too often, we have not dealt
with these problems in a loving way.

So, today I begin a blog
series that seeks God’s guidance for Christians in conflict. This
series will be relevant, I believe, to one-on-one relationships and to
denominational disagreements. I will seek to discover and apply God’s
revealed wisdom to conflict among Christians. My hope is that when we
experience conflict in the church, we will be prepared to deal with it
in a way that honors God and strengthens Christian community.

Tomorrow I’ll suggest a place where we might start when facing the problem of conflict among Christians.

 

For an updated and reformatted version of this series, click here.

 

Dealing with Conflict Among Christians: One Starting Point

Where should we start if we’re seeking God’s guidance for conflict
among Christians? Here’s where my Protestant convictions come strongly
into play. We should start with Scripture, with God’s inspired Word.
Now this is always a good starting point, the best there is, in fact.
But in times of conflict it’s even more essential that we begin with
and cling to biblical teaching. There are several reasons why.

First,
in times of conflict our natural human emotions often try to dictate
our behavior. We feel anger and want to lash out. We feel fear and want
to defend or attack. We feel wronged and want to get revenge. Yet if we
allow our emotions to guide our behavior, inevitably we’ll simply make
matters worse. Conversely, if we tenaciously hang onto biblical
teaching, we’ll find the power to act rightly even when our feelings
try to drag us in the wrong direction. I can’t tell you how many times
I’ve found myself wanting to get even with people who have wronged me.
Yet by holding on for dear life to God’s Word I’ve managed to avoid
behaviors that would have been both sinful and self-defeating, even if
they seemed to be temporarily satisfying. (Photo: The copy of the
Gutenberg Bible in the U.S. Library of Congress.)

gutenberg-bible-lib-cong-5.jpgSecond,
in times of conflict we must stand solidly upon Scripture because God’s
ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the
world’s ways. When we’re in the midst of some church battle, we’re
tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the
desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat
our opponents. We spin like we’re in the middle of a dirty political
campaign. We rally the troops. We get out the vote. We defend
ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We
conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges,
and so forth and so on. It will feel natural to us to use the world’s
ways to win church battles, and, as we do, the world around us will
cheer. But rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my
thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah
55:8). The world doesn’t have much room for one who tells us to turn
the other cheek, who calls us to forgive seventy times seven, and who
urges us to imitate his humble, self-sacrificial servanthood. So we
need the Bible to show us different ways to operate in times of
conflict: the ways of peace, the ways of the gospel, the ways of Jesus
Christ.

Third, in times of conflict among Christians, we need
the Bible as the source both of practical guidance (here’s how to act)
and of theological insight (here’s how to think about God and the
church). The biblical combination of ethics and theology helps to shape
our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Though this particular blogging
series will be fairly practical, it will also be replete with theology,
because that’s the way of God’s biblical revelation.

Ironically,
I hope this series isn’t directly relevant to your life, at least not
right now. But even if your church is in a blessed season of harmony,
you may be able to direct others to the biblical guidance I will
convey. Moreover, if you take seriously what I will share with you, you
may very well help your church stay out of serious conflict. And, if
this doesn’t happen and conflict comes, you will be able to be a
peacemaker in your own community.

In my next post I’ll examine
one of the most important of all biblical passages for discerning God’s
guidance in the midst of conflict.

Let God Speak to You Through His Word

Yesterday, I suggested that Scripture should be a primary starting
point for seeking God’s will when we’re in conflict with other
Christians (or anyone, for that matter). Today, I want to draw your
attention to one of the most important passages for discerning God’s
guidance for Christians in conflict.: Philippians 2:1-11. On Monday
I’ll offer some exegetical observations about this text. Today,
however, I want to print the entire passage and then offer some
guidance for how to let it impact your heart and your actions. I’m
writing specifically for people who find themselves in conflict right
now, though I hope you’ll find this to be worthwhile even if you’re not
facing such a challenge today.

Here’s the passage from Philippians:

If
then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love,
any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy
complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full
accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of
you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let
the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:1-11)

In
light of this passage, if you’re in the midst of conflict with other
Christians, let me urge you to do the following. And, frankly, you
might well want to do this even if you’re not in a conflicted place
right now.

1. Ask the Lord to speak to you through this section of his Word and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

2.
Prayerfully, slowly read this passage. Read it at least three times. If
possible, read it aloud. Let each word sink in. Be attentive to what
God is saying to you personally. (Note: Don’t start applying this text
to others and focus on what they need to do. Let the Lord speak to you
about you.)

3. As God convicts you, go with it. Talk to him
about it. Confess if you need to. Ask for his help to obey if you need
to. Take time to talk with the Lord about how this passage should
impact your life. (Photo: A crucifix in the cathedral of Barcelona)

crucifix-barcelona-5.jpg4.
If you are able to do so, share with at least one other believer what
God has been saying to you through Philippians 2. Be open to
encouragement and or correction from this believer (or these
believers). Ask them to pray for you as you move to the next step.

5.
Act upon what God has said to you through this passage. Be a doer of
the Word, not a hearer only (James 1:22). You may find it very hard to
do what God wants you to do. Be assured: He will provide the strength
you need if you depend on him.

I’m going to stop now. Yes, I
have a few things I want to say about this passage. But right now I
think I should get my words out of the way. What you need most of all
is the Word of God, brought to life by the Spirit of God. My
reflections will come in due time, and that time will be tomorrow. But
I truly believe that if you’re experiencing conflict with other
Christians, and if you take time to prayerfully meditate upon this
section of Scripture, and if your heart is open to God, then He will
guide you to do what is right and honoring to him. You will begin to
see the conflict you’re in from God’s perspective. And you’ll begin to
see how you can be an agent of God’s peace at this time.

May the peace of Christ be with you . . . really!

Having the Mind of Christ 

On Friday I encouraged you to read Philippians 2:1-11 slowly and
prayerfully. Today I’d like to highlight a few features of this
astounding text.

If you’re in the middle of a conflict with
other Christians, however, you might not like this passage very much.
Your gut instinct is to win the battle, to be vindicated, to prevail
over your opponents. But this text speaks of being agreeable, humble,
and considering others as better than yourself. If you’re like me when
I’m duking it out with my brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not
what you want to hear. You’d probably prefer that I had sent you to
Psalm 58:8, in which David prayed about his enemies: “Let them be like
the snail that dissolves into slime.” But, like it or not, if you’re a
follower of Christ, you’ve got to deal with Philippians 2:1-11. More to
the point, you’re stuck with the compelling and challenging example of
Jesus himself.

Philippians 2 begins with a series of ethical
injunctions that could be paraphrased: agree with each other; love each
other; be humble; care more for the concerns others than for your own
concerns. These imperatives are summarized in verse five: “Let the same
mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In a nutshell, we are to
think as Jesus thought.

Paul doesn’t leave it up to us to
decide what it means to think like Jesus. We don’t get to pick and
choose from the gospel stories or to make up our own version of what
constitutes the mind of Christ. Rather, Paul shows us quite clearly in
verses 6-8 what it means to think like Jesus:

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

This
is a tricky text for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the language
is rather unusual for Paul and therefore difficult to interpret. This
fact, combined with the poetic structure of the passage, has led many
scholars to propose that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn,
something he did not write. This explains the uniqueness of the
language. But it’s also possible that Paul composed this poetic text
when writing to the Philippians. In either case, it’s not easy to
determine the precise nuance of every word here, even though the big
picture is fairly clear. (Photo: Ruins of the ancient forum in
Philippi. Photo used by permission of HolyLandPhotos.org.)

philippi-forum-5.jpgWhat
is this big picture? It’s an image of Christ’s active humility. It’s a
portrait of one who was fully equal to God the Father, but who,
nevertheless, chose to take on the form of a slave by becoming human.
Moreover, this passage paints a shocking picture of a divine being who
not only became human, but also chose to die a most humiliating and
painful death by crucifixion. One cannot imagine a more startling and
unsettling image of humility and self-sacrifice.

How might our
conflict with others be different if we took seriously the humility of
Jesus? How might we react to those who wrong us if we were to reflect
upon the self-giving love of Christ? The beginning of Philippians 2
suggests that our relationships with others – including and especially
when we’re experience differences and disagreements with them – would
be radically different.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll continue to
reflect upon Philippians 2 and its implications for our behavior when
we’re experiencing conflict with other believers.

