Saturday, March 12, 2005

Paul the Apostle vs denominations

This may be a little provocative - will anybody bite?!

I've been working through the first part of 1 Corinthians, and it hadn't struck me before what a large chunk of the book Paul spends talking about the issue of divisions in the church - basically the first four chapters.

The shape this took in Corinth was people identifying themselves with particular Christian leaders - Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter). To try and reduce some of the thoughts in these chapters to a few sentences .... in chapters 1 and 2, Paul says that the message of the gospel (foolishness and weakness in the world's eyes) is undermined by focusing on the wisdom and strengths of Christian leaders. In chapter 3, he shows that the church is one field, one building, and the Christian workers are working for God, not for themselves. In chapter 4, he looks at the impact that following leaders has in the lives of Christians - they become proud and arrogant - again, not where Christians ought to be.

A key line from Paul in chapter 4 is his quote in verse 6 - "Don't go beyond what is written." The basis of our Christianity has to be God's Word - not the words of a Christian leader. Christian leaders only have authority insofar as they are expressing what God has already said.

Christians today are still prepared to line themselves up behind the names of Christian leaders - Luther, Calvin etc. These four chapters really undercut this expression of Christianity. By extension, denominations are effectively the alignment behind different leaders. Paul is quite clear that the basis of Christian co-operation has to be the gospel - in other words, if people don't have that as their foundation, they have already taken themselves "out of the building" - they no longer have the right foundation. But beyond this, if we can accept people as Christian brothers and sisters, what basis do we have for not welcoming them - in biblical terms?

So, rather than organising churches on denominational lines, it would be more appropriate for gospel-declaring churches to co-operate at a local level in whatever way it is possible for the gospel to be made known. Of course we are going to be stuck with the legacy of trust deeds and so on - but as Christians we need to transcend these for the sake of the gospel.


Liz said...

Interesting food for thought.
I have seen so much division in the church, but some of that division I think, is a good thing. The Reformation, for instance, broke free of the tradition of Catholicism and began using Scripture as the authority, not the Church.
In regards to the "I am of Cephas, I am of Apollos" verse, I do believe that might be referring to something else. I might call myself a Calvinist, not because I follow or believe the teachings of John Calvin are infallible. But I do agree with his interpretation of Scripture (for the most part). Yet it does seem that if we interpret the Scripture literally (as we should) then many Christians of different denominations could worship together. It does seem a pity that Christians who have the same core beliefs cannot love eachother enough to look across minor differences.
Thank you for posting this. As I said, it is good food for thought.

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

Thanks - and thanks for coming back.

I agree with you that for most people the sense of being a Calvinist is that they believe this approach to interpreting the Bible is closer to being consistent with itself - and if the alternative is not believing in total depravity, perseverance of the saints etc in their technical sense, then I guess I am a Calvinist too.

However, one of the points that struck me from 1 Cor 4 was that part of the difference between calling myself a Christian and calling myself a Calvinist (or any other label, really - baptist, anglican, adventist, pentecostal) is that the idea underlying being a Christian is that it is a choice that God has made. Everything else is a choice that I have made. So as soon as the emphasis stops being on "Christian", we start to lose sight of God's grace - all the good things that God has given us, the pinnacle being our salvation, but on either side is "life, breath and everything else" and "gifts for the edification of the church".

I also agree that there are differences which lead to separation - and I think this is reflected in the first part of 1 Cor as well. For example, the foundation of the building in 1 Cor 3 is Christ - so if a group of Christians ceases to be founded upon Christ, then it ceases to be part of the universal church.

As for what Paul was getting at, it's a question of trying to understand what the situation was in Corinth, and how that relates to our situation today. Maybe, although all the Christians in the city met together in some circumstances, normal Christian life was a lot more "house-churchy" - and perhaps different house churches held different Christian leaders in high regard. If this was the case, then the differences between different Christian groups might correspond quite well with different denominational emphases within churches in a town today.

But pass the discussion on! - I certainly wouldn't want to feel I am pushing people in the direction of heresy, and I don't have the Christian experience to be really convinced by my own conclusions!!!