by Derek Thomas
I must have said it a thousand times: “Who would want a call to be the minister of the church at Corinth?” Among other things, it suffered from “the worship wars.” Read 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 and you quickly become grateful that this is not what you currently experience on Sundays. Worship at Corinth was a chaotic clamor.
When the Corinthian Christians gathered for public worship, each one had “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26). No staid formality here! No predictable ritual! There was enthusiasm in excess. And though it is possible to read sarcasm into Paul’s voice when he writes to Corinth, it seems he meant it when he said to them: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:4–5, 7).
What we see in Corinth would be better than the apathy and indifference that so often mars our public worship. The next time someone looks at their watch at 11:55 a.m. on a Sunday morning in a “I want to be seen doing this” gesture, I’m going to scream! Give me enthusiasm rather than ennui (apathetic boredom) any day!
Truth is, for all the seeming chaos, Paul feels the need to rein in by saying, “All things should be done decently and in order” (14:40). Corinthian worship did have a sense of authenticity about it, and nowhere does Paul attempt to criticize the enthusiasm, only the misdirection and disorderliness of it.
Writing in the seventeenth century and commenting on the work of revival that had characterized the 1640s, John Owen could say, “By some, I confess, they have been abused: some have presumed on them beyond the line and measure which they have received; some have been puffed up with them; some have used them disorderly in churches and to their hurt; some have boasted of what they have not received; — all which miscarriages also befell the primitive churches. And I had rather have the order, rule, spirit, and practice of those churches that were planted by the apostles, with all their troubles and disadvantages, than the carnal peace of others in their open degeneracy from all those things” (“A Discourse of Spiritual Gifts,” The Works of John Owen, 4:518).
An old British television sitcom about two businessmen involved in the clothes-designing trade contained the frequently repeated catch-phrase: “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” Sadly, this is sometimes true of what we refer to as church growth — a term we currently associate with increase in numbers rather than an improvement in the church’s health and vitality.
But what is church growth — biblical church growth? Surely, one element must be a growth in the quality of its corporate fellowship. The church too often reflects the dimensions of the world in which it is set, broken by divisions of race, economy, and education. The church was meant to be an alternative society, reflective of the unity of God.
In a much neglected section of the Westminster Confession, following the chapter outlining the nature of the church, there is a marvelous (if short) chapter on “The Communion of Saints” in which we find the following: “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities” (26.2). Such fellowship — seen dramatically in the enthusiastic self-giving of the early church following Pentecost when believers held all things in common for the sake of each other (Acts 2:45; 4:34–37) — is a reflection of spiritual liveliness worked out in daily life. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
We may want to qualify the enthusiasm of the early church in Acts, being careful to say that this wasn’t a form of Christian Marxism denying the right of private ownership; the sharing was voluntary. We may also want to point out that the enthusiasm of the Corinthians was more “me-centered” than a concern for the well-being of their brothers and sisters. Making such reservations might encourage us to find a safe place to rest passively and unenthusiastically in the center, reinforcing a stoic lament that we need to avoid extremes at all costs. But this would be wrong; instead, we need to see the work that God requires of us in cultivating a genuine, Spirit-led enthusiasm for corporate life and vitality in the church. After all, there is one body. Over and over Paul says it like a tolling bell — some twenty times in 1 Corinthians 12.
Only as we appreciate our essential unity can we ever hope to make any impact on the disordered world around us as it sees a community that is different and worth noticing. It will require crucifying personal ambition and power-plays and exercising relational, compassionate ministry — all for the sake of the body of Christ. Let us be enthusiastic about this!
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