The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy – Part 2

What is behind this?
What is the big motivation to be relevant?  One of the great idols for pastors and churches is numbers. This almost invariably comes up in conversation when we meet other Christians. “So, how are things at your church?” we ask, by which they and we both know that we are really asking, “How big is your church?”  If the attendance is high then everything must be well irrespective of the faithful ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the sanctification of the people and the biblical ordering and functioning of the church.

In our Evening Service, I have been preaching recently through the early chapters of 1 Corinthians.  In preparing for these sermons and in the following comments, I am deeply indebted to the work of David Jackman in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. (1) The Corinthians were concerned to be relevant and appealing to their culture and generation. Looking around their congregation seems to have been a pretty disappointing and depressing experience for many of the Christians at Corinth.  How would they ever be able to influence such a contemporary, sophisticated city as theirs with such an unimpressive group of believers? Where were the movers and the shakers, the people with flair and gravitas? Not, apparently, in their church.  This was not pessimism, but realism, according to Paul: “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26).  Admittedly he did not say ‘none’, but the inference is clear. The large majority of the Christian community would not be admired, or even known, in Corinthian society, and this was regarded as a great defect.

The inference seems to have been that this was due to the message Paul preached and to his own performance as the messenger (1 Cor 2:1-5). His message was ‘weak’ since it centered on that shameful death of Christ on the cross, and his technique was unimpressive compared to the travelling philosophers and public orators to which Corinth was used. Compared with them, Paul was nothing; a nobody. What kind of minister was he? How was he and his message relevant to cosmopolitan Corinth?   So, all in all, it was this wrong man with the wrong message, which had produced such a disappointing and unimpressive congregation. Change was therefore urgently needed.

Paul’s response was that he was Christ’s minister; a preacher of the word of the cross. In answering the erroneous reasoning of the Corinthians, he takes his readers back to the call of God. At the start of the letter he introduced himself in these terms 1 Corinthians 1:1  Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and he stressed that it was this factor which turned the foolish, weak message of the cross into divine wisdom and power (1 Cor 1:24). The glory of the gospel is that God does not need human wisdom, strength or status to establish his kingdom.  In this new community, the systems and values of the rebellious world are an irrelevance. Paul came announcing the testimony of God.  His message depended on God, both for its origin and content.  He came as an ambassador with an authorized and authenticated message.

To those Corinthians who had been criticizing his unimpressive style and presence and who were looking for new leaders to give them more intellectual fireworks or exciting power displays, Paul says, in effect, ‘Can’t you see why it had to be this way?’ The commissioned messengers of a crucified Savior are not impressive people seeking to draw attention to themselves.  Indeed, to try to clothe the message of the cross in human eloquence or intellectual brilliance would be to undermine its very essence and nature.  This is why Paul decided “to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 3:2).

In the first-century world, the people who were thought to have real influence were the rhetoricians who went from town to town with their impressive array of technical skills and speaking abilities.   All sorts of new ideas were disseminating from these powerful, impressive teachers.  The source of Paul’s confidence, however, was entirely different. He knew he had a message that, in spite of its apparent weakness, was far more powerful than any form of human rhetoric ever could be. He knew that in the message of the gospel, the very power of God was demonstrated.  Paul says:  “I …  did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom (1 Cor 2:1). The Corinthians knew that this was the case, and so did Paul.  He was totally unlike the traveling teachers of his day.  They relied precisely upon the skills of rhetoric and philosophical argument in order to produce an impressive performance and develop popularity.  He came as a weak messenger.  What the specific details were which led to his description in 1 Cor 3:3 we cannot be sure, but it produced in him the responses – ‘in weakness and in fear and much trembling.’  He certainly did not cut an impressive figure.  They were not lining up to interview him on the prime time news shows that evening on Corinthian television!  His powers of speech were unimpressive compared to the standards of the day, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” (1 Cor 2:4).  He deliberately refused to adopt the media methodology of his day. Instead, he preached the cross of Christ, and God worked though his message, so that there was now a church in Corinth.

It is also striking how Paul brings together in this passage the Word and the Spirit, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and in power” (1 Cor 2:4).  The Spirit’s power, then, is seen in the preaching of the cross because that is the only God ordained message and method that saves and transform people’s lives. The apostolic gospel is not about Jesus bringing me that little bit extra in life, to make me always feel good.  It is about what God has done in Christ to save sinners from hell. It is in this message that the Spirit’s power is seen. These two factors, Word and Spirit, can never be divorced in biblical Christianity.  Hence: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word”( 2nd LBCF 14.1).  This should make us stop and think.  The great danger of our present day is that the Christian church is often tempted to follow the same pattern as the world but the only real power within the Christian faith is the power of God at work in the message of the crucified Christ by His Spirit. Why do we try to mimic ‘glitzy’ Corinth if we are disciples of Jesus Christ?   How can we go the way of Corinth and try to re-create in the church a Christianized version of a pagan culture?

This is where the challenge of the early chapters of 1 Corinthians really impact us.  Do we really still believe that the gospel, the message of the cross, is the power of God and that power alone, which will transform people’s lives?  Or are we into some sort of cultured version of Christianity, which actually builds on human power, human wisdom, and human personality?  Many of our problems in the contemporary church stem from our failure to believe this. This is why Christians look for other authorities and other methodologies, and why the church in the West for over a century has been involved in an increasingly desperate search, trying to find what it is that will really impact our culture.  But all the time, the answer is staring us in the face.  It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified, God’s power in human weakness.

Martin Luther described the theology of the Corinthians and their false teachers the “theology of glory.” A theology measured by what one can see and by what seems reasonable and sensible to use. Christian theology, by contrast, Luther argued, is a “theology of the cross.” It relies on God’s Word. It is a theology of faith and trust in the free promises of God in Jesus Christ (2).

The biblical, historical, and confessional truth is that numbers and church programs are very poor performance metrics of God’s blessing. When it comes to describing what it is that makes a church a “true church” the Reformed have always agreed that it is the preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline.  Never has confessional reformed Christianity acknowledged numerical success to be a mark of a true church. If God blesses a congregation with numerical increase as she is faithful to His Word, then we give thanks.  Far too often the reformed community has been caricatured as not having any concern for those, who are perishing in their sins. We do desire the salvation of the lost and if we are not consumed with this desire, which drives us to God in prayer that he would be pleased to grant it through the “foolishness of the message preached” (1 Cor 1:21) , then shame on us; but let us remember “… only  God gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).  It is his sovereign prerogative.

(1) David Jackman, Let’s Study 1 Corinthians (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004)
(2) WA, 1:354; LW, 31:225.