One of my favorite books in the Bible is 1 Corinthians. It’s not my favorite to read devotionally (that would be Psalms); it’s also not my favorite because it has a grand, sweeping narrative (Colossians gets my vote); and it’s certainly not the easiest one to read. What I love about 1 Corinthians is that it is so … real. You can practically see the flesh-and-blood people behind the letter as Paul writes, with specificity, about the problems the Corinthian church faced.
I love 1 Corinthians because it reminds me that faith and church are not always simple and straightforward; sometimes, in fact, they get quite messy. In 1 Corinthians, I get to see that just because a church makes it in the Bible doesn’t mean they have their stuff together any more than we do.
But in a church that has some real issues, like sexual infidelity, disunity around communion, and questions about the resurrection – in other words, real stuff – I am amazed that nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul challenge the elders to step up and get things under control. I’m not sure why that is, but the result (at least, in part) is that the folks who make up the Corinthian church need to take responsibility for who they are, and how they live out their faith.
Which leads me to think that, as important as leadership in the church is (and I think it’s very important), equally important is the responsibility we all have to walk faithfully – and live out our calling as followers of Jesus, together.
In light of all of this, it’s also interesting to me that Corinth is the only NT church where tongue-speaking is mentioned (and maybe even used?). Corinth is also unique in regard to the visible demonstrations of the Spirit through things like miracles and healings. At the same time as they had all of these dramatic spiritual manifestations, they were a mess (see above). And so, in 1 Corinthians, Paul challenges them to stop worrying about the dramatic, and focus on the daily.
We see that in 1 Corinthans 11-14, the longest block of material in the New Testament that describes early Christian worship. In this section, Paul talks about:
- a proper communion approach (including revolutionary ideas like: Wait for each other, and: Don’t get drunk);
- love (not just for weddings, love also works very nicely in church);
- men and women prophesying (though we often focus on the head-covering element, to me, the more fascinating reality is that men and women are prophesying in church).
The involvement of all of the Corinthians in worship then comes into clearer focus in chapter 14 – where Paul challenges the Corinthians on their desire to speak in tongues. Glossolalia (tongue-speaking) is something no one can understand, yet it is a dramatic and noticeable gift – so, apparently, many of the Corinthians were clamoring for it. Instead, Paul challenges them to seek to prophesy.
As I’ve shared in my most recent sermon, I see prophesy as a message of the moment; that is: what does God want to say to these people, right now? Prophesy can have a future element, but the focus of it is to point people to how they should live, right now.
And apparently, Paul believes that all people in the church can share in this: You can all prophesy one-by-one, Paul says, so that all may learn and be encouraged (1 Cor 14.31, RSV). In fact, when the church came together, Paul says: Each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation (1 Cor 14.26).
So, for me, this means: leadership is important, but ALL of us should take responsibility for making sure we know truth, and teach truth, and live truth. All of us have a responsibility for building up the Body, for encouraging and challenging those who need it.
I believe that the Spirit will do what the Spirit needs to do to make Himself known. Sometimes that involves the “wow” factor: things like tongues or healings or miracles. But this can’t be the focus. In fact, it’s notable that in no other church in the NT do we read of tongue-speaking. It doesn’t mean it didn’t occur – see Acts 10.46 and 19.6, the only other 2 clear cases of “glossolalia” that I can find in the NT. But what Paul hints at to the Corinthian church, he makes clear to the Galatian church: that the clearest evidence of the Spirit is fruit – beginning with love, and ending in self-control.
In other words, the Church needs strong leadership and, sometimes, a dramatic expression of the presence of the Spirit. But what helps the Church to be what it is called to be, year after challenging year, is faithful people, faithfully walking in love, and patience, and kindness, and self-control – as they use their gifts to build up the Body.
So, pray for your church leaders, but also pray for yourself – that where you need to speak, you’ll speak. Where you need to encourage, you’ll encourage. Where you need to admonish, you’ll admonish. And make sure to do it all in the name and the power of love. For the sake of the Church.