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First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: More on Unity

May 18, 2020
In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul continues to “beat the dead horse” of unity. This time, he lays out for the Corinthians, in sarcastic and highly stylized form, three habits which will help them be more unified. These habits have everything to do with how the Corinthians think, but they also have everything to do with how they behave and how they interact with one another. As such, Paul’s message is great advice for us as we seek unity in the 21st-century church.

Properly Evaluate Yourself

Paul’s most biting sarcasm is reserved for how the Corinthians evaluated themselves vis-a-vis their apostolic patron. Paul wished the Corinthians were half as wise and powerful as they claimed to be. But they weren’t, and their lack of clarity about their own standing was getting in the way of their spiritual growth.

The same can be true for us. We live in a world saturated with information and which values, above all, the freedom of the individual to make his or her own choices. These features of modern life have lots of positive consequences, but one of their negative consequences is a profound unwillingness on the part of many to admit they are not the best guides for their own lives. It is all too easy for us to trust “our own understanding” (to borrow a line from Proverbs 3:5), even when we have demonstrated through the poor quality of our lives that we really do not understand very much.

Properly Evaluate Leaders

A related message from Paul was that his readers should properly evaluate their leaders. It is not hard to see how an excessive focus on a particular leader could lead to disunity. After all, cults of personality do not tolerate dissent, and they do not allow for multiple lines of loyalty and authority. They make the charismatic leader the centerpiece of the organization and the defining feature of all relationships. By contrast, Paul wanted a more holistic model of organizational structureone in which each person related to all of the others as equals, more or less.

There is, however, another point that Paul is trying to make, and it may not be quite as obvious to us.  For Paul, over-emphasis upon the identification with a particular leader can actually contribute to arrogance among those who are lead.   One would think that the opposite would be true. But social identity theory reminds us that people derive an important part of their individual identity from their group’s positive distinctiveness. And, ironically enough in a collectivist culture, one way to demonstrate the group’s positive distinctiveness is to posit that the group has a superior leader.

What does all of this academic mumbo-jumbo mean? It simply means we will do well to properly evaluate those who lead us. Doing so promotes unity within the congregation by short-circuiting those social processes by which people compete for the leader’s affection through loyalty. Similarly, properly evaluating leaders also short-circuits inter-congregational competition. It is hard to brag about how your preacher is better than the preacher down the road if you are constantly aware of how both are gifted and both have flaws.

Cultivating Mental Humility

Paul’s rhetoric is so confusing in some ways. He wants his audience to evaluate people properly, but he also does not want them to “judge anything before the proper time.” Indeed, he claimed he did not even judge himself. So what is going on here?

Simply this: Paul wants the Corinthians to be humble. Humility was not something they were very good at. Some of them apparently believed they had already arrived at spiritual perfection. Paul, by contrast, knew quite well there was much he did not know. And if Paul did not know certain things, whether it be about people or topics, then the Corinthians certainly had some vast gaps in their knowledge.

I grew up in a home that valued certainty, and, being one of the more intellectually gifted kids in my class, I easily claimed the mantle of certainty for myself. Only recently have I realized how much of this was due to my own need to be the center of everyone’s attention and affection. I have decades of socially reinforced behavior to unlearn, and it is not easy to do.

Nevertheless, it is necessary work. My own pretensions to certainty have, on more than one occasion, made it difficult for me to relate to others, and they have even impaired my performance as a minister and lay leader. That is because ignorance often masquerades as certainty, and when it is unmasked, it does not tend to react well.

An Invitation to Further Reflection 

First Corinthians 4 is not easily preached. It doesn’t lend itself to a happy sermon with three easily understood points. Indeed, there is a lot more to the chapter than I have discussed here. Nevertheless, it is worth our consideration as we round out our discussion of Paul’s talk on unity. I encourage you to dig into this material and see what you come up with. We all might be surprised, and enriched, by what we find.

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