Having the Mind of Christ: Part 2

Throughout the ages, commentators and preachers have seen Philippians
2:1-11 as a theological reflection on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’
feet in John 13. In this gospel text, Jesus literally humbled himself,
doing that which an actual slave would ordinarily have done. He did
this to teach his disciples how they were to love each other, in
anticipation of his ultimate act of love on the cross. In Philippians
2, Paul uses the image of the humble, self-sacrificing, serving,
crucified Christ to teach the Philippians believers how they ought to
treat each other. (Photo: A fresco by Giotto, depicting the
foot-washing in John 13.)

Washing-feet-Giotto-4.jpgPhilippians
2 raises all sorts of tantalizing theological questions about the
nature of Christ. In what way was he equal to God? In what sense did he
empty himself? And so on. Yet Paul doesn’t deal with such questions in
this text. Rather he uses the image of the humble Christ to show the
Philippians – and by extension, to show us – how we ought to relate to
each other. We’re called to imitate Christ, not in any way we please,
but specifically with respect to his humbling, self-giving, sacrificial
action.

This isn’t easy to do! It’s hard to do what this text
requires in the best of times. Even when I’m getting along well with
others I still find it natural to put my self-interest first. But, when
you’re in the midst of conflict with other believers, doing what
Philippians 2 requires is more than hard. It’s impossible . . . without
God, that is. It challenges the very fiber of our being. It calls us to
counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. And we’re just not
wired to do this sort of thing apart from divine help.

But God’s
help is available to us in several ways. These are highlighted in verse
1 of our text, which I’d paraphrase in the following way: “If there is
any encouragement in Christ – which, of course, there is – any
empowering comfort in Christ’s love – which, of course, there is – any
partnership with the Holy Spirit – which, of course, there is – [agree
together, love each other, etc.].” Here’s what God provides to help us
do the impossible:

1. Encouragement in Christ  – The teaching and example of Jesus himself empower us to do what otherwise we could not do.

2.
Empowering Comfort in Christ’s love – The more we experience Christ’s
love for us, the more we will be enabled to love with this same sort of
love. The more we are secure in Christ’s love, the more we will be able
to take the risk of loving, not only our neighbors, but also our
enemies.

3. Partnership with the Holy Spirit – When we put our
faith in Christ, the very Spirit of God comes to dwell in us,
empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The
Spirit is in the process of making us more and more like Christ.

Years
ago, I was the pastor in charge of a group of leaders. This group was
in the midst of a nasty conflict. One of the leaders was especially
vicious in the way she was treating another leader. I challenged her to
think about what Jesus would do. Her response, shouted passionately,
was: “I don’t care what Jesus would do! I’m not Jesus!” I was tempted
to say, “Well, that’s fairly obvious,” but, by God’s grace, I didn’t.
Instead I reminded her of the good news that God, through the Spirit,
helps us to be like Christ even when our natural capabilities are
inadequate. The confession “I’m not Jesus!” is actually a great place
for every Christian to start, including me! But it’s not a place to
end. Once we realize our own inadequacies, we’re ready to trust God
more completely, and to discover that we can do all things through
Christ who makes us strong (Philippians 4:13).

So, when you’re
in the middle of conflict, ask yourself: “What would it be for me to
have the mind of Christ here?” And don’t just ask yourself, ask Christ
himself through prayer: “Lord, how would you think in this
circumstance? How can I imitate your example of selflessness and
humility now?” The more you look to Jesus, the more you’ll discover how
you’re to act in controversial and divisive circumstances. The more you
depend upon Jesus, the more you’ll find unexpected strength to be
agreeable, loving, humble, other-directed, and Christ-like.

Corinth: The Paradigm of Christian Conflict

If you consider the issue of Christians in conflict from a New
Testament perspective, you will quickly focus on Corinth. No church in
Scripture is more ridden with disagreement and controversy than the
Corinthian church, which explains, in part why so much of the New
Testament focuses on Corinth. It took the Apostle Paul multiple visits
and letters, two of which we have in the New Testament, to sort out the
problems in this church. (Photo: Ancient Corinth today. Photo used by
permission of holylandphotos.org.) 

Ancient-Corinth-5.jpgThe
letter we know as 1 Corinthians (which is actually Paul’s second
letter, see 1 Cor 5:9) was written primarily because the Christians in
Corinth weren’t getting alone with each other. After greeting the
letter recipients at the beginning of the first chapter, Paul explains
what he has learned about this church:

For it has been reported
to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers
and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,
“or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas, ” or “I belong to
Christ.” (1:11-12)

The Greek word translated here as “quarrel”
can also mean “argument” or “strife.” Paul uses this same word again in
the third chapter of his letter: “For as long as there is jealous and
quarreling [eris] among you, are you not of the flesh . . . ?”
(3:3). The Corinthian church is being torn apart, not by one single
controversy, but by multiple conflicts and tensions.

As we read through 1 Corinthians we can compile as list of these divisive issues. They include:

• Over-identification with one or another Christian leader.
• Too much pride in one’s own spirituality.
• Sexual immorality.
• Suing fellow Christians in court.
• Prostitution.
• Marriage and divorce.
• Participating in the worship of idols.
• Dressing immodestly in the church gatherings.
• Selfishness in church gatherings.
• Interrupting the gatherings with ecstatic utterances.

Beneath
this plethora of issues lay the challenge of working out the Christian
life in a non-Christian culture. When some of the people in Corinth put
their faith in Jesus, naturally enough they brought along their
cultural baggage, including prior experiences in paganism. For example,
since it was commonplace for wealthier members of Corinthian society to
eat in pagan temples, the privileged few in the Christian community
continued to do what came naturally. Yet this scandalized other
Christians, especially those who did not have the financial means to
eat in temples and who, therefore, considered all temple visitation to
be the worship of idols.

In my next post, and in several to
follow, I will summarize Paul’s response to the conflicts in Corinth.
As promised, I will draw practical conclusions as well as make some
historical and theological observations.

For now, however, I
simply want to note once again that conflict is a normal part of
Christian experience. I’m not happy about this, of course. And
Scripture makes it clear that God isn’t happy about this either. But
conflict is a fact Christian fellowship. As I’ve said before, I once
thought: “Oh, if I could only be back in time of the apostles it would
be great. Then the church wouldn’t be in such as mess as it is today.”
Yet, if you go back and read the New Testament carefully, especially
the letters of Paul or the letters in Revelation 2-3 to the seven
churches in Asia Minor, you realize that the church has experienced
conflict from the get go. This fact encourages us not to be surprised
when we face conflict today. We should be ready to see it in God’s
terms and to follow God’s guidance for how to resolve it.

Whose Church is It? 

In my last post I set up the first-century Corinthian church as a
paradigm of a church in conflict. The letter we know as 1 Corinthians
is the effort of the Apostle Paul to resolve the controversies that
were plaguing this early Christian community.

Before we get into
some of the specifics of this effort, however, we should look at how
Paul addresses the Corinthians at the beginning of his letter. He
writes to: “the church of God that is in Corinth.” “Church” translates
the Greek word ekklesia, which meant “gathering” or “assembly,”
and referred in particular to the gathering of voting citizens in
Corinth. Paul wasn’t writing to the “ekklesia of Corinth,” a phrase that would easily have been misunderstood. Instead, he addressed his letter to the “ekklesia of God that is in Corinth.” (Photo: The temple of Octavia in Corinth)

temple-octavia-5.jpg

By
referring to the Corinthian church as the church “of God,” Paul is
doing more than distinguishing it from the civic voting assembly,
however. He is also letting the Corinthians know who “owns” the
gathering of Christians in Corinth. In a phrase: God does. The
Christians are not simply one more religious club formed and guided by
its members, of which there were many in first-century Corinth. Rather,
the Corinthian assembly belongs to God in a strong, ultimate sense.
(Later in the letter Paul will add that even the bodies of the
individual Corinthians also belong to the Lord.)

Paul reiterates
this point at the conclusion of his opening address: “God is faithful;
by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our
Lord” (1:9). Notice, first of all, that the Corinthian believers aren’t
in the fellowship because they chose to join. From a theological point
of view, they “were called” by God into the fellowship. They are
members of the Corinthian church by God’s choice and invitation.
Moreover, they belong not merely to a human institution, but to a
fellowship that has been founded by and is the property of the very Son
of God.

Twice in his opening address to the Corinthians, Paul
emphasizes the fact that their gathering is not their own. It belongs
to God the Father and to the Son of God. Later Paul will explain that
the church comes into existence through the work of the Spirit of God
(see 12:12-13). This is a fundamental truth about the church, and one
Paul emphasizes intentionally because it relates to the problem of
conflict among Christians.

To relate Paul’s point to the
situation of conflict among Christians today, let me say this: when
you’re caught up in a disagreement with other believers, you need to
remember whose you are. You belong to God through Jesus Christ. This is
true of you personally and also of the church. Whatever else it may be,
the church is the church of God: the church that comes from God, is
governed by God, and belongs to God.

