Posts

Unity in the Church


The unity of the Church:  easy to affirm, but difficult to see.  How are Christians united with each other?  What is the difference between an imaginary unity and a real one?  Join us as we discuss the doctrine of the Church’s unity, focusing on its Biblical basis, the role of the Lutheran confessions, and the nature of adiaphora.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Episode: 35

Join our Facebook group Word Fitly Posting to discuss this episode or any other topic.
Follow us on Twitter: @wordfitly
Send us a message: [email protected]
Subscribe to the podcast: RSS Feed, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcasting app.

Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippi brought much joy through much sorrow to Paul.  While it seems that Paul passed through this Macedonian city on several occasions, on his first visit, he proclaimed the Gospel to the wealthy Lydia, who was baptized with her whole household (Acts 16:11-15).  Yet this joyful event soon met with trouble, for when Paul exorcised the demon possessing a slave girl, he and Silas suffered at the hands of Gentiles and were thrown into prison (Acts 16:16-24).  Even here, however, in the midst of suffering within the prison, the Lord in His providence brought the jailer to faith.  After he and his household were baptized, Paul and Silas left the city (Acts 16:25-40).

Years later, however, when Paul had been imprisoned, the saints at Philippi, who may have still included those who first believed when Paul was in the city, sent him a gift by the hand of Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:14-20).  Having heard of Paul’s situation, they sought to do what they could to support him, even though they could not free him.  Such a gift, as Paul said, was not as important in terms of the gift itself.  After all, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), by which Paul means that no matter the circumstances—poor or rich, hungry or sated, and so forth—Christ remains as our goal.  But the “fruit that increases to your credit” is a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God,” because the gift is a sign of the living faith that sent it. Paul desired that that gift—the faith which they had—would abound more and more, and this is the primary concern of his letter.

The primary concern for Paul seems to be disunity or at least the potential for disunity within the Philippian church.  Paul, after all, calls for them to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  The letter, however, exudes joy and rejoicing, and there is no clear indication of a clear rebuke as in his other letters.  His exhortation to unity, therefore, seems to be one applicable to the Church in every situation rather than in explicit division.  To be a part of the Church is to have the mind of Christ, and such a mind exhibits itself in Spirit-given unity.

Paul presents Christ as a clear example to the Philippians for imitation.  Christ, who “was in the form of God,” emptied himself and became like one of us when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He who had far more right than any of us for being exalted above others, since He is God Himself, chose instead to lower Himself for us men and for our salvation.  Because of this, the Father now exalts His name far above all names, because Christ won our salvation.

One thing that I think we need to be careful about, however, is how we understand Christ’s obedience and humbling.  Obedience is not the same thing as being a push-over.  Conformity to the will of God does not mean obliterating our will and filling it with the will of God.  Obedience to God for us means a renewal of the will.  Christ was not an automaton, but the perfectly willing Son of the Father, because they were of one mind.  If we understand Christ’s humility as getting pushed around, then many of His actions, like entering Jerusalem publicly as a king, make no sense.  But when we understand the humility of Christ as part of His willing obedience to the will of the Father, then there is no contradiction.  Christ is the King who desires to take up the cross, because it is the will of God to redeem man through the Lamb of God.

Christians should not interpret being of one mind, therefore, as meaning self-obliteration either.  Rather, conformity to the will of God means that the whole man, including the will, follows after Christ.  The righteous man desires what God desires, because he walks the same way that God is walking.  Therefore, the whole Church also has one mind in Christ Jesus, because she desires what her Lord desires.

Quinquagesima: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Few passages of Scripture are as well known as 1 Corinthians 13, and few are as abused and misunderstood.  The language of love resonates with a mindset which interprets it either romantically (as when it is used at many weddings) or as the height of a tolerance which reduces everything to indifference.  1 Corinthians 13 is not a call to a warm feeling, but for Christians to bear with one another in Christ.

The Corinthians, seemingly always divided, fought over the question of spiritual gifts.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives gifts to men for the purpose of building up the Church.  All of these gifts are different, and no one has the same gift.  This should not be confused with salvation, for then there is no difference.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  But in terms of spiritual gifts, the Lord gives as He wills, for His own glory.  The grain which falls on good soil differs in its abundance, though the seed is the same (Matthew 13:8).

However, does this difference in gifts mean that there are higher and lower gifts?  Paul answers yes.  There is such a thing as “higher gifts,” and he states rather clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God gave the gifts apostles first, prophets second, and so forth.  Prophesy, better understood in terms of preaching, is greater than speaking in tongues (when the latter is not interpreted), because then the Church is built up in the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:5).  Nor is it a sin to seek after the higher gifts of God when it is done for the edification of the Church.  “Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).  The question is not whether there are higher and lower gifts.  In our desire to be egalitarian, we try to put them all on the same level, which is not what the Word says.  The real question is what does that mean for the unity of the Church?

The great temptation with the gifts of God is to use them as an opportunity for pride.  Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.  To use a different example, because I do not preach, therefore I am not a part of the body.  Because I do not exercise leadership, I am not a part of the Church.  The Lord’s gifts are twisted into an occasion for sin, and division results.  This is not what the Lord intends in giving His gifts to His Church.  He intends the body to be built up together into Christ, to grow as one into her Head (Ephesians 4:15).

Love, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 13 is Christian love, the love which builds up rather than tears down.  Paul’s ultimate point is that all of the spiritual gifts are meant for building up for a time, but love endures even into the new heavens and the new earth.  If I spoke even the language of the angels, but despise my brother in Christ, I am no better than noise.  If I could move mountains by faith, but can’t be bothered with all of these other Christians, it makes for a nice show, but is nothing else.  Christian love is not self-serving, but other-serving, and the gifts of God serve the Church and not the one who possesses them.  All of these gifts will come to an end, when the Church no longer needs to be built up.  The partial building will eventually be complete, and then what need is there anymore for architects and masons?  This does not mean that their work was useless or pointless.  When Christ returns, their work will be tested by fire, revealing what sort of work they have done (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Nor does it mean that all distinctions are abolished, as noted above.  What it means is that “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).