defining love 1600

First Corinthians and the Twenty First Century Church: Love and Congregational Life

February 16, 2021
For weeks now, we have labored to come to terms with Paul’s teaching about love, convinced it is the foundation of everything else he has to say in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and, indeed, in the entire book). Now, we must turn our attention to how love should shape congregational life. After all, that is what our section of the letter, and the letter as a whole, is about.

Our present task is made more difficult by two characteristics of Paul’s argument in these chapters. First, Paul deals with issues (e.g., spiritual gifts and orderly worship) which do not automatically make one think about love. Second, Paul deals with his chosen topics by making a variety of claims about the nature of the church and the purpose of God’s work within it. So, it is up to us to see the connections Paul saw, to make those connections explicit, and to arrange them in categories which make sense to us and to the people we serve.

Love Establishes Proper Priorities

The first thing we can say about love is it helps a congregation establish and adhere to the right priorities. Love demands people think about others first. Those others include Christ, of course, but they also include the members of one’s congregation and even those in the community that one is trying to reach.

Love Celebrates Diversity

Second, love motivates us to celebrate diversity. Now, when we hear words like “celebrate diversity,” we tend to think in terms of our own struggles with ethnic or gender diversity. And Paul certainly would have been comfortable speaking into those issues. But, in our context, his primary emphasis is on the differing spiritual gifts people receive from God–and, thus, upon the differing roles people play in a given congregation.

Recently, my wife and I watched Ragamuffin, a movie about the life of Rich Mullins. His idiosyncratic personality and (seemingly) untimely death made Mullins a cult hero to some, but the truth is he could be very difficult to work with. Unfortunately, the church is not always a hospitable place for moody, eccentric artists–especially when those artists carry around with them a rather sizable load of spiritual and emotional baggage.

But we need the artists in our midst, just like we need accountants, engineers, and educators. Frankly, the “bean counters” can be just as annoying as the artists for those they lead. I have heard more than one pastor complain about the demands engineers make on their leaders; who obsess over every detail and want to understand everything. At least, that is the stereotype one often encounters. Oftentimes, our struggle with these personality types is due to our weakness in love. We do not know how to bear with the faults, quirks, weaknesses, and failings of others, and we do not show a great deal of interest in learning how to deal with these inconveniences when they directly impact us.

But Paul would insist this is precisely what the body of Christ is all about. It is about putting artists and accountants, engineers and adventurers, in the same room so they can benefit from one another and advance God’s Kingdom.

Love Promotes Order

Third, love promotes order. This effect of love is a function of something we have already mentioned. When we love, we stop focusing on ourselves. We don’t act in ways which draw attention to ourselves. Instead, we focus on the needs of our congregation, the individuals who populate it, our community, and the church as a whole.

Obviously, this focus on the needs and welfare of others eliminates a lot of discord. But it also provides fertile soil for the growth of genuine unity. Yes, we all have different gifts. Yes, those gifts often come with different personality traits and even different ways of seeing the world. But these differences are brought together into a unified agenda–a single plan of action that benefits from both its unity and diversity. And the result is order.

Love Enforces Healthy Boundaries

Fourth, love does not merely empower effective living by celebrating our diversity and integrating that diversity into a cohesive, orderly whole. It also places constraints upon how we live. There are just certain things love will not do, certain ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting love will not tolerate.

Consider the example Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. The interpretation of this passage is disputed, but it is likely Paul here portrays a situation where men in the congregation were sleeping with one another’s wives in order to steal honor from one another. The egregious violation is inconsistent with love on at least two grounds. First, it treats the women involved as mere pawns for the social advancement of the men around them. Second, it shows the most extreme disrespect for the men in the congregation. Rather than treating them as beloved brothers whose honor is to be protected and promoted, it treats them as competitors who are to be overcome for one’s own social good.

Perhaps we don’t see anything so egregious in our own congregations. But we see, and sometimes do, things which are similarly destructive to the unity and order of our congregations. Gossip, infighting, and a critical spirit are all too common in our churches, and they are wholly inconsistent with love. 

Exclusion is not something many people think of these days when they think of love. But love must be exclusive, at least in the sense we are talking about here, in order to be genuine love. That is because love compels us to care about what really matters, to sacrifice our own needs and desires for the sake of the other. And in so doing, we lay the foundation for the kind of abundant life Jesus promised, and we put into action Paul’s vision for the body of Christ.

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