So, if you’re in a fight
with other believers that relates to a particular church, one of the
first things you need to remember is that the church is not yours. It
doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to the people who are on your
side. It doesn’t belong to the majority of the members. It doesn’t
belong to the founding members or their descendents. It doesn’t belong
to the big givers. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, or the elders, or
even the denomination (if there is one). Your individual church belongs
to the triune God. Period. Every other “ownership” is really just a
loan.

This basic truth makes a huge difference in the way we
think and act with respect to the church, especially in times of
conflict. For example:

• If we truly believe that the
church belongs to God, then we’ll be more committed to finding God’s
solution to our conflicts than making sure that our side wins.
• If
we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be quick to
admit that our personal ideas about what should happen in the church
may very well be wrong. Only one opinion really matters, the opinion
that belongs to God.
• If we truly believe that the church belongs
to God, then we’ll realize that the church is not to be trifled with.
The church is not first of all a vehicle for my self-expression, or
professional security, or enjoyment, or whatever. It is, first and
foremost, a vehicle for God’s glory. The church exists to do God’s
bidding, to represent God’s kingdom, and to bring praise to God.

I
can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us to remember to whom
the church belongs and, for that matter, to whom we belong. When I’ve
was in the middle of a passionate argument with my elders at Irvine
Presbyterian Church, for example, one of the best things we did is to
stop and pray. As we care before God, we remembered that we were on
holy ground. We relinquished our desire to control God’s church and
submitted ourselves to his will. Before the majesty of God, we humbled
ourselves and shared together in common humility. Such an experience of
God’s sovereignty didn’t magically take away our disagreements, but it
did put them in a completely different light. Antagonists vying for
ownership of the church became fellow seekers for the will of the One
who truly owns the church. Winning no longer mattered, except for the
victory of God.

This process that I’ve just described happened
several times throughout my ministry at Irvine Pres, though it usually
didn’t flow as quickly or smoothly as the last paragraph would imply.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen the recognition that the church is God’s church
transform hearts, including my own. So, one of the most important
things we can do if we’re in the middle of church conflict is to step
back and remember – really remember – that the church belongs to the
triune God.

What is the Church?

In my last post I worked with the question: “Whose church is it?” The
answer from 1 Corinthians is clear. The church is God’s church. The
church is the creation and “property” of the triune God. Acknowledging
this means that when we’re in the midst of church conflict, we must
seek God’s will for God’s church above all.

Today I want to ask a related “big question”: What is the church? What is this entity that belongs to God?

On
the simplest level, a church is a gathering of people who belong to God
through faith in Jesus Christ. Wherever Christians come together in
Christ, there is a church. But this is just the beginning. In 1
Corinthians 3 Paul speaks of the church in striking and surprising
language:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and
that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God
will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that
temple. (3:16-17)

For years I read this passage as
speaking about me as an individual Christian. A parallel text in 1
Corinthians 6 does indeed speak of the body of the Christian person as
a temple for God’s Spirit (6:19). But the emphasis in chapter 3 is
different. Here the temple of God is the church, the gathered
fellowship of believers.

The context in 1 Corinthians 3 makes it
clear that Paul is not focusing on individual believers when he says
“you are God’s temple.” In verse 9, the Corinthian church is “God’s
building” (3:9). Those who labor as church-planters are in the
construction business, so to speak (3:10-15). So when we come to verse
16, we know that the temple of which Paul speaks is not the individual
believer but the assembly of believers. The verse might be paraphrased:
“Do you not know that you folks [plural in Greek] are God’s temple and
that God’s Spirit dwells among you?” Or, to use the language of my new
home state, “Do y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple?”

This
interpretation is confirmed in verse 17, which warns the Corinthians
not to destroy God’s temple. The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians
have to do, not with threats to individual believers, but with the
threat of division in the church at Corinth. So when Paul says, “If
anyone destroys God’s temple,” he’s referring to the church of God in
Corinth, which is at risk because of the conflicts in the church.
(Photo: The columns in the center of this picture are what’s left of
the Corinthian temple for the Greek god Apollo.)

temple-apollo-5.jpg

Part
of what makes the church so special is the presence of God’s Spirit.
When believers gather together, God is with them through his Spirit.
The power of God is available so the church can be strengthened. Paul
will have much more to say about this in chapters 12-14.

From
the mere fact that the church is God’s temple, you’d naturally conclude
that it ought to be treated with reverence and supreme care. But in
case you missed that implication, Paul adds: “If anyone destroys God’s
temple, God will destroy that person” (3:17). Now that’s a threat to
take notice of, don’t you think? Before you start trifling with the
church of God, you’d better realize what you’re doing.

Sometimes,
especially in the heat of church conflict, people can forget what
they’re dealing with. They easily think of the church in human terms. I
know pastors who have seemed almost willing to destroy a particular
church in order to defend their reputation or career. How sad this is!
And, given the threat of 1 Corinthians 3:17, how ill advised.

On
the contrary, I have seen church leaders sacrifice their advantage for
the sake of God’s church. A friend of mine was pastoring a solid and
growing church when a faction that didn’t like his leadership tried to
force him out. As he prayed about what was best for God’s temple, my
friend decided that it would be best if he resigned. Though he felt
sure that he could defeat his foes, he also believed that this fight
would seriously damage the church. His career, his income, his
reputation . . . none of these mattered as much as the church he loved
so much. So he resigned.

I’m not suggesting that every embattled
pastor should quit. But I am suggesting that every one of us,
especially if we’re in the midst of church conflict, should realize,
not only that the church belongs to God, but also that it is his
temple, the dwelling place of his Spirit. With this in mind, we will do
everything in our power both to honor and to protect the church, even
if it involves self-sacrifice.

So, if you’re in the midst of
church conflict, step back from the issues long enough to remember what
it is you’re dealing with. Are you thinking of your church as the
temple of God? Are you doing everything you can to protect and care for
God’s temple?

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 1

During my years as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, every
once in a while I’ll hear somebody refer to the church as “Mark’s
church.” Though I understood the shorthand, nevertheless it grated on
my soul like fingernails on a spiritual blackboard. During my years as
a Christian, I’ve seen cases where churches are so identified with the
pastor that things are way out of balance. A church that belongs to God
ends up being spoken of, and sometimes even thought of, as the personal
property of some individual. The identity of pastor and church are so
intertwined that it’s almost impossible to think of them as distinct.
That which exists for the sake and glory of Christ ends up as a
personality cult with the pastor as the dominant star. So, when
somebody called Irvine Presbyterian Church “Mark’s church,” my warning
lights flashed like Las Vegas at night.

las-vegas-strip-5.jpgThe
tendency of Christians to over-identify with their leaders is an old
one. In fact, it goes back to the earliest years of the church. In the
letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul gets right to the point after his
opening address:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and
sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in
agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be
united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported
to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers
and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,”
or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to
Christ.” (1:10-12)

Fundamental to the divisions and
disagreements in the Corinthian church was the tendency for the
different “parties” to identify with some Christian leader over and
against the others. It’s easy to understand how this could happen,
especially when you consider that in some of the pagan mystery
religions the person who guided you into the mysteries held a special
place in your heart.

Of course love and appreciation for
Christians leaders is a fine thing. But when this love and appreciation
becomes divisive or idolatrous, then we have a real problem. In
Corinth, the different “leader parties” were splitting the church, with
people claiming allegiance to their particular hero rather than
embracing the whole church of Jesus Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 3
Paul seeks to set the Corinthians right by helping them to have a right
understanding of Christian leadership:

What then is
Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as
the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the
growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is
anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the
one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages
according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working
together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (3:5-9)

It
seems that the Corinthians were divided especially into the group that
supported Paul and the group that identified with Apollos, a more
articulate preacher and one who might have had greater appeal among the
more educated and wealthier Corinthians. Yet in their devotion to a
human leader, the Corinthians were missing the point. Both Paul and
Apollos were equally servants of God though they may have different
functions. Moreover, they shared in the common purpose of building a
church for God’s purposes. Yet the major point Paul makes is that the
servants aren’t the main thing at all. God is the main thing. God is
the Master of the servants. God is the only one who can cause the
church to grow. God is the owner of the church, whether seen as a field
or a building.

Paul wraps up his argument in verse 21 with a
simple imperative: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” Though
appreciation of leaders is fine, this must not run over into bragging
or anything that would divide the church.

Here is a measure
for determining the health of leadership in a church: How do the
members talk about the leaders? Are they drawing up sides for and or
against their leaders? Do they pit some leaders against others? Or do
they see all leaders as servants of the One who really matters?

