Foundation and Unity

This week's lesson is in some regards a continuation of the first week's lesson. For those who were present that week, the lesson was on unity in the church at Corinth, the work of the Spirit, and unity today. I'll try not to rehash that lesson. For those who are interested, my comments on it are posted.

In 1 Cor. 3, Paul finishes up his discourse on the state of the Corinthian believers, and then returns to the issues of the schisms that were forming in the Corinthian church based on what leader the different groups of people wanted to follow.

The State of the Church

Paul starts this chapter with a commentary containing his estimation of the spiritual state of the Corinthian church. He is very direct, calling them carnal. This word is translated elsewhere as fleshly, natural, or human. Verse 3 goes on to explain why he feels this way. They were envious of what the other Christians there had. They were divisive, preferring to split into separate bodies of believers rather than reconcile their differences and remain united as a body; they had strife instead of unity. Why was this? They were hung up on who they should follow as a leader.

This is very applicable for today. As with the church at Corinth, the body of believers is heavily fractured today. This week, a surprise candidate was elected the leader of the Baptist churches for the year because he sought to unite the body for missions work. Shortly, the Anglican Communion will face the issue of the Episcopal church in America's appointment of a gay bishop as the Episcopal church holds its annual conference. Similar issues face the Methodist denomination and many other Christian churches today.

Our Foundation

What did Paul have to say about the foundations of the church that can be of use to us today in resolving these sorts of issues?

In 1 Cor. 3:11, Paul identifies the foundation that must stand the test of time as the only basis for the Christian church. "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ."

What foundation is Christ built on?

Christ's foundation was the Old Testament.

He fulfilled all of the prophecy in it that dealt with the first coming of the Messiah. "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord," (Isaiah 61:1-2) speaks of His ministry. Isaiah 53 speaks of the purpose of His last days on Earth, His rejection, His suffering, His crucifixion, and His burial. All the way back in Genesis, His victory over Satan was promised, "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Gen. 3:15).

He fulfilled the types that were presented in it. An example would be his resurrection ministry and that of Jonah, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt. 12:40).

He removed the ceremonial law that the Jews were under because His death on the cross provided the cleansing of sin that the ceremonial law provided and was a type for (or pointed to). Christ Himself said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till Heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. The jot was the smallest letter and the tittle was the smallest ornament placed on certain Hebrew letters. He was careful to make clear that His expectations were not less than what the people had been used to. The ceremonial law was finished (fulfilled) at His death on the cross.

He brought all the moral strictures of the Old Testament dealing with how we should live forward [except "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy"]. In His own ministry, He extended (or put teeth in) them. Good examples can be found in the Sermon on the Mount which I would encourage everyone to read (for example Mt 5:21 for OT/killing versus NT/just being angry, Mt. 5:23 and relationships, Mt 5:25 and civil suits, Mt. 5:27 and adultery, Mt. 5:31 and divorce, Mt. 5:33 and vows, Mt. 5:38 and retaliation, Mt. 5:43 and love, Mt. 6 and religious matters like giving, prayer and fasting). The list goes on and on as He expounds on the Laws of His kingdom. He still has high expectations for His followers.

Building on the foundation of Christ

So Paul argues that our foundation should be the same foundation that he built the church on. Namely Christ. In 1 Cor. 3:5-7, he makes clear that the other ministers various members of the Corinthian church were hung up on were just laborers, like himself, who didn't matter in the grand scheme of things any more than he did. All Christians were expected to do their part in building on that solid foundation. No one was better than any other.

Paul was careful to lay the foundation of the Corinthian church according to the blueprints Christ laid out: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid out the foundation." (1 Cor. 3:10). But once the initial foundation was laid out, who did the building was not material. It was God who gave the increase anyway, since His Spirit is responsible for touching men's depraved hearts and giving them the desire to be saved.

The early Christian church heard this foundation from people who had first or second hand experience with Christ Himself. They may have been taught by the disciples who walked with and listened to Christ minister. They may have been taught by those like Paul who were certainly aware of Christ's ministry; (Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen and consented to it, and later had individual experiences with Christ on the road to Damascus). Multitudes of others went to hear Christ teach and were touched by His ministry. They had direct knowledge of what Christ stood for, how He performed His ministry. They knew what was important to Him and His direction for the church to take.

