Sunday, June 29, 2014

Love And First Corinthians Chapter Thirteen

1st Corinthians 13 In Context

If one could point to an over arching theme in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian Church it would probably read something like, "Unity", or "Have No Division", a very popular expression these days.  Paul wastes no time getting to the point of his letter after his customary salutation.  In verse 10-12 he writes:
(10)"Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you.  Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I of Cephas," and "I of Christ." 
Paul discusses a host of division-causing concerns in various places in this letter, among them are leader-worship, Intellectualism vs. anti-intellectualism, the Gospel,  worldliness vs maturity, acceptance of immorality, settling quarrels, legalism, foods sacrificed to idols, leadership, the sacraments, gender roles, spiritual gifts and future expectations and events for the believer.  Most, if not all, of the major divisions in Christianity can find their root in something on this list.  Now, while division is a topic worthy of discussion, let it suffice for this discussion for us to simply be aware that the "Love Chapter" is found in the context of a letter that is addressing this subject.

Chapter 13

In chapters 12, 13 and 14 Paul is addressing a specific issue, which is spiritual gifts.  It is noteworthy that chapter 13 is sandwiched between two other chapters that are addressing a singular topic. In chapter 12 we see content that is consistent with the overlying message of unity as it pertains to spiritual gifts:
"Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware... Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.  For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."
In verses 4 through 7 of chapter 13 Paul, in a sense, departs from the subject of "gifts" in order to discuss "love".  But in verse 8 he gets right back on course with "gifts" and continues through chapter 14.  So why does Paul insert his chapter on love, which is really only a few verses if you remove the verses that are dealing with "gifts",  here? The answer, I believe, is because spiritual gifts were causing division in the 1st century Corinthian Church just as they are causing division in the 21st century Church.

So, with all of this in mind, let's look at the first section of chapter 13 that addresses spiritual gifts without love:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give[ing] all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. 
Paul is clearly telling the church here not to let gifts take precedence over love.  Let's face it, anyone can go into a church setting and speak indiscernible things.  In some settings these gifts will bring acceptance, in others it will bring rejection and division.  Here are a couple of things that ought to therefore be considered.

The first is a person's motive for speaking in tongues?  Is it pride?  Is it to provoke those who use scripture to reject the gifts in this day?  Is it to gain acceptance from those who see it as evidence that you have received (trumpet fanfare) a special blessing from God?  God only knows.  What we can know, and are in fact admonished to know in this scripture, is that the gift ought to be accompanied by the fruit of love inside and outside the church setting. If the fruit is not there it really doesn't matter how much or how loud anyone can mumble, in the same way it does not matter how much a person prophecies, or how much the person contributed to the New-Building Fund.

Second, there are those who reject the gifts as only available to the infant Church.  There are plenty of Christians who produce wonderful fruit who speak in tongues, yet they are rejected as heretics because they do not interpret scripture in the same way as the cessationist does.  A case in point is the recent Strange Fire conference organized by John MacArthur.  As for me I love John MacArthur, and I understand his complaint given some of the nonsense that has come out of the Charismatic community.  But Charismatics did not corner the market on nonsense.  We need look no further than the PCUSA , and other cessationists denominations, to see where worship of the intellect can lead.

But Paul doesn't leave us in the midst of "Christians" of every stripe gone bad.  He follows with a blanket treatise on what love looks like.  Keeping in mind that all scripture can have a general application, in the context of this chapter I believe the emphasis Paul is making is on internal relationships in the Body Of Christ concerning spiritual gifts.  So with "gifts" in mind let's take another look at the second section of chapter 13:
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
In my experience with gifts these words speak volumes.  Unkindness, jealousy, bragging, arrogance, seeking one's own, all of these have I seen in connection with spiritual gifts.   But what about the cessationists?  To them gifts are provocative and there seems to be very little patience with those who believe they have received a special gift from God.

In addition there can be a tale-wagging-the-dog phenomenon that accompanies gifts.  If "speaking in tongues" means that a person has been baptized by the Holy Spirit, then that person has received a second blessing and is filled with the Spirit.  If this is true, (and I'm not ever going to contend that it isn't simply because scripture doesn't allow it) then that person might see himself as a notch higher than the one who has not received the second blessing. Furthermore, this person can also begin to proclaim special revelations that are validated by their gifts of tongues which, so the case is made is evidence of baptism by the Holy Spirit, and anyone who questions these revelations are dishonoring God.