I
confess that, during my years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church,
I found it easy to get too entangled with the church I served. I could
even begin to think of Irvine Presbyterian Church as “my church” in a
way that wasn’t healthy. For me, this wasn’t so much about my glory as
about an overactive sense of responsibility. Though God had called me
to the Irvine church and though he blessed my ministry there, I was not
nearly as essential to the church as I might have thought. God could
take care of this church just fine without me. Though God used me at
Irvine, I was not necessary to the life and health of the church. This
has been demonstrated in the three years since I’ve been away from
Irvine Pres, which is now being led by a fine new pastor, Scott Bullock.

In
practice, it sometimes is not easy for a pastor or other leader to seek
the glory of Christ in a church, especially when we find ourselves in
the midst of conflict. In tomorrow’s post I’ll illustrate this reality
from my own pastoral experience.

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 2 

In yesterday’s post, I examined 1
Corinthians 3:5-9, considering its implications for how we think about
church leaders. I closed by admitting that sometimes it is not easy for
a pastor or other leader to seek God’s glory, especially when we are in
the midst of conflict. I know from personal experience how difficult
this can be. 

About
fifteen years ago I was in the midst of one the hardest times in my
ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I had a staff member I’ll call
Shirley with whom I was having many conflicts. From my point of view,
she was not fulfilling her job description in many, many ways. From her
point of view, I was being imperious and unsupportive. Though I tried
everything I could think of to make things work out, they were going
south faster than a goose in November. (Photo: The Fellowship Hall of
Irvine Presbyterian Church, where we worshiped before we built our
sanctuary.)

IPC-1990-5.jpgDuring
this time, Shirley began to lobby the troops on her side. She
complained about how I was mistreating her. She would visit shut-ins
and tell them I was getting ready to fire her (which wasn’t true). She
was clearly trying to divide the church and was doing a fine job of it.
I must confess that I was sorely tempted to join the game and beat her
at it. I wanted to get people on my side. I wanted people to know the
truth and defend me. The church started to become all about me, . . .
me, me, me. We were going the way of the splintered Corinthian church.

Everything
came to a head at a meeting of our congregation. This was by far the
toughest meeting I’d ever been a part of. The elders of the church were
recommending that we dismiss Shirley from our staff. In the
congregational debate, many people chewed me out for what they
perceived to be my management flaws. These were people who believed
they knew the truth because they had heard it from Shirley. The
temptation to divide and conquer the church was huge for me. But, by
God’s grace and following the counsel of my fellow leaders, I didn’t do
it. I took my licks, even ones I didn’t deserve. I owned my failures
and tried to listen to what people were saying to me. Frankly, it was
excruciating. But I sensed that my job as pastor was to help the church
be unified in Christ, not divided in order to defend me. Many of my
supporters sensed the same. Though they could have risen to my defense,
they realized that it was not the time to do so. Wisely, they remained
quiet, and so avoided a fight that could have deeply wounded our
church.

The congregation did, in the end, vote to dismiss
Shirley. I left feeling, not vindicated, but ashamed and exhausted.
Several friends gathered around to encourage me. But I still felt as if
I had been taken to the congregational woodshed for a beating.

In
the aftermath of that meeting, only a couple of people left our church,
much to my surprise. In time, many of those who had scolded me actually
came to apologize. One man said, “It was only later that I learned some
of what had really happened with Shirley. I’m sorry for the things I
said to you.”

But the greatest result of that whole debacle
was not that I was somehow more highly regarded or more beloved or
whatever. It was that our people ended up, truly, more united in
Christ. I can’t explain how this happened, exactly, except that it was
a work of grace. But I do know that my effort, and the efforts of those
who supported me, to focus on Christ and not on me helped move us
toward such a positive result. Nevertheless, I still look back on this
whole experience, and the congregational meeting in particular, as one
of the hardest times of my ministry. It required that I subordinate
myself to a degree I had never done before. It required that I trust in
God rather than my abilities to persuade and organize.

If
you’re caught in a church conflict, watch out for the role of leaders
in that conflict. If battle lines and being drawn up around certain
personalities, don’t participate. And if you’re a pastor, I’d urge you
to remember – as hard as it may be – that you are merely a servant of
the Master. Devote yourself to seeking what’s best for whole church.
Seek to unify rather than divide. Don’t let your people choose up
sides, even if this game seems to be to your favor. Rather, do all you
can do to further the peace and unity of Christ’s church. Let the focus
be upon him, with yourself as his servant.

How NOT to Solve Conflicts Among Christians, Part 1

My friend “Jeff” was the pastor of a church in Southern California. He
and I became friends because we shared many of the same challenges as
well as the same basic faith in Jesus Christ. I always liked Jeff
because he was humble, earnest, and a deeply caring servant of God.

Jeff’s
church was on the conservative side, both theologically and
liturgically. They had hymns and an organ, proudly so. Nevertheless,
Jeff wanted to add a few more contemporary touches to the worship
services, like praise songs and a more informal time of prayer. So, one
Sunday, he made these slight changes. His elders were not happy with
Jeff, however. At the next board meeting there was a big fight, with
two or three of the elders denouncing Jeff in demeaning ways. In the
end, however, the board voted to sustain what Jeff had done, much to
the dismay of the minority that had opposed him.

Two days later,
while Jeff was sitting in his office at church, he received an ominous
looking letter from a law firm in town. Reading the letter, he was
distressed to learn that one of his elders was suing him in civil court
because of the changes he had made in worship. I can’t remember the
specific charges, but I do well remember Jeff’s great distress over
what was happening to him and his church. He just couldn’t believe that
one of his elders would actually sue him over a church matter.

Since
Jeff shared his plight with me eight years ago, I’ve heard other things
like this. Another pastor friend of mine was sued by a former church
leader for failing to lead the church in the right direction. I’ve
heard of pastors who have threatened to sue members of their church
when they felt they were being mistreated. And I’ve watched with
concern as individual churches and denominations rush to secular courts
to solve church related property issues. Sometimes this happens in my
own denomination as particular churches decide to part company with us.

The
problem of Christians using the legal system to deal with conflicts
with other believers isn’t new. In fact this was one of the problems
facing the church in Corinth in the middle of the first century A.D. We
learn from 1 Corinthians 6 that one member of the church had some sort
of dispute with another member. But rather than work it out within the
church, one of the believers sued the other in secular court. This sort
of behavior was common among the wealthy members of Corinthian society.
Winning in court was usually more a matter of preserving honor than
getting a financial settlement. And being held in honor was the highest
value among the Corinthian elites. (Photo: This is the platform (bema
in Greek) where legal disputes in Corinth were publicly adjudicated.
This is the place where, in Acts 18, Paul was charged in the presence
of the Corinthian proconsul.)

Acrocorinth-Bema-5.jpgBut the Apostle Paul was not pleased with what was happening in his church. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

When
you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit
and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to
other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we
Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to
judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves?
Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should
surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you
have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges
who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you.
Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these
arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of
unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why
not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let
yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do
wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor
6:1-8)

What is wrong with Christians suing other
Christians in court? First, there should be sufficient wisdom in the
church to solve conflicts. Notice that Paul assumes that disputes among
Christians are the business of the church. If a Christian brother has a
conflict with another brother, that’s not a private matter. It’s
something that impacts the church and is part of the church’s rightful
concern.

Moreover, for Christians to sue each other in secular
court looks terrible to observing unbelievers. It certainly doesn’t
commend the gospel of Jesus Christ if Christians sue each other. For
that matter, the desire to win and get even doesn’t reflect the cross
of Christ at all. Thus Paul can end his denunciation of Corinthian
lawsuits with a rather shocking statement: “To have such lawsuits at
all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and
leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?” (6:7).

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion about how NOT to solve conflicts among Christians.

How NOT to Solve Conflicts Among Christians, Part 2

Yesterday I examined a passage from 1 Corinthians 6, which instructed
Christians to avoid solving their problems in secular court. Let me
quote that text again before suggesting some practical implications.

