Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians which we are studying, after talking about the church’s lack of maturity, uses one of their greatest problems as an example of how bad things had gotten – that problem being “division”. The church is divided – in many ways – but the way that the Apostle addresses first is that they have divided themselves according to their favourite teacher.
Of course, these divisions weren’t solely based on their favourite teacher, but went much deeper. They had divided over all kinds of things – all of which are still present in the modern church. They disagreed about how to worship God, what laws they had to follow, and how they should live their lives. They had created division on their different races and cultures, their social statuses, and even by their spiritual giftings.
The rich abused the poor, the Greeks wouldn’t talk to the Jews (and vice-versa), those who spoken in tongues looked down on those who didn’t, the teachers thought they were better than the servants. Some wanted to follow the whole Law of Moses while others wanted to incorporate worship styles from the culture around them. Some people wanted full sexual liberty, while others were trying to convince everyone that they had to remain unmarried virgins all their lives. Some people loved having big bar-b-cues with the leftover meat that had been used when the animals were sacrificed to the pagan gods, while others refused to eat anything other than vegetables. The church was incredibly divided – and so Paul addresses this first.
And of course, as with any group dedicated to raising themselves up and demonizing another, they had created a civil war among themselves and needed to pick some heroes to lead the charge. And so, without telling them, they had each picked their own favourite apostle, preacher or teacher to represent their group.
Some had picked Peter, the hot-headed, blue-collar, leader of the apostles, who struggled with getting along with non-Jews. Others had picked Paul, a highly educated, genius level Jewish scholar, who had seemingly turned away from his Jewish heritage and dedicated his life to sharing the gospel with the gentiles. Still others chose Apollos, the non-apostolic, but super talented, super popular, super knowledgeable preacher, who was widely known for his boldness in publically defending Christians and Christianity.
These men had no idea that the Corinthian church was using them as unwitting leaders of these various factions, and as excuses for their sin. “Paul said that we didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses, so that means that I can do whatever we want!” “Well, Peter still lives in Jerusalem and follows the whole Law, and he’s the leader of the Apostles, so obviously he’s right!” “Well, if Apollos were here, I know that he would be on my side!”
The church is just as divided today as it was then. It’s really not any better. I’m not just talking about denominations – which get kind of a bad rap, actually – but true divisions based on race, culture, worship style, theological arguments, and more. There are black churches that won’t accept white people, white churches that won’t accept black. There are suburban churches that won’t help the poor and inner city churches that hate rich people. There are churches dominated by well educated professionals and those by working class folk. There are churches for the young, for the old, and for those in between. There are religious churches that have hundreds of rules and disciplines, and others dedicated to freedom and exploration. And even within the ones that look mixed, there are cliques and factions and groups.
And yes, there are divisions here. There are people sitting in this church today who refuse to have other people from their church in their own home, and still hold bitter resentment against them. There are people sitting here today who literally hate others in this church. There are some who tiptoe around others for fear of setting them off, and others who gossip about and mock their brothers or sisters in Christ behind their back. There are some who use the feeblest excuses to avoid being with others in the church, who would choose a dozen other things to do rather than pray with, study with, play with, eat with, or help people in their church.
There are some who couldn’t care less what was happening in the lives of those who they have attended church with for years, and are secretly happy when something bad happens to them – even people within their own family. Some are jealous of the success that others have achieved, the house they have, the car they drive, the phone they use, the state of their marriage, their family achievements … while others look down on their fellow Christian because they disagree with the lifestyle they lead – not that the choices are sinful, they just don’t like it. Some, though they would never say it, are annoyed by the presence of children, while others are annoyed by the presence of old people. They want to be in a place built only for them, literally wishing that the people around them were gone so they could be more comfortable.
Many people here today don’t pray for the people that attend their church. Not a single word lifted up to God on behalf of the people they worship with every week. In fact, if you asked them to name the people sitting around them – let alone share something important about them – they couldn’t do it anyway. Many couldn’t care less whether the people that are sitting around them came to church or not and literally refuse to take me up on my encouragement to follow up with those who are missing. If half the church got hit by a bus this Wednesday, they might not even notice for weeks to come.
There are people here today who divide themselves from the church simply refuse to serve. They’ll come, sit, stand, sing, and then leave – but they won’t serve. Why? Because they see this church the same way they see Tim Hortons. Those around them aren’t real people – just workers that make the coffee, seat fillers in a faceless crowd, non-people that aren’t worth the time to get to know. They’ll smile politely while quietly judging them by their clothes, hair, or whatever – but until they need something, they won’t bother to even acknowledge their existence.