Today, we have a large body of this information present in the Scriptures written down and transferred down generation after generation for Christians to read, study, and put into practice. For all of the thousands of years of copying, it has stood the test of time very well. It remains very consistent in its message, very direct and revealing in the human failings it addresses (of authors and others alike). It gives a solid foundation and picture of what the early church was like - its successes, failures, difficulties, and triumphs. Every body of Christians will face similar issues that the early church faced, and the Bible remains an excellent guidebook and standard to compare the work we are doing to.

The Christian church today needs to be sure it is building only on the foundation that Christ provided. Using the foundation and building metaphor, In order to try to enlarge our houses ourselves using our own wisdom as opposed to the wisdom of God (however transmitted to us), many churches and indeed denominations today are building new wings on dirt with no foundation. We want to be inclusive of everyone to get attendance up to bring in donations to build yet bigger and better buildings to spread out further... all done with no foundation. Around and around the merry-go-round goes. God knows where the merry-go-round will stop. We pray that there will be faithful found when that occurs.

There is one foundation. It is a stone (Isaiah 28:14-29)... "Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem. Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves: Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with death shall not be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it."

These are traditionally taken to be directed toward Judah and fulfilled either by the Babylonian or Roman occupations which destroyed Jerusalem. But they have merit for today as well. Christ himself gave the parable of the builder and two foundations. "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Mt. 7:24-29).

The parallels between Isaiah and Matthew are striking here. The church must get back to the rock. We are commanded to love everyone, to reach out to all in the name of Christ to win them to the Lord. But we are not to embrace evil in the process. Getting saved includes repenting of sin. Turn away from it. Be done with it. Don't keep it in your lives. Hebrews 13:8 declares, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever." He is unchanging. His standards haven't slipped in the last 2,000 or 6,000+ years. What He caused to be written in the Holy Bible hasn't changed. The Christian church must return to its roots. We need to renounce our covenants with sin (which is death) and prepare ourselves for His return.

It is striking to me how split and fractured the denominations have become. On a global scale, there is the Catholic versus Protestant versus Charismatic divisions in the Church. Church news of the week includes:

  • According to an editorial in the Thursday Wall Street Journal, "Turn Left at the Presbyterian Church", by Jim Roberts, the Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) is wrestling over political issues related to divesting from multinational corporations that do business in Israel, direct support of Palestine, and friendly relations with Hezbollah and Hamas. According to the author, real problems like the genocide in Darfur and the treatment of Christians in general in Communist and Muslim countries are not important to the leadership. The leadership has adopted a stance that is decidedly against U.S. policy. To listen to them, we're the new imperialists and must be stopped at all costs. That doesn't mean that the bulk of the people sitting in the pews agree with any of these positions. But the people in power are out of touch with the body and are wasting time and energy about things that are transitory. Christ manifestly stayed out of politics. It is temporal and not eternal. All denominations should be focusing on the Father's business. It is sad that the leadership has put themselves in a position where the worldwide readers of the WSJ will see this editorial as what the whole denomination stands for.
  • The U.S. Episcopalians (ECUSA) are struggling with the issue of electing gay leaders and blessing homosexual unions by liturgical ceremonies. The worldwide Anglican Communion is threatening to force the U.S. Episcopalian church out of their Communion over this issue which the majority of the worldwide Communion condemns as against scripture. This was precipitated by the elevation of Gene Robinson to Bishop in 2003 but that was just the wind that started a long smoldering fire. Quoting an Associated Press article by Rachel Zoll on Forbes.com, "Robinson and other gay advocates have urged delegates not to create new barriers for homosexuals for the sake of unity. But Episcopalians with traditional views of Scripture have complained that the proposals (ed. ... which are designed to do the absolute minimum to appease the worldwide Anglican communion...) are meaningless and fail to go far enough toward addressing conservative concerns."

