To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their [Lord] and ours
1 Corinthians 1:2
The first letter to the Corinthians has been, especially in the circles in which I move, been called the letter to the Californians. There is much in common between ancient Corinth and modern California — pleasant climate, bustling trade and healthy economy, affluence, multiculturalism, and sin of every imaginable variety. In Corinth, the sin had invaded the church in some impressively vile forms — forms that Paul tells the church not even non-believers would approve of — and the church was countenancing these sins and not dealing with them. This was a church wealthy in knowledge and material wealth; a comfortable and secure group of believers.
It sounds much like the church in modern America.
Why all that build-up? Because Paul still calls those believers saints. He does not approve of their sin or give them license to wallow in it in perpetuity, but he also recognizes that these people are believers. Wrongheaded, undisciplined, and sin-countenancing believers, but believers despite all. He tells them that they have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, reminding them that God has set them apart as something special. And he reminds them that they are part of something larger than just their local fellowship, they are a part of all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. To be a believer at all is to be a part of the body of Christ — and His body has no geographical boundaries.
As I wrap up a week that has been difficult on my family and has seen more than I would like of me failing to do what I ought to have done, it is good to be reminded that if I ever was sanctified in Christ Jesus, then I am still. God has not given up on the process of making me what He wants me to be and He has not revoked my calling to His family just because I have been a poor example of what His children should be. To the contrary, He reminds me that I am still a saint; sanctified; a part of His body in this world, however small that part may be.
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and occasions of stumbling contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.
There are some who think that becoming a believer means that we become naïve and trust anyone and everyone who comes along claiming to represent God. That is just not true. Jesus commanded us to examine teachers and people who claim to represent Him and gave the litmus: by their fruits we will know them.
Paul reiterates Jesus’ instruction in another way. This is best practice in teaching. Teach a concept, then teach it again another way, and repeat until the concept is grasped. Paul tells the believers in Rome to keep [their] eye on those who cause dissensions and occasions of stumbling contrary to the teaching [they had] learned. This implies a few things: (1) that the Roman believers knew who the troublemakers were; (2) that the Roman believers could locate those they did not already know about by their wake — i.e. dissensions and occasions of stumbling; (3) that the Roman believers had a good foundation in sound doctrine. All of these are necessary components to recognizing those who are just in the fellowship to cause problems.
Paul does not stop with the believers merely keeping an eye on those individuals, he instructs the believers to turn away from them. Often, controversial people are controversial merely for the sake of getting attention and drawing a crowd. It is not always the case and would be too facile an answer to say that it is usually the case, but it is often the case. Often enough that [turning] away from them is a viable method of addressing their wrongdoing. Take away their attention and their potential crowd and they will either stop or move on to some other place where they can rouse the rabble.
As a believer, I am called to be judicious in who and what I allow to rile me. If something is genuinely offensive to God, it can rile me. If someone is misrepresenting God or making it difficult for others to come and commune with God, then that can definitely rile me — it riled Jesus enough for some tables to be flipped in the temple. If what a person is saying and doing is causing dissent (disagreements, usually angry and often baseless) or giving other believers reason to stumble, then I am to turn away from them; have nothing to do with them. I am not to call them out or repudiate them or try to defend God or stand up for the truth as so many often claim, but rather am to have nothing to do with them. This was illustrated marvelously a few years back when I was asked by a fellow believer what I thought of a purportedly Christian writer. I had never heard of him. I read a bit of his work, put it down, told my fellow believer that the man was leading people astray, and then went on about my life. I would be hard-pressed to remember who he is, now. That, I think, is the idea. Examine what they have to say, if it is merely contentious or a cause for stumbling, then have nothing more to do with them. If there is merit or some digging into the Word and seeking answer through prayer is called for, then do so and act according to what God reveals.
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not please ourselves.
As I read this verse, an old song came to mind. The song says that you can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself. While the tune is catchy and the sentiment expressed is decidedly in keeping with the world’s philosophy, God calls His children to something higher: to please our brothers and sisters.
There are, in this verse, two groups and two courses of action for one of the groups.
Group one is we who are strong. Paul classes himself in this group. If I have grown in faith the point where I can exercise Christian liberty — i.e. I can eat what I want and wear what I want and so on — then I can also class myself in the group of we who are strong. To put Christian liberty in context, I read an account of an exchange between D.L. Moody and a woman in his congregation. She claimed that Moody was too severe and too stringent and never did anything that he wanted like go to the theater and other entertainments. Moody replied that he went to the theater and enjoyed other entertainments exactly as often as he wanted to … and he did not want to. Christian liberty is not only the freedom to do something, but also the freedom to refrain. This becomes important to Paul’s instruction.
Group two is those without strength. These are folks whose faith is young or weak or just happens not to extend as far as my own does in a particular arena. I am one of these without strength in some areas of my walk, so I am hardly in a position to throw stones. And I will not.
So we have the weak and the strong. What to do with that? Paul gives instruction: bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not please ourselves. The weaknesses in question could also be translated as errors coming from weakness of mind. The weaknesses that must be borne are bad thinking; misunderstandings of grace or forgiveness or Christian liberty or a host of other things. And these are weaknesses, indeed, as they hinder the ability of the person without strength to move forward in Christian living.
Walk with God long enough and quite a bit falls within the purview of Christian liberty. My liberty should never be a cause for stumbling to my brothers and sisters, but should be an opportunity for me to exercise the other part of liberty, viz. the freedom to refrain from something that is perfectly acceptable. Liberty, true liberty, is the freedom to do or not do as seems best. God’s call to me through Paul’s instruction is to be free enough to not do the things that might cause my brothers and sisters to stumble.
Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Believers are just as guilty as everyone else of judging one another. Sometimes, I think we are more guilty of it. Paul, in the verses surrounding this one, is talking about how some believers could eat whatever they wanted while others had dietary limitations — i.e. some folks ate any old food while others could not eat food that had offered to idols because they still thought of the idol as something. Paul was also talking about how some people observe certain days while others do no such thing — think Lent. In this context, Paul writes a question and answers it.
The question: Who are you to judge the servant of another? The question would have sounded absolutely absurd to his audience. It would be like someone asking me who I am to comment on the day-to-day performance of a friend’s BMW. While my friend might let me drive his car, this does not qualify me to give insightful commentary on how the vehicle performs day-to-day. I just do not know. For that matter, not being a BMW owner, I am not even certain that I know how a BMW should perform. All of that to say that I am not qualified to give intelligent or useful commentary on how that car performs. Likewise, I lack the necessary understanding to be able to give any useful insight as to how my brothers and sisters in Christ are doing in their walks. Should they eat certain things or abstain from them? Should they observe certain celebrations? What about clothing? Tattoos? Piercings? Music? The list is endless. The answer I must give to Paul’s question, if I am honest, is that I am no one; I am unqualified to judge my fellow servants of God.
Paul then continues to comment that To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. There is more than one idea in this statement, and both of the things I see packed up in here are comforting to me. To his own master he stands or falls. I am comforted by the knowledge that I will not be judged by human standards, but by God’s. The Bible gives me great hope and comfort on this count and leaves me with every reason to trust that God will find me righteous based on the righteousness of Christ and not one thing I have ever done. But Paul continues on to say that he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. There are things with which I struggle and fail and fall and get up and try again. The message that I get this morning is simple: God is able to make me stand. It is not by any effort of mine that I will stand, but by God’s doing.
Let my fellow believers stand or fall as God is able to make them stand. What things they do, they do to please our Lord and God. If He is pleased with them, who am I to be otherwise?
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled [the] law.
I have often heard it said that there is no place in The Bible that tells me not to incur debts. I think that this verse is that place. In the verse immediately preceding this, Paul tells the believer to give everyone their due — taxes and custom and fear and honor are called out specifically. Then Paul comes to this: owe nothing to anyone except … love. I should, if I have debts, pay them. There is one debt which I will still owe after I have paid it, viz. love. The entire Law is fulfilled in loving God and others. Paul says it. More importantly, Jesus says it.
How, then, do I apply this?
I think the verse is self-explanatory. I should leave no debt unpaid and I should recognize that I have a debt of love that I owe to God and my neighbors that will never be paid in full. No matter how much I love God and my neighbor, I will still owe them both more love.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It is a simple thing to feel overwhelmed by the tide of contrary thinking out there. The digital age, for all the good it can do, brings home rather more of the cacophony than I would like. Interestingly, cacophony includes the root word used in this morning’s verse and rendered evil in English. The instruction in this morning’s verse comes in two parts.
First, that I not be overcome (νικάω) by evil (κακός). The idea of being overcome (νικάω) might also be rendered conquered and the instruction be that I not allow myself to b conquered by evil. To add more color to it, the concept of evil (κακός) is fraught with meaning. The word can also mean of a bad nature – not such as it ought to be; of a mode of thinking, feeling, acting – base, wrong, wicked; troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful. So it is that I should not allow myself to be conquered by wrong-headed thinking or feelings that are contrary to the truth of things or bad behaviors or just plain destructive and injurious things in general. While this is good instruction, it wants an alternative. Thankfully, that alternative is the next piece of instruction.
Second, I am instructed to overcome (νικάω) evil (κακός) with good (ἀγαθός). In order to not be conquered by evil (κακός), I must conquer it with good (ἀγαθός). The word translated good can also mean of good constitution or nature; useful, salutary; good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy; excellent, distinguished; upright, honorable. I am to conquer bad-natured things with good-natured things — thoughts, actions, words, and so on. I am to overcome wrong with upright; wicked with good; troublesome with pleasant; pernicious with honorable. Paul gives a similar instruction to the church at Philippi (Philippians 4:6-8).
What I am to do with this morning’s verse is pretty straightforward: I am to overcome; to conquer evil with good.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
I love the way that God, through Paul, phrases this. He does not say that I must live a life that is at peace with all, because He knows that it is impossible. He does not say that I should be subject to external factors like how the other person is feeling today. God tells me that I must be at peace … so far as it depends on [me].
A quick glance at the definitions for the word rendered peace in English leaves no room for doubt but that God wants to me live a peaceful, harmonious life insofar as that depends on me. This means that I should not be contentious or rouse the rabble or any other such thing. Rather, I should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and not worry over things that I cannot change.
Right now, there is SO MUCH application for this command. Election season is here and every person with whom I am connected via social media has something to say about everything. The reality is that I care not one iota for their opinions on matters. If their position contradicts what God says on the topic, then they are wrong. If their position is in agreement with God, then they are correct. Plain and simple. I know that it is only going to get worse and that the cacophony will only rise to fever pitch as the actual election nears and I am told to live at peace with all men so far as it depends on me. There are so many other places where this becomes difficult — the daily commute, people offering well-meaning (but unsolicited) advice on how to be a parent, everyone who has an opinion about anything and wants to share it with me (whether I want to hear it or no) — and still the command remains: If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. I am not responsible for things I cannot control, but what I can control God commands me to control in favor of living peacefully.