They don’t care if a deacon, teacher and other worker burns themselves out. If one of the deacons worked themselves into a sickness, or feels the only way out from under their church workload is to leave, they would either not notice – or worse, blame them for not being strong enough.
They don’t care if the parents around them need a break. They don’t care if the kids need a smile and a kind word because they had a rough week. They don’t care if the musicians showed up an hour and a half before they did. It doesn’t even cross their minds. Church is like Tim Hortons. They come, float past everyone, consume whatever they like, dismiss what they don’t, hope nobody bothers them, and then leave without ever making a mark in anyone’s life – or allowing anyone to make a mark in theirs. And then have the audacity to complain about the overburdened servants if things don’t go their way!
A Good Year
I love you guys enough to tell you straight, that our church has divisions.
We’ve grown a lot in the past year. God has blessed us with new families, new opportunities to serve, and new challenges that required us to support one another. We’re having one of our best financial years in a long while, and have been blowing our missions giving away! We’ve seen lives changed, people saved, dedicate and rededicate their lives to Jesus. We’ve had relationships grow, grown deeper in our theology, and witnessed true miracles happen among us. This has been an amazing year, and it’s been my privilege to be your pastor.
I’m not saying that we are a bad church. Far from! In fact, by all the forms of measurement I know, and based on my own reading and life-experience, this is an exceptionally good church! I have never felt more love in any other church than this one. And as I’ve talked to many of you, especially those who haven’t been coming for very long, I’ve heard that you’ve felt the same thing.
Now, I’ve attended churches with huge divisions and factions. I’ve pastored churches with such obvious cliques that people literally sat in clusters during the service, leaving large spaces between them and the ones they didn’t want to talk to. One church I pastored had people who refused to even speak English after service so they could separate themselves from the new people.
My home church, a few years after I left, went through a hugely messy and painful church split. Hearts were broken and people left the faith and never went to church again. I promise you that we are not there. I thank God that this church is more characterized by love and joy now than it was when I first got here. I can’t speak about times before, but I know some of you can, and you’ve told me about some of the hard things you were going through before my time. And please realize, I’m not taking any credit for this, at all! That is as far from my point here as possible. All glory to God for the growth we have seen here!
But I will tell you this. The potential for a split is here. We may not have factions and fighting right now, but we are not as united in spirit as we could and should be. Everything I’ve just said about the divisions among us is true. I didn’t exaggerate.
And I think many of you know this. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been moving in the hearts of the people here and many of you don’t feel as connected to God or your brothers and sisters as you know you should be. Your Bible reading has suffered, as has your prayer life. You’ve been convicted by the Holy Spirit that something is wrong. You’ve tried to pray more and read your Bible more, but there’s still something wrong. I’m saying that the issue isn’t just prayer and study – but that you need to engage with your church.
You’ve heard God prompt you to have more people over to your house, to be part of a small group, that there are people you need to forgive and grant forgiveness too, that you haven’t been obeying God’s command to love, encourage and support the believers around you.
I believe that some of you have felt that there has been a blockage in your spiritual life, a spiritual hurdle that you haven’t been able to jump, and I think that for some of you this is it – you’ve filled your life with too many things, some of them good, others pointless, but they have prevented you from being obedient to God by connecting to your church – and it has left a vacuum in your spiritual life
Open up to 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and let’s read it together:
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15)
Here we see Paul shifting his illustration. Last week we talked about how the church is God’s field, but here in verse 9 the illustration changes. “You are God’s field, God’s building.” And then Paul talks about the importance of making sure that the church is built on the right foundation and being made of the right stuff? Why? Because the day of fire is coming.
The “You” there is plural. He says, “You”, the whole church, are “God’s building”. Paul says that he knows that he came in and laid the foundation of their church of the pure preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He didn’t mess around. Remember in chapter 2 he said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Anyone who has built anything – from a Lego project to a fence to a house – knows the importance of a good foundation, and Paul knows that the foundation he poured was built of the right stuff. He used good fill, no garbage or dirt inside it. He packed down the base well, making sure he preached the whole of the gospel, the story that comes from Genesis to the prophets. He poured consistently and took the time to cure it well, answering their questions, defending them from attackers, staying for a long time to make sure it was strong. He built the church upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and nothing else.
The foundation of their church was strong, as I believe our church’s is. It was planted by godly men preaching God’s word, filled with people who wanted to know Jesus better and proclaim His name. And today, my hope is that I continue to preach an unadulterated gospel – teaching the pure word of God and the message of Jesus Christ as it applies to our lives.
