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First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Love’s Sufficiency

February 2, 2021
More than fifty years ago, the Beatles told us in song, “All you need is love.” Their words have become something of a mantra for Western societies. Indeed, Patrick Mitchel goes so far as to claim this is the only generally accepted theological assertion of our age.

But is it true? As we have already discussed, Paul preferred the Corinthians devote themselves to love rather than to knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1) or spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31). And, in our next time together, we will discuss how love forms the foundation of everything else Paul says about the church in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

But notice what Paul said to another church in Colossians 1:9-12 (NIV):

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.

When Paul prayed for the church at Colossae, he prayed they would receive “knowledge.” Granted, it was knowledge oriented towards a specific goal (“the will of God”), but it was knowledge. And that knowledge would come to the members of this church by the “wisdom” and “understanding” provided by God’s Spirit.

Indeed, Paul claimed this knowledge, wisdom, and understanding would have a number of effects on the believers at Colossae. They would:

  • Enable them to live in ways that are “worthy” of their new Master
  • Enable them to live in ways that please their new Master
  • Make their new life productive
  • Create genuine knowledge of God
  • Generate strength that manifests itself in endurance
  • Result in thanksgiving

That is an impressive list of achievements, and it all comes through the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding brought by God’s empowering presence.

So, how do we explain this apparent inconsistency in Paul’s thought? For one thing, we need to remember even 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 has to be read in context. Paul was in a particular place in his life, and so was the Corinthian church. Paul was keenly aware of the limits of worldly knowledge, and he was watching those limits work themselves out in the life of the Corinthian house-churches.

Secondly, Paul’s polemic in 1 Corinthians is not against knowledge per se. He is quite happy to affirm the importance of the kind of knowledge which comes from God. But that kind of knowledge is different from the knowledge the Corinthians were crowing about. 

As the text from Colossians quoted above illustrates, the kind of knowledge Paul wanted his converts to have pointed them to God’s person and purpose. It cannot be used as a tool for congregational division precisely because it is not focused on the congregants themselves. It is focused on God, and, as such, it brings unity to all who have truly devoted themselves to God.

And that leads us to our third, and possibly most important, point. To know God’s person and purposes is to know love. God himself is the author of love, and love is what He uses to bind His people to one another and to Himself.

If we were to look at the rest of Scripture more closely, we would see this same dynamic play out over and over again. Love is the cardinal virtue and the highest of all spiritual gifts. But it is not the only virtue, and it certainly does not stand apart from its author. Rather, it is dynamically related to other virtues (truth, righteousness, grace, wisdom, goodness, etc.) and, together with these virtues, it both illuminates God’s character and expresses His will for the church.

But how does love (to say nothing of these other virtues) play itself out in the nitty-gritty of life and ministry in the 21st-century church? It is this question to which we must turn in our next conversation.

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