When
you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit
and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to
other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we
Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to
judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves?
Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should
surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you
have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges
who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you.
Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these
arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of
unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why
not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let
yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do
wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor
6:1-8)

In our time of history, this may be one of the
most counter-cultural passages in all of Scripture. It’s not news that
we live in a highly litigious culture. People sue each other right and
left for the most trivial things. It’s a given in our society that you
should never “accept the injustice and leave it at that.” Rather, we
are taught to press every possible advantage for the sake of gain, even
if that means suing a fellow believer in court. (Photo: Of course Paul
never knew that one day there would be a Judge Judy!)

judge-judy-4.jpgI
realize that some Christians will be offended by the suggestion that we
should let 1 Corinthians 6 guide our behavior when it comes to suing
each other. Some of my readers might find what I’m saying downright
offensive. Let me clarify that I’m not saying Christians should never
turn to secular courts under any circumstances. There may be times when
a church system is so dysfunctional and the damage done to people so
significant that justice can only be found in the secular courts. The
tragic case of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is one such
example. Moreover, when the behavior of church officials is illegal, then
justice requires legal action in criminal court. But Christian use of
the courts to solve personal conflicts is nothing we should be proud of
or seek to perpetuate. But Christian use of the courts is nothing we should be proud
of or seek to perpetuate. Whatever else, secular lawsuits should be the
last resort among Christians.

Moreover, there are times when a
person should simply choose to lose rather than to sue. I think of
another pastor friend of mine who was meanly and unjustly fired by his
church board. I expect he could have sued and received a significant
settlement. But he chose not to press legal charges because he took 1
Corinthians 6 seriously. Moreover, he didn’t want to hurt the church he
loved, even though the board of this church had badly injured him. This
was a truly Christ-like sacrifice on the part of my friend.

His
case illustrates the deeper point. We are to imitate the sacrificial
example of Jesus Christ. As Jesus taught, we are to turn the other
cheek, to walk the second mile (Matthew 5:39-41). Jesus modeled
self-giving sacrifice through his death on the cross. Yes, indeed, this
sort of thing grates against our own desire for vindication as well as
our culture’s preoccupation with winning no matter what. But our Lord
teaches us, both by word and by deed, how to give up our lives so that
we might gain true life, eternal life, life in all of its fullness.

If
you’re in a conflict with other Christians, whether it is personal,
professional, or ecclesiastical, the way NOT to solve the problem is
through suing each other in secular court. (I’m not, by the way,
implying that lawyers can’t be helpful here. Christians with legal
expertise can often assist us in finding just solutions that will keep
us from lawsuits. I have seen this very thing happen in my own
ministry, where lawyers were extraordinarily helpful in terribly
conflicted situations. Competent Christian attorney can help us avoid
lawsuits.) Secular lawsuits must not be your first choice, or second,
or third. The church, when functioning properly, is the place where
true wrongs can and should be adjudicated. Only if the church fails
miserably in this duty might it be necessary in some cases for you to
get secular legal help.

But before you turn to the civil courts
as a last resort, you need to ask the Lord whether he wants you simply
to lose. I know this sounds strange. But I think, in light of 1
Corinthians 6 and the example of Jesus Christ, we need to ask the Lord
whether he’s calling us to lose the fight. Yes, we may sacrifice our
pride for a while. Yes, we may lose certain advantages, financial and
otherwise. But what we gain, and what the church of Jesus Christ gains,
may well be worth the cost.

I began yesterday’s post by
telling the story of my friend Jeff, a pastor who was sued by a
disgruntled elder. When Jeff found out that he was being sued, he did
not call a lawyer. Instead he did the counter-cultural thing. He called
up the elder and said, “I’m not going to fight back because I’m your
brother in Christ. We need to work this out in the Lord.” When the
elder resisted, Jeff got some other elders to talk with the one who had
filed suit. Among other things, they reminded him of Paul’s teaching in
1 Corinthians 6. They called him to act as a follower of Jesus Christ.
They offered to help work out reconciliation. The unhappy elder was
finally willing to drop his suit. Though he and Jeff never fully agreed
on what worship should be in their church, they were able to live
together in Christian fellowship without recourse to lawsuits.

Yes,
I know it doesn’t always end like this. Often people are not as
spiritually mature as Jeff. They get caught up in a worldly effort to
win. Sometimes church leaders aren’t willing or able to step up, as
were the elders of Jeff’s church. But the fact that we Christians fail
to do what Scripture calls us to do is no argument for not trying to
obey in the first place. We should make every effort to settle our
disputes within the context of Christian community. And when this
fails, there will be times when God will call us simply to lose rather
than to fight on in the courts. Yet in this losing, as counter-intuitive
as it might seem, there will be a great gain for God’s kingdom, and
even for our own souls.

What Love is All About: Realism Beyond Romance

I’ll confess to being a softy when it comes to romantic things. I’m not
necessarily good at thinking them up and doing them, mind you, but I’m
an appreciative observer. I’m a sucker for a romantic film, even a
corny and predictable one. I like violins crooning the background and
happy endings.

But, I must confess that I get nervous about too
much romance in weddings, of all places. And since I go to lots of
weddings, usually with the best seat in the house, I get nervous a lot.
Why? Because I’ve seen too many wonderfully romantic weddings end in
heartache. A couple of years ago, I participated in one of the most
beautiful and elegant weddings I’d ever seen. It was absolutely
wonderful, except for the tiny little problem that the couple I married
divorced in less than a year. That’s a big oops, and a very sad one.

Charles-Diana-kiss-5.jpg

I
also get nervous over too much romance, maybe it’s better to say
idealism, when it comes to the church. I often hear people talk about
some new church they’ve found – including a church where I was the
pastor – in utterly glowing terms: loving fellowship, inspired worship,
fantastic preaching, etc. etc. Though I’m glad they’ve found such a
congregation, I worry that too much idealism can lead to all sorts of
disappointment and hurt. No matter how wonderful a church may be, it’s
still full of real people who, though forgiven, aren’t perfect. And in
sucah a fellowship conflict is inevitable. (Photo: One of the most
romantic moments from arguably the most romantic wedding of the last
fifty years, between Prince Charles and Lady Di. Such romance didn’t
guarantee a happy marriage, did it?)

Years ago when I was an
associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I was
coaching a team of leaders that was experiencing lots of disagreement.
One of the women on the team became exasperated and blurted out:
“What’s wrong with this group? I thought we were supposed to be a
family!” My response was: “Yes. That’s exactly the problem. How many
families do you know that don’t sometimes have major conflicts?” This
woman was confronting the reality of the church and the unreality of
her idealistic expectations. Soon she was going to have to make a
choice about whether or not to stay involved in a genuine but messy and
sometimes conflicted fellowship, or to leave and look for greener
pastures where her idealistic dreams would be nurtured, at least until
she really got involved with those people.

One of the things I
love about the Bible is its realism about all sorts of things. Read the
Bible and you get a clear picture of what life is really like. When
people talk about experiencing church just like in New Testament times,
I laugh to myself and wonder if they’ve ever read the New Testament.
Make your way through this text and you’ll find that almost every book
bears witness to the reality of conflict in the church.

But the
New Testament is also realistic about what it takes to overcome
conflict. There are lots of specific instructions, some of which I’ve
already surveyed in this series. But there are also the overarching
principles that will help us find our way through the confusing maze of
church conflict. The most important of these principles is love.

As you may know, there is one chapter in the Bible known as “The Love Chapter,” and for good reason. 1 Corinthians 13 uses agape,
one of several Greek words for “love,” nine times. That’s as much as in
all four gospels combined. Only one other chapter in the whole Bible, 1
John 4, uses the word “love” more frequently. So if you want to know
something about love, you’d do well to consult 1 Corinthians 13.

I
have often read this chapter in weddings. In terms of frequency, I
think it comes in second for all biblical texts (next to Colossians
3:12-17). For a while it was out of style to use this text. But now 1
Corinthians 13 has made a comeback. That’s just fine with me, though I
often wonder if couples getting married have really paid much attention
to what the text actually says. Sure, it talks a lot about love. But
the picture of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is decidedly non-romantic. In
fact, you could almost say it’s anti-romantic. It talks about love in
realistic, down-to-earth terms. 1 Corinthians 13 says nothing about
love being wonderful, happy, or heavenly. There are no inspiring
violins playing in the background of 1 Corinthians 13. If you pay
attention to what this chapter reveals, you’ll realize that love is
hard work, and much of it doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why
I like reading 1 Corinthians 13 in weddings. It cuts through the
overly-romanticized, feeling-centered notions of love with the
double-edged sword of God’s realistic Word. It talks about what love is
really all about, warts and all.

Of course Paul did not write 1
Corinthians 13 for weddings. It was written because the Corinthian
church was in the middle of a big brouhaha over many things. It was
written specifically for Christians in conflict, the overarching theme
of this blog series. So, in my next post in this series, I’ll begin to
examine how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us to deal with conflict among
believers in Jesus.