    At a news conference, Robinson is reported to have said that neither Jesus nor scripture condemns homosexuality. Robinson continued his defense saying nobody in the 21st century argues that scripture supports slavery and bars the ordination of women. He continues, saying "It's time to conclude the same thing about homosexuality." He has declared he isn't an abomination. Well, no, God doesn't declare any of His creation to be an abomination. I don't know the man. All I know is what I have read in statements he has made and statements made about him. His heart may be right with God and his current relationship may be chaste. That is for God to judge. He certainly has the support of the local churches or he wouldn't have been nominated for bishop. God does expect His leaders to be above reproach.

    However, his statement about homosexual acts not being condemned in the Bible was in error. God does frequently declare the acts perpetrated by his children, whom He loves very much, to be an abomination. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination." (Lev. 18:22) "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." (Lev. 20:13) And lest you say that was just an Old Testament thing, read Romans 1:18-32, particularly 26-27 and 32. Scripture is clear! Verses 29-30 cover a lot of ground - it isn't just homosexuality that is being judged as apostasy in this section - but don't think it isn't mentioned and condemned in Scripture just because the words gay, lesbian, or homosexual aren't found if you do a Bible search! Concluding with Rev 21:8 "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

    God's love is all inclusive. He loves every sinner equally. Whether that person is a homosexual or a liar makes no difference to God. Sin is sin. In whatever form the rebellion takes, it is something that separates us from God. He wants all of us to be reconciled to Him through the blood of Jesus, and he wants all of us to repent of our sin (turn away from it) and turn to Him. He is able to change anything in us that needs changed to live a sin free life if we want to repent and change. He is God after all. I don't have any magic answers when sin involves relationships. That is why God is so clear in trying to get us to avoid such relationships in the first place.

    As with the Presbyterians, large numbers of American Episcopalian dioceses and their parishes are just as much against what is going on in certain parts of the ECUSA as the rest of the Anglican Communion (and many other churches). All denominations are having to face this particular issue. The answer is clear and simple. The foundation should still be set firmly on the stone. By all means, let's have unity. Just make sure it is unity with the corner stone and not unity with the world. Don't try to put additional burdens on the people that aren't in the Bible - that was what the Scribes and Pharisees were good at - but don't try to sweep them under the rug either. If you do that you are creating a religion that is based on something other than the Bible and that isn't a firm foundation at all.

  • Another headline pointed out that the SBC has adopted a position that its missionaries will not be allowed to speak in tongues in public worship or use a private prayer language. I don't want to pick on the Baptists here exclusively. There are a host of other papers from most main-line denominations that take similar anti-charismatic stances. I just thought that this one was particularly egregious. As we discussed last week, Christ's last commands to His disciples included going into all the world to preach the gospel (the work of missionaries) followed by a command to tarry in Jerusalem till they received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit to enable them to carry out this mission.

    I grew up in an Assembly of God church. The ministry of the Holy Spirit was always a welcome part of any service. I will be the first to agree that the focus in some areas on the inspiration gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, tongues, and interpretation) and the less critical desire or focus on the other gifts of the Spirit [gifts of revelation (word of wisdom, word of knowledge, and discernment of spirits) and gifts of power (faith, healing, and miracles)] has been a detriment and a source of strife in the church. Much damage has been done in the work of God by people trying to baptize in the Spirit rather than letting Jesus baptize in the Spirit. Attitudes among people who have received the Baptism toward others hasn't helped at times either.

    The thing is, the Baptism in the Spirit would be considered foundational by Paul. The focus on the initial evidence of the Baptism being speaking in tongues is another source of schism in the church. It is hard to make a case for anything else other than a private prayer language and the gifts of the Spirit being used in a particular Christian's life as evidence of the Baptism. It was clear, even in cases where the Bible doesn't specifically state that there was speaking in tongues present, that there was some directly observable evidence that the Baptism had occurred. A later lesson deals with the gifts themselves, so I won't get into that today. But Scripture is clear that these were established as part of the foundation of the New Testament church and are manifest in many different congregations and denominations around the world then and today.

