What is the Church? In writing to the Church in Corinth, Paul wants them to have a clearer understanding of what the church is in order to correct the problems that the church there is facing.
What the Church is not!
The word, ‘Church’ is used in modern speech to refer to all kinds of things, which we are often keen to point out is not really ‘the Church’ in the sense the Bible talks about it.
So, people talk about church buildings, but the church is not the building it is the people. The building is there to serve the church, but it is not the church.
People talk about the church as the institution, with bishops and clergy and all that goes with that. Yet, the church is not an institution, it is the people. The institution is there to serve the church, but it is not the church.
People talk about ‘going to church.’ As though church is the service or event at which we gather. But church is not our gathering it is the people that gather. The meeting is there to serve the church, but it is not the church.
If those are not the church, we need to ask what is the Church! Simply, it’s the people that follow Jesus Christ, but shouldn’t we be able to say more about what it actually is, rather than what it is not?
Well let’s look at 1 Corinthians for some help.
Introduction to 1 Corinthians
1 Corinthians, is a letter and it starts with the same pattern as most letters written in that part of the world at that time.
It tells us who it is from: Paul and his mate Sosthenes
It tells us who it is written to: The church in Corinth
There is a greeting
Then there is a thanksgiving, where Paul gives thanks to God for the church in Corinth.
Then the letter starts properly. As you read through the rest of the letter to Corinthians you discover that Paul is addressing lots of problems and issues in the church one by one, these include:
- Lack of unity or factions in the church
- Sexual immorality and marriage
- Whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols
- How to conduct services, including issues around Holy Communion, use of Spiritual gifts and so on
- Holding on to the reality of the resurrection from the dead.
As Paul writes about all of these topics, he is clearly challenging many dysfunctional and wrong attitudes within the church, but he is careful to frame his instructions with careful arguments and by pushing fundamental attitudes that are important.
In a sense the letter as a whole is about how we should be church. This is reflected in the introduction. Notice that the section about who the letter is written to is quite a long section. In fact when you compare it with the other letters Paul wrote this section is much larger, three times as long as most other letters and nearly twice as long as the second longest. Paul’s focus in the letter is to help the Corinthians more fully understand what the church is.
So, let’s focus on this introduction and particularly verse 2 and ask ourselves, what the church is?
What the Church is:
Holy – It belongs to God
First of all verse 2 tells us that the church belongs to God, then it tells us that it is holy. This is a common theme in the introduction to Paul’s letters. In 6 out of the 9 letter written to churches by Paul, he starts off by calling his readers holy ones or saints. But here it is stressed by adding in that they were sanctified, that means made holy!
To be made holy means to be set aside or set apart for God’s purposes. In the Old Testament, the items that were used in the temple were holy, because they were set aside to be used by God. In fact the whole nation of Israel was called, ‘Holy’, because it was set apart from the other nations to be God’s special people.
To get a grasp of this idea consider this. If you were to buy a used upright Steinway piano, then the best will cost you a lot of money. Possibly up to £100,000. But there is one used Steinway Piano that is going to be sold at an auction in March and is expected to go for nearer £1million. Why would someone pay ten times the expected price for a piano? Because this piano was owned by John Lennon. In fact it is the piano he composed Imagine on. Because of the person who had owned it, this particular piano is set apart, it is special and so it is massively more valuable and no doubt will be treated with a great deal more care than other similar pianos.
Paul writes to the church that they belong to God, and so they are set apart for God. If you are a Christian, you belong to God and have been set apart for him. Now, God is so much greater than John Lennon. John Lennon may have written a few great tunes, but God created the universe! If you are set apart for him, then you are special and valuable in unimaginable ways! This is an incredible privilege, but it also brings great responsibility.
- But will we be distinctive from the world?
If we are set apart for God, then it also means we are distinct and different from the world and we are called to live in a distinct and different way to the world around us. That is what Paul means when he says we are called to be holy.
As we go through the letter, Paul will challenge the Corinthian Christians not to act like the people in the world around, but to act differently, because they have been set apart for God.
In chapter 3, he will challenge them to stop being jealous and quarrelsome and in chapter 6 he will challenge them to stop engaging in sexual immorality. Why? In both cases because they are called to live lives distinctive from the world, but in line with God’s calling.