What Love Is All About: Part 2

The specific problem to which 1 Corinthians 13 was addressed concerned
the behavior of some Corinthian Christians in the common gatherings and
the attitudes attached to that behavior. In a nutshell, some of the
Corinthians got very excited about their spiritual abilities,
especially the ability to speak in ecstatic, unknown languages – what
we call speaking in tongues. Not only did these folks think they were
spiritual giants because they could speak in tongues, but also they
looked down upon those who didn’t join them in their spiritual
exhibitionism. Some of the tongues-speakers, it seems, may even have
questioned whether the non-tongues-speakers were worth having around.
This sunk in, and some of the non-tongues-speakers began to doubt their
value to the community.

As Paul tried to clean up this mess in
Corinth, he began by helping the Corinthians understand the ministry of
the Spirit and the role of what he called “gifts” from the Spirit.
These are given, Paul taught, not for the sake of the individual, but
for the benefit of the community. A person who exercised some spiritual
gift in the assembly, whether prophesying, healing, or speaking in
tongues, did so only by the power of the Spirit and only for the common
good. Spiritual gifts were not, therefore, a way of showing off one’s
spiritual prowess.

After laying out some basics on the Spirit,
Paul proceeded to talk about the church as a human body. His main point
with this image was to help the Corinthians understand that every
single member had value to the church, just as every body part is
necessary if the human body is to be healthy and whole. As Paul was
wrapping up his discussion of the church as the body of Christ, he
began to segue to some specific instructions on the use of spiritual
gifts in the assembly. But then, almost as if he were interrupting
himself, he wrote, “First, however, let me tell you about something
else that is better than any of them [the spiritual gifts]” (1 Cor
12:31). With this preface he began to compose the passage we call 1
Corinthians 13. Here is the passage in a fairly recent and readable
translation:

If I could speak in any language in heaven
or on earth but didn’t love others, I would only be making meaningless
noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of
prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew
everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I
be? And if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain
and make it move, without love I would be no good to anybody.  If I
gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could
boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would be of no value
whatsoever.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or
boastful or proud  or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is
not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.  It
is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins
out.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and
endures through every circumstance.

Love will last forever,
but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge
will all disappear.  Now we know only a little, and even the gift of
prophecy reveals little!  But when the end comes, these special gifts
will all disappear.

It’s like this: When I was a child, I
spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I
put away childish things.  Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor
mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that
I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything
completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13, NLT)

I’ll get into the meat of this passage tomorrow. Today, in closing, I want to note its striking introduction.

The
first verse is clearly aimed at the Corinthian tongues-speakers. If you
speak in tongues, even a heavenly language (which may have been how the
Corinthians talked about what they were doing), but don’t have love,
then you’re just making a lot of meaningless racket. Of course this is
ironic because the Corinthian tongues-speakers were quite aware that
their “angelic speech” was unintelligible to others.

After
taking a whack at the Corinthian trouble makers, Paul moves on to say,
“If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the
future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others,
what good would I be? [literally, "I am nothing"]” (v. 2). Some of the
Corinthians were overly excited about knowledge, so Paul still has them
in his aim. But when we get to chapter 14 we’ll discover that Paul is
going to be a strong advocate of prophecy. So in verse 2 he’s not only
targeting the Corinthians. He’s got himself and his own values in view.

As
the introduction to chapter 13 continues, Paul continues to target, not
so much the Corinthians and their priorities as himself and his values.
Even exemplary faith – such as Paul had – and costly self-sacrifice -
such as Paul had displayed in his life – were worthless apart from love.

I
deeply admire Paul’s ability here, under the influence of the Spirit,
to see his own virtues and values as meaningless without love. It would
have been easy for him to accuse the Corinthians of failing to love
while implying that he was somehow above the fray. But, in point of
fact, Paul says: “Look, even the things I value the most, even the good
gifts of God, even the attributes I exemplify, like faith and
commitment, even these are nothing without love.”

Paul’s example
challenges me to consider what I might value so highly as to act as if
it matters more than love. I’m afraid the list is quite long, so I’ll
only mention a couple of my imbalances.

I’m really big on being
right. I value tight arguments, especially when I make them. Also,
because I care a whole lot about being right, I hate being wrong. So,
for me, the paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 might read: “If I am always
right about everything, if my ideas are the best and my arguments
always prevail, and yet I don’t have love, then all of my rightness
would be for naught.” (Photo: Emerson Hall of Harvard University, where
I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and where making good
arguments was, arguably, the greatest good.)

emerson-harvard-5.jpg

In
a related vein, I also care deeply about theological truth. I do my
best to search the Scriptures for God’s truth and to present it
accurately. I can look a long way down my nose at people who make silly
theological errors, or, worse yet, who don’t seem to care as much as I
do about theology. Now I don’t think it’s wrong to care about
theological truth. On the contrary, it matters hugely. But, like Paul,
I need to see even theological truth in light of love. So perhaps 1
Corinthians 13 in the “Mark Roberts Version” should read: “If I know
the meaning of the Bible. If I study hard, working from the Greek and
the Hebrew, and if I actually get the correct meaning, but don’t have
love, then I’m not worth one red cent.”

Perhaps you might relate
this text to yourself. What are the things you prize today more than
love? How would you live differently this very day if everything you
did and said was saturated with love? How would love add meaning and
value to your life today?

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion, looking especially at some of the essential characteristics of love.

What Love is All About: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Yesterday I began my investigation of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Today I continue by focusing especially on verses 4-7: 

Love
is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.
Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps
no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice
but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never
loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
(NLT)

Before I get into the details, a couple of preliminary comments are in order.

First,
this passage has obviously been shaped to fit the crisis in Corinth. It
has a corrective tone. I rather doubt that if Paul had been given the
assignment to write a chapter on love without reference to a given
church, he would have come up with eight “love is not” statements among
the fifteen qualities of love. It’s pretty clear that Paul wants to
point out to the Corinthians where their own behavior is not loving.
One might capture Paul’s intent with this paraphrase:

Love
is patient and kind, unlike you Corinthians in the way you treat each
other. Love is not jealous, as you folks are. Love is not boastful,
like you are. And so forth and so on.

Second, in a
broader perspective, this description of love is, as I have mentioned
before, extraordinarily realistic about human nature. Consider the
subtext of these affirmations:

Love is patient.

Patience
is necessary in human relationships because people will be slow,
agonizingly slow. They’ll get on your nerves. They’ll keep making the
same mistakes over and over. Therefore love has to be patient.

Love is not jealous.

Ah,
but fallen human nature is so very jealous. We see somebody else get
affirmation and we feel slighted. If someone else is blessed, we wish
we were too. Sometimes we can even hate people who have what we want to
have ourselves. Therefore love must not be jealous.

Love does not demand its own way.

But
we do, all the time, especially when we’re in a fight with other
Christians. We want to win; we want them to lose. We plot and plan to
guarantee our success. Often we get so caught up in winning that we
lose perspective. Sometimes we even lose sight of the truth. Love, true
love, is a corrective to all of this because it seeks what is best for
the other, not for ourselves.

Love keeps no record of when it has been wronged.

What,
no record? Forgive and forget? You’ve got to be kidding. The record of
offenses helps us to win the battle. And it keeps us from being hurt
again by others.

I could keep on going, but I think
you get the point. Paul’s discussion of love doesn’t whitewash human
nature. On the contrary, it assumes that people will be irksome,
self-interested, and vengeful. True love cuts across the grain of human
nature, calling us to what often seems both unnatural and even silly.

Third,
this passage, by reflecting the character of Christ, calls us to
genuine and costly Christ-likeness. Throughout my life I’ve heard
preachers say that the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is
really a description of Christ himself. Take away “love” and plug in
“Christ” and you’ll see what they mean: “Christ is patient and kind.
Christ is not jealous. . . .” Some have proposed that Paul composed
this passage by thinking about Jesus himself, and that may well be
true, though we can’t prove it. But the point of this passage is not
primarily to praise the character of Christ. Rather, it’s calling us to
be like Christ by imitating his love. Thus this text is similar in form
to Philippians 2, which calls us to imitate the mind of Christ as it is
revealed in his humble incarnation and sacrificial death on the cross.

Of
course it’s one thing to talk about loving like Jesus and quite another
thing to actually love like Jesus. I’ll pick up this theme tomorrow.

Loving Like Jesus . . . Easier Said Than Done

 

1
Corinthians 13 calls us to love like Jesus. Though he is not
specifically mentioned in verses 4-7, Jesus is surely the model behind
Paul’s exhortation. The love of Jesus is epitomized, most of all, in
the cross, in his sacrificial death for our sake. We’re to love based
on this model. 