Building on the Foundation
But notice that the object of the teaching changes from plural to singular. “You” all are “God’s building” turns to “Now if anyone builds on the foundation… each one’s work will become manifest… the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
When it comes to building the church, the responsibility rests upon the individual. Paul laid the foundation, and then gave it to the individuals to build the church. Building the church isn’t even the pastor and elder’s main job. Listen to Ephesians 4:11-12,
“And he (that is God) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are a small group within the big church. Most people in the church aren’t given those roles because only a few people are required to teach and equip the church – and then everyone else is sent out to do the work God calls them to do.
This is how it works in a lot of arenas in life. A good country needs a few good politicians, a few good law makers and a few good law enforcers, but many, many good citizens. A sports team requires a bunch of players, but only a few coaches and referees. For a new skyscraper to be built downtown, it needs an architect, a few engineers, a few supervisors, but a whole bunch of workers to build it.
That’s how the church works too. The apostles and prophets give us the scriptures, the foundation of our relationship with God. The evangelists come and plant a church, and then the pastors and teachers work to equip and train everone in how they are to follow God every day.
This is why Paul changes from plural to singular. Every single person here is responsible for how they build themselves and this church. No one is exempt from the responsibility to do what God has called them to do. If you’re not doing what God has asked you, then you are sinning. And if you’re doing someone else’s job, then you are sinning.
Of course, I don’t mean that everyone has to volunteer to do something on Sunday. Some people will do things like that, but most won’t. Paul, later in 1 Corinthians, is going to break down a whole bunch of ways that people work together as the church. Paul says in chapter 12:4-11,
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
And that’s not even the whole of possibilities in scripture. In Romans 12 we read about the gifts of encouragement, generous giving, leadership, service, and teaching. In Ephesians 4 we read about the gifts of evangelism. Other places talk about the gift of hospitality. There are so many ways that God has given people to build up the church. It’s the pastors and elders job to work hard to make sure that everyone is equipped to do whatever God has called them to do, not just plug them into existing programs, and then it’s the individuals in the church that go out and do it together!
And that’s the thing. It all has to happen in community. There’s not a single gift God gives us that can be done without getting involved with someone else. If you are an encourager, you need someone to encourage. If you’re a leader you need people to lead. If you’re a helper you need someone to help. Teachers need students, discerners need problems, and administrators need people to organize. And while we are working in our gifts, doing all the “one anothers” in the Bible, God is pleased with us and we will grow spiritually.
But as long as we are divided, or fractured, or splintered, or neglecting one another, or ignoring one another, or jealous of one another, then we will remain spiritual infants – and worse, set ourselves up for Satan to split our church.
The Day of Fire
This passage warns everyone here, me included, to make sure we are evaluating what we are building our spiritual house out of. Our foundation is secure, those who are saved are secure – that’s verse 15 – but that doesn’t mean that what we’ve built here is guaranteed to survive.
My first church was divided. One generation refused to serve the other. It closed shortly after I left. My home church was amazing while I was growing up, and then imploded, almost on the verge of total collapse, shortly after I left. (Take that coincidence however you like.☺)
Neither of these churches ever thought they would suffer a huge split. No one does. No one gets married assuming they will divorce. No one plants or pastors a church expecting a church split. But it happened. Why? Because division crept in and when the day of fire came, their house didn’t stand.
The day of fire is coming. In context here that means the day Jesus comes back, but it also means days of trial and strife. They are coming for you, your home, your neighbourhood and your church. I know some of you have already been through a day of fire and your spiritual house was evaluated – and it showed you the parts that were made of gold, and the parts that were made of straw.
Are you ready? Are we ready? Are we united enough here, loving enough, supportive enough, gracious enough, to weather the days of fire to come? Are we practicing generosity, serving one another humbly and sacrificially? Are we bearing with one another in love, seeking harmony and forgiving everyone in the church? Can you honestly say you can greet everyone here with a handshake without there being any kind of animosity?
Or on the other side: Have you let others into your life? Are you working to make friends here that you trust? Have you opened your heart to those around you? Do you know what their biggest struggles are, and have you shared your own with some people here?
Check your heart. I’ll say it again: the day of fire is coming. Soon is coming a day when your faith and all that you’ve built in your life will be tested. A time is coming when your family will go through a trial. A time is coming when our little church will be tested to see “what sort of work each one has done.”
This is going to sound harsh, but when it comes, can the church lean on you because you have built your life out of Godly materials? Will the life you have contributed to this church family stand strong on the day of fire – when Christianity is illegal, when someone falls to public sin, when a madman bursts through the doors, when a family has a major tragedy – will your faith be strong enough to help those around you weather it, or will you (and everyone who counted on you) find out that your faith is built of nothing but straw.
I invite you to examine yourself.