    To try to not make use of important parts of the foundation that God has established is silly. Pride is rearing its ugly head. The "We can do it without God just because it is hard to tell (if you're not Spirit filled) if something is really from God" mentality some denominations have going is just crazy. They wonder why attendance is slipping, yet they reject the means God set forth to equip missionaries to work. It's no wonder the charismatic churches are growing. They are letting God move in the method He set forth in scripture to spread the word. They might not be doing it perfectly, but they are trying. I won't for a minute try to argue you can't win someone to God if you aren't filled with the Spirit. It happens all the time and Hallelujah for it. But I see far too many people who aren't Spirit filled who have no interest in even trying to witness or affect their world for God to be able to say that there isn't something directly related to the Baptism in the Spirit that does in fact lead one to try to share the Gospel message.

These are just a few examples of the problems that are splitting us apart today. We must all band together on the foundation of the Bible, its practices, and receive the promised Gifts, to work together to build the body of Christ. We need all of the help we can get to build properly on the foundation of Christ. That includes eliminating the sludge of politics and political wrangling from among us, the elimination of sin from our midst, and allowing the Holy Spirit to move in us and in our churches. By all means, if our history and upbringing don't allow us to accept some of what is going on in the charismatic movement today, at least let's stop tearing each other apart over these things. I don't agree with all of the doctrinal and lifestyle decisions that are being made by major denominations around the world today (as is pretty clear above) - but we need to work toward unity as a whole. Keep as solid a foundation on the things the Bible says as we can and let each denomination go about its way as it sees fit in issues where the Bible doesn't take a stand or make a firm statement on an issue.

Judgment of the Building

The work that we do - whether it is gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble will be made manifest, revealed and tried by fire. We will be rewarded for what remains. If it doesn't survive the burning, our souls will not be lost, but we will get no rewards.

The key thing is to try to figure out what sort of building on the foundations will be worthwhile. If you look at the parables of Christ, one thing stands out. He is looking for the vines that produce fruit - that save people.

There isn't much interest or patience for work that is unprofitable. He is willing to give extra time and extra chances, but He has a limit that will not be pushed. This is clear from one end of Matthew to the other. Matthew 3:9 starts out "And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. This is continued in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, adding "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." Every single denomination today has great leaders of the past and present that they can point to with pride at the foundational work they have done. Wesley, Calvin, and Luther, are names from the Protestant past. Many illustrious names can be taken from the Catholic church. Today's names would include the likes of Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, and a host of others. But when we stand before Christ, we will be asked what works we have done for Him. They will stand in judgment for the gold, silver, precious, and yes, the occasional wood, hay, stubble that they have done for the kingdom. But no church can rest on the laurels of a few great men. If they do that for long, they will Rest in Peace.

Towards the end of His ministry, a fig tree suffered His wrath, "Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!" (Mt. 21:17)

A final example comes from Luke 13:5, "He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. Sometimes His limits are harder to see. We get our minds wrapped around an idea and can't let go of it long after we should have given up.

Every church needs to seriously evaluate what they are doing for Christ. Are they caretakers of a physical building that does nothing to bring any new people to God? Are they producing fruit or just ministering to the people who mill about from church to church? What can we do and do better? I fear that the ax is being placed at the roots of many denominations today. People are fleeing them in droves seeking a closer experience with God.

I'm not saying this is right - even Christ said that people were looking for great works rather than seeking the truth. People like spectacles rather than being trained. People want instant religion. They don't like Sunday School because they don't want to spend any more time in church than they have to. They don't want to have to study anything or be challenged. We need to make church (whether meeting at a building or a home) a place they want to be. Making it relevant by adding programs geared to particular groups isn't the answer. Getting the power of God back in the church is the answer.

Conclusion

Read the Bible and discover what Christ said about His church. Read the plans for the foundation. Find out what He has caused to be recorded about who will be in heaven and who will not. Preach repentance again and not just salvation.

Different people are more comfortable in different worship settings. That is OK. It is good to have a variety, but we must eliminate the holier than thou from the way we act and what we say. That includes both the main line denominations reactions toward the charismatics and the charismatics toward the main line denominations.

I am far from perfect. I make a lot of mistakes. I have a lot of wood, hay, and stubble in my life that I wish wasn't there. This Sunday School lesson may qualify - I won't know till my works are judged. But I really feel that this issue is on God's heart. He looks at the conferences and the politics, and the wrangling, and I am sure that He cries for what His church has become. Let's get back to reaching the world for Him. Take a stand on the rock instead of getting mired in quicksand.