Of course that’s much easier said than done. If
we’re honest, we who try to follow Jesus’ example of love often come up
short. In fact, sometimes we don’t even want to try and love like
Jesus. Have you ever wished you didn’t have to be like Jesus? I have,
many times over. I don’t like turning the other cheek and, frankly, I’m
not very good at it. I don’t like having to forgive people over and
over again. And that’s just the beginning. We can all talk about
imitating Jesus, but really doing it, especially in the midst of
conflict, is just plain tough.

I remember so well an instance in
my ministry when I was working with a group in conflict. The arguments
were fierce and tempers flared. People were showing selfish attitudes
that seemed so unlike what we’re called to in Scripture. Finally I said
to the group, “Friends, I’m hearing what you want to do in this
situation, but my question is: What do you think Jesus would do here?”
One woman blurted out in anger, “I don’t care what Jesus would do. I AM
NOT JESUS!”

Part of me wanted to respond: “Well, that’s
obvious.” But, by God’s grace, I did not pour even more fuel on the
fire of her selfish anger. In fact, I did admire her ironic honesty,
I’ve got to say. But it almost seemed to me as if she was saying that
since she wasn’t Jesus she didn’t have to act as he would act. That’s
just not adequate for a Christian. A better statement would be: “It’s
really hard to be like Jesus because I am not Jesus. But I know I’m
called to be like him, as tough as it can be. So, Lord, help me! HELP
ME BE LIKE JESUS!”

I’ll bet I’ve prayed this prayer at least 200
times in my life, in situations where my patience has run out, where I
haven’t wanted to be kind, where I have had a long record of wrongs,
and where I’ve cared most of all about my own way. Sometimes, I’m sad
to admit, I’ve done what comes naturally and acted in selfishness. But
there have been times when I’ve sensed the Lord helping me to be like
him. He’s given me patience I just don’t have. He’s helped me to
subordinate my agenda to his. He’s allowed me to hear my opponent, not
just as someone to be defeated in debate, but as a human being with
needs, fears, hurts, and tender desires.

If you’re in the
middle of conflict with other Christians right now, I can almost
guarantee that you don’t want to be like Jesus. Admittedly, his way
isn’t easy. But it’s the way of love, the way of peace, and the way of
God.

If you have the courage to try it, take 1 Corinthians
13:4-7 and use it to measure your own attitudes and behaviors,
especially in reference to those with whom you are in conflict. Have
you been patient, really? Have you been kind, truly? How has your
kindness been expressed to those with whom you differ? Have you been
demanding your own way? Are you keeping a record of wrongs? Are you
willing to endure no matter what may come your way? Think about it.
Pray about it.

Tomorrow I’ll continue my investigation of 1 Corinthians 13 and its implications for conflict among Christians.

Love for the Long Haul

 

I
mentioned earlier in this series that I get nervous sometimes over the
hyper-romanticism of weddings. All too often that which begins in
dreamy splendor ends in the all-too-real sadness of disappointment or
divorce. Romantic love is just fine, but it won’t last for the long
haul. 

1 Corinthians 13 envisions another kind of love, a love
that lasts, well, forever. Here’s what we read in the latter part of
the chapter:

Love will last forever, but prophecy and
speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.
Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals
little! But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear.

It’s
like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a
child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see
things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything
with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete,
but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8-13, NLT)

As
we’ve seen before, Paul writes with the Corinthian conflicts in mind.
Their prized possessions – speaking in tongues and special knowledge -
don’t hold a candle to love, which alone lasts forever. But, once
again, Paul also includes the spiritual gift he values most, prophecy,
among those things that will pass away. So, though nailing the
Corinthians for their unloving priorities, Paul makes sure to keep his
own preferences in mind.

To understand this passage correctly,
we must note Paul’s eschatological perspective. Eschatology, the
understanding of the end of history, called the eschaton in
Greek, shapes Paul’s theology throughout his writings. It’s
particularly obvious in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul envisions life in
this world as a rather childlike reality. Though we see spiritual
things, we do so imperfectly. But the time will come when we will know
everything completely, just as God knows us now. (The NLT renders the
thought accurately here, but misses the marvelous imagery of seeing God
face to face. What an extraordinary hope we have of knowing the Lord so
intimately and fully!)

In light of the eschaton, love
gains value while the worth of other good gifts diminishes. Prophecy
won’t be needed then because it will be completely fulfilled. Special
knowledge won’t count for much when we know God perfectly. Speaking in
tongues will pass away as well. Even faith and hope pale in comparison
with love when seen in eschatological perspective. After all, faith
will be rather easy when we see God face to face. And hope, well, that
won’t even be necessary because our hopes will have been realized. But
love will last forever. (Photo: A red rose is a powerful symbol of
love, but it does not last.)

red-rose-5.jpgI
would suggest that you and I need to learn to see life in terms of
eternity. We need to equip ourselves for the long haul. When this
happens, we’ll see just how much love is really worth. It’s worth more
than prophecy, tongues, knowledge, faith, and hope.

Remember
that the love Paul speaks of isn’t the touchy-feely kind. It isn’t
about having warm fuzzies. Rather, love is costly, sacrificial care for
others. It’s being patient, kind, etc. etc.

When we’re in the
middle of conflict with other Christians, it’s terribly easy to value
many things more than love, things such as: vindication, winning the
argument, putting others in their place, proving how right we are, and
so forth. Love gets lost in the flurry of argument and anger. We can
actually think that temporal things have eternal value, while devaluing
that which truly lasts forever, namely love.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share an example from my own life of taking the long view of reality helped me to love.

The Long View of Love

 

Many
years ago I found myself in a conflict with a fellow leader in my
church. Though I tried everything I could think of to bring
reconciliation, I failed. As he was leaving our church, he made sure
that many people knew of my shortcomings, or what he perceived to be my
shortcomings, at any rate. Some of what he said was probably correct;
much of it was unfair. In response to his attacks on me and my
character, I wanted desperately to bring this man down, to tell the
congregation – no, the whole world – what a nasty person he had been to
me. In those days the biblical call to love didn’t seem like a guide
for better living. It felt instead like a huge anchor hung around my
neck to keep me from sailing where I wanted to head. 

More out of
a sense of duty to God than anything else, I resolved to love this man
to the limits of my ability, and beyond, I prayed, by God’s own
strength. So I made sure that my public communications about this man
were always positive. I said things about him that were true and kept
the negative to myself (and a couple of trusted friends). It was really
hard to do this!

I wish I could tell you that my efforts
brought reconciliation with this brother. They did not. And I wish I
could tell you that everybody in the church realized what a godly saint
I was being in contrast to the other man. They didn’t, and some left
the church over this incident. If I look at this event only from a
short-term perspective, love seemed to lose the day. It seemed naïve
and self-defeating to love, perhaps even injurious to the church I was
seeking to pastor. But if I look at what happened in light of eternity,
I believe that the choice to love was the right one. If nothing else,
God was honored by my modest efforts to follow Jesus. Moreover, the
painful choice to love helped me grow in my own faith and discipleship.
I became more like Christ in some small way, not only in that moment,
but also in my eternal soul. Moreover, those in my church who knew the
truth, and that included many of my key leaders, saw in my example
something that encouraged and instructed them.

Lest I appear
to be bragging, let me say that I have often failed to follow Jesus in
the way of love. I could collect a lineup of people who would bear
witness to my ample failures. And I surely failed in many ways during
the season of testing I’m describing now. But God’s grace is able to
touch even a person like me. If he can help me to love when I really
don’t want to, when my fallen nature says “Get even,” when my pride
says, “Bring him down,” then God can help you as well.

So
often we Christians have narrow, short-term vision. We look at today as
if it’s everything. Yet if we step back and get some perspective, if we
look at our lives from God’s point of view, if we think about the fact
that God holds all of history in his capable hands, then we’ll be able
to live according to eternal priorities. And from this angle, the
greatest thing of all is love. (Photo: My grandparents and me about 25
years ago. They were married well over fifty years, with a long-term,
committed love.)

Ama-Pop-MRD-5.jpgOne
of my favorite things to do as a pastor is to help couples celebrate
their fiftieth wedding anniversaries. There’s something tender about
recognizing love that has lasted over the long haul. Often these events
are quite romantic as well, and romance of this sort doesn’t worry me
in the least. In fact I think it’s great, well, most of the time,
anyway. A few years ago I was talking to the wife of the couple whose
anniversary we were celebrating. “I’ll bet ‘Jim’ loves you more now
than he did fifty years ago,” I said. The woman’s answer just about
knocked me over, “Well, he certainly seemed to feel that way last night
in bed!” Yeow, I thought, that’s just great, and I’m really happy for
you. But that was too much information! Nevertheless, I know that this
marriage was sustained by much more than moments of passionate fervor.
It lasted because of the sacrificial commitment of both the husband and
the wife. Their love, a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love, had been good
for the long haul.