This also sets up a tier system.  There are those who have received a gift, and then there those second tier Christian who have not.  And even if the person with a gift does not see himself as a first tier Christian, or intend to make the "second tier" person feel bad, the fact remains that those who believe that there is more could easily conclude that God is withholding something because they are failures.

The problem in Charismatic circles is the emphasis on the gift of tongues, which just so happens to be the easiest gift to fake, and it disregards other important passages in the three chapters, verses like:
 "Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues." (1 Cor 12:27-28)
 Notice the "prominence" of tongues:  And there is also:
"...desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself..."  (1 Cor 14:1-4)
The reality however is that speaking in tongues does not a prove anything at all, not does scripture explicitly contend that it does.  I relay an experience from a friend who was once married to a woman who encouraged him to pray for and to seek the spiritual gifts.  She herself claimed to have received the gift of tongues and was encouraging her husband to be prayed for to receive this gift.  My friend was very open to this because he was not a stranger to scripture.  Ultimately however she eventually left him for a married man, and after that man had left his wife she moved on into a lesbian relationship.  Her "tongues" were a clanging cymbal and her actions were destructive and painful to many people.

There is much more that makes this same point.  Here is an excerpt from a pentecostal website that looks very good on its face:
The Word of God teaches us that the Holy Ghost baptism is the "earnest" (down payment) on our redemption. It is only a small beginning to the great changes that will occur when we are resurrected from this sinful world and taken to God's new sinless world. Stop letting the enemy defeat your faith. Let God arise in your life! Be all that you can be, In Jesus name! Paul continues yet, he goes on to the fruit of a changed life: righteousness, rejoicing with the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, enduring all things.  Then he caps the whole thing off with "Love never fails".
The only problem is that it comes from this website.  To save you the trouble of clicking over, here is what the header of that site informs the visitor:
", Out, Proud, On FIRE For The Lord!
'And it shall come to past that in the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh'. Acts 2:17"
This site begs for the defining of terms like sin, righteousness, fruit and, most of all, love.  If scripture is so malleable that it can be reshaped into anything we fancy to suit our times, then words like sin and love become hopelessly lost beyond the present moment and emotion, as does this great chapter in 1st Corinthians.  But if the person saying things like this has been baptised by the Holy Spirit, and he speaks in tongues as evidence of that baptism, who can question him?  The answer, of course, is that scripture can, and in fact it does.  But as it does, division ensues... and that is a good thing for God is the ultimate divider, and he will one day divide between the sheeps and the goats.

Still, chapter 13 is all about getting beyond division through the application of love.  However to do this the word "love" must be defined in timeless terms in a time that prefers unity through superficiality over sound doctrine.  That said,  "getting beyond division" deserves explanation, an explanation that I think Paul gives in this chapter.  Paul never commands that all manner of unrighteousness is to be embraced in the name of "unity" based on a mistaken or purposeful misunderstanding of words. Nowhere in this chapter are we called to remain shallow and ignorant regarding doctrine, or our times, nor to wink at sins, for the sake of unity.  And this applies to culturally acceptable sins in a world that shows nothing but contempt for a Church that does not buy into its empty secular humanist philosophies.  Paul is clear.  Love does not "rejoice in unrighteousness" but rather it rejoices in  the very thing the guiding philosophies of this age rejects: "the truth"

We are living in a modern-day Babel when it comes to our language.  The meanings attached to a speaker's words can be completely different than the meaning attached to the same word by the hearer.  Paul addresses this "communication gap" in chapter 13 as it pertains to the Gifts specifically, but as it pertains to love in general.  But in order to not make Paul say something he is not saying at all, many of the words he uses have been redefined, and as such deserve specific definitions based on other scriptures as opposed to finger-in-the-cultural-winds "theologians".

Paul is making the case that we are unified through love as different parts of one Body with Jesus as the head.  1st Corinthians 13 is a popular chapter in this age because it is emotionally uplifting.  But these emotions should not impair our ability to get to the truth it holds, truths that may not be all that emotionally uplifting.  One of the greatest of these truths is the nature of Jesus Christ, since his headship is key to understanding this passage.  If we miss this one truth by focusing in on a favorite passages like "Jesus dined with sinners", while ignoring his command to repent, it is very possible to turn Jesus into just another secular-humanist, material-obsessed liberal who cares nothing for souls and the destruction wrought on souls by sin, and who hates those who do.  But Jesus did care.  His message was a message of repentance.  If we miss this we will be confused by our times, and rather than functioning in a body unified in the life of Christ through love, we will end up in a body unified in whitewashed death whose love has grown ice cold.