The church is holy and so it needs to start being holy.
The second thing that Paul stresses is the unity of the church. Next week we will see that one of the pressing problems with the church was a lack of unity. People focussed on different church leaders that they liked and split from those who liked different leaders.
But Paul in verse 2, emphasises the togetherness of the church, not just within Corinth, but the church everywhere. They are all one, because they all call on the same Lord, Jesus Christ. In fact, in these opening verses, Paul stresses again and again a focus on Jesus Christ, because he is the one who unites us, he is what we have in common.
More than that, though as he says in verse 9, we are called into the fellowship of the Son. As Christians when we talk about fellowship today, we often think of a friendly meeting together of Christians.
Yet the Greek word, koinonia, is much stronger than that. It sort of means that we are ‘shareholders’ in Christ. Now shareholders of a company all get to share in the profits of the company and in Christ we all get to share in what he has achieved for us in his death and resurrection.
But you can be a shareholder in a company without being involved in it and the word means more than just sharing in the benefits of Christ. It means participating with him, in his mission for the world. So, in becoming a shareholder of Christ, we become one in vision and purpose with others who are also shareholders of Christ. So the church is one and united.
- But will we see ourselves as part of the wider church?
The challenge to us is this. Do we see ourselves as part of something bigger.
We are not to see ourselves as individual Christians choosing our own way to live the Christian life. Sadly, many today who reject the church as ‘too institutional’ are often doing so because they don’t want to conform the way they live their faith to a wider community or group. Yet, Paul in Corinthians, will constantly stress that we are to live out our faith for the sake of others – especially others in the church in a way which will not mean always living as we would choose, but living in a way that helps others, works for unity and glorifies God.
He will also keep challenging the church of Corinth not to think that they can live their life as a church in a way that is different to the way the rest of the church spread at that time around the Mediterranean lives. They as a community in Corinth are part of something bigger.
The church is holy – so we need to live lives distinctive from the world.
The church is united – so we need to live lives conforming to the fundamental vision, purpose and needs of the wider church.
Gifted – Grace
Thirdly, the church is also gifted. Paul gives thanks for the way that God has gifted the church in the thanksgiving section.
He focuses in on gifts of words, or speech and knowledge. Both of these are important and useful for the church and the people.
So, people can be gifted in forms of speech that might include, singing, praying, encouraging, speaking in tongues, preaching or prophecy. All of these are good and to be celebrated and to be given thanks for.
Knowledge too is good and important. The right knowledge can help us to see things in the right way, to understand God and what he has done in Christ more fully.
The Corinthians were somehow blessed with both people who could speak well and a good understanding, that enabled them to flourish as a church and showed that the witness of Christ Jesus was working amongst them.
- So, the gifts were good, but as we go through the letter, we will see that Paul is concerned about how the gifts are used. He wants them to use their gifts not for themselves, but for others.
Two points about the introduction show this. Firstly, the fact that Paul calls these ‘gifts’ rather than talents is important. He wants to emphasise that they are from God and therefore not something to boast about.
Secondly, it is what he doesn’t say in the thanksgiving that is important. If you compare other letters when Paul starts of with a thanksgiving for the church, the three things he gives thanks for are their faith, hope and love. None of these are mentioned here.
In the rest of the letter Paul will challenge the Corinthians about these two facts. One of my favourite phrases is in 8:1, where Paul says:
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The idea is also picked up at the start of one of the most famous chapters in the letter:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
God gifts people in the church with all kinds of skills, but what matters more is how we use those gifts.
God may have given me the gift of preaching. The question I need to ask myself is, do I preach in order that people think better of me – that is to puff myself up, or do I preach to help people come to and grow in faith and living for God – that is love that builds up.
What hope is there for the church?
When we read the letter to the Corinthians, we may wonder whether this church has any hope. When we look at our churches today we may wonder whether there is any hope.
We often fail to live lives that are holy, in many ways we are no different to the non-Christians in the world around us.
We often resist conforming our lives for the good of the wider church community, choosing instead to do things in our own way.
We often take the gifts God has given us as a way of making ourselves look better rather than having a concern to act in love to build others up.
Is there any hope for the church? Paul says yes!! Why? Not because the church is good in itself, but because God is faithful and he will keep us firm to the end.