May God help us to give real love its
rightful place in our lives. May we learn now to love now in a way that
will last forever.

Love is Fine, But What About?

 

I’ve received lots of comments and emails in response to this series on
Christians in conflict. Many have left me with mixed feelings. I’ve
heard from people who have found my discussion to be very helpful to
them, a fact that would ordinarily make me glad. But the reason that my
ideas have been germane is that so many Christians are caught up in
conflict with other believers. This is very sad. One man put it well.
He said, “Thanks for your series on conflict. It’s right on target . .
. unfortunately.” 

I’ve
also received many questions, great questions, about how what I’ve been
writing about can be worked out in practice. One of these questions has
focused on a particular problem: “What do I do when someone has truly
wronged me? 1 Corinthians 13 calls for patience, not keeping a record
of wrongs, and so forth. So am I supposed to forget about what someone
has done and pretend like it hasn’t happened? This seems wrong. What
should I do in this situation?” This is a crucial concern, and one I
plan to take up shortly.

It’s easy for me to envision many
misuses of 1 Corinthians 13. Suppose, for example, a person has treated
another person unjustly. When the victim presents the offense, I can
imagine the perpetrator saying, “Ah, there you go again, keeping a
record of wrongs.” The NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 13:5 reads,
“[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.” So, one who confronts another with his
or her sin might be accused of “keeping a record of wrongs,” that is,
being unloving.

Although I haven’t had this exact experience,
I have heard a similar accusation from an employee whom I was
supervising. This employee was not fulfilling his job description in a
number of crucial areas. When I brought these to his attention, he
accused me of being unforgiving and not offering grace. In his view,
since I was a Christian, I should have been willing to forgive all of
his failures, which seemed to imply that I should accept his job
performance no matter how poor it might have been. Yet, for many
reasons, I disagreed with him. As his supervisor, in a situation where
he was not performing his job adequately, I was expected to do
something that seemed a lot like keeping a record of wrongs. How could
I justify this in light of 1 Corinthians 13? Was I being unloving in
fulfilling my duties as a supervisor?

This is just one of
thousands of challenges to the ethic of love. There’s no way I can
begin to address even a tiny percentage of these real-life situations.
But, I will consider the case I have just brought forward and the issue
of keeping a record of wrongs. This example might help us as we try to
live out the call to love in the complicated situations of our lives. 

Love and Keeping a Record of Wrongs

 

In
my last post I began to consider what it means that love “keeps no
record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). In particular, I raised the
question of whether or not it’s ever appropriate for a loving Christian
to keep track of wrongs done by another person. One could, and I expect
some already have, interpret “keeping no record of wrongs” as meaning
“never even noting that a wrong has been done” or “not ever remembering
past wrongs for any reason.” So if somebody in the church speaks
unkindly to you, under this reading it would be loving simply to
pretend as if it had never happened. Is this the right interpretation
of 1 Corinthians 13:5? 

When I used to teach biblical exegesis in
seminary, I helped students pay close attention to the actual words
being used and to the context, both immediate and larger, of those
words. In responsible biblical interpretation we aren’t free to guess
what the words mean or to interject what we wish they meant. Rather, we
try to discover the original meaning through careful investigation.
This is what I’ll try to do here with the phrase “keeps no record of
wrongs.”

The Greek words literally mean: “[Love] does not reckon the wrong/evil/bad thing [ou logizetai to kakon].”
Commentators aren’t exactly sure what this phrase meant in
first-century Greek, however. The phrase “to reckon evil(s)” does
appear several times in the ancient Greek translation of the Old
Testament. There it means “devise evil against,” as in Zechariah 8:17
(LXX): “And each one of you should not devise the evil thing in your
hearts against your neighbor [ten kakian . . . me logizesthe].”
If Paul is using language in the sense of the Greek Old Testament, as
he often does, then 1 Corinthians 13:5 really means, “[Love] does not
devise evil [against another person].”

But Paul often uses the verb logizomai
in the sense of “adding to someone’s account,” as in 2 Corinthians
5:19: “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not
counting [logizomenos] their trespasses against them.” So his
ordinary usage of this verb suggests that 1 Corinthians 13:5 means:
“[Love] does not charge wrongdoing to the account of the perpetrator,”
or “keeps no record of wrongs.” Yet I wouldn’t want to build a whole
theology on such an ambiguous phrase when we can’t be precisely sure of
what it means.

As we try to weigh the meaning of 1 Corinthians
13:5 in its historical context, we don’t know exactly what situation
Paul was addressing. It may well be that some members of the Corinthian
community were “adding up the wrongs” of others, largely to show that
they themselves were better Christians than those with long lists of
sins. It may be that Paul’s concern was a lack of genuine forgiveness
on the part of some Corinthians, and “keeping a record of wrongs” means
“not forgiving.” But we can’t be exactly sure of the Corinthian context
for Paul’s counsel either. Our search for the right interpretation of
“keeping a record of wrongs” must move to the larger biblical context.

As
we consider this greater context, we realize that “not keeping a record
of wrongs” cannot mean that there is never accountability for
wrongdoers, that sinners simply get a pass when they do wrong. Many of
Paul’s own letters contain specific charges against his churches
concerning things they have done wrong. Moreover, remember God’s
response to human sin. In a sense, God certainly keeps a record of
wrongs. Through the prophets he chastises Israel time and again for her
faithlessness and disobedience, often listing in detail the sins of the
people (see, for example, Isaiah 1). We might also recall Jesus’ “woes”
upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, where he chronicles their
multiple sins. Since God is love, and Jesus is the love of God
incarnate, this sort of logging of sins must not be the unloving
“keeping a record of wrongs.”

Where does this leave us? God
certainly doesn’t ignore wrongdoing. He not only records it, if you
will, but he takes it so seriously that he sent his only son to die for
our sins. It would have been much less costly if God simply pretended
as if our sins didn’t exist. But this would contradict his holiness and
righteousness.

Yet God doesn’t record our sins so that there
might be a permanent breach in his relationship with us. He pays close
attention to our sin; he confronts us with the truth of our sin; he
holds us accountable for our actions so that we might receive his
forgiveness in Christ, so that we might be cleansed and set free, so
that we might sin no more. In the end, God chooses even to forget our
sins (Jeremiah 31:34). But this isn’t the same as ignoring them or
pretending as if they hadn’t happened in the first place. The divine
“forgetting” happens only after God has dealt with sin through the new
covenant in the blood of Christ. We experience the benefits of that new
covenant only when we acknowledge our sin and put our trust in Christ
as our Savior.

Therefore, God does not keep a record of our
wrongs in that, after he deals with them through the cross, and after
we confess and are forgiven, God chooses to look upon us as if we had
not sinned. At first he does keep a record of wrongs, however, calling
us to account for what we have done that is contrary to his will. But
in the end his mercy triumphs as the record of wrongs is nailed to the
cross (Colossians 2:13-15).

Where does this leave us in our
effort to imitate God’s love by not keeping a record of wrongs? Well,
it does not mean that we should simply pretend as if a wrongdoing
hasn’t happened. (Sure, we should ignore trivial, unintended offenses
at times, but this isn’t the main point of our text.) When someone has
wronged us, there needs to be an accounting for this wrong. The
offender needs to acknowledge the offense so that there can be
reconciliation. Ignoring or rationalizing or minimizing sin is yet
another form of sin, and must be avoided.

But, at the same time,
if you have been hurt by someone, you cannot let that hurt erect an
impenetrable barrier between you and the person who wronged you. You
can’t let your record of the wrongs of another become the basis for
fractured relationship or broken Christian community. Like God, you
need to be instrumental in a process that leads to genuine repentance,
forgiveness, and restoration. If, after the one who has offended you
has apologized, you are still hanging on to your record of wrongs, then
you have missed the point of God’s love and grace. This, I believe, is
what 1 Corinthians 13:5 would regard as unloving behavior.

Now I
realize that the kind of process I’ve been describing isn’t an easy
one. Believe me, I know this! I’ve been involved in some of the
messiest and most confusing efforts to bring reconciliation. Often what
makes them so messy and confusing is the failure (or even
unwillingness) of involved parties to do what Jesus tells us to do in
such a circumstance. In my next post I’m going to deal with this topic.
So stay tuned . . . .

This series continues in the next series: What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus.

Previous Posts

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Thank you for visiting Mark D. Roberts. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!  

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Why Did Jesus Have to Die? The Perspective of the First Christians, Part 2
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posted 2:30:03am Apr. 07, 2011 | read full post »


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