To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, August 16, 2018

True Religion

Sermon delivered Sunday morning, July 15, 2018
Fredonia Church of Christ
Milton Stanley Sr.

I met one of Carolyn's adult education students the other day. Federal privacy laws don't allow Carolyn to talk about her students by name, and this was the first one of her students I've gotten to know. This student was a woman who had been incarcerated. This woman had had a rough past, but she was now a Christian and had invited both Carolyn and me to her wedding—at a beautiful, rich house that a family from their congregation had let them use for the occasion.

The groom and I had an opportunity to talk before the wedding, and he told me how much the church had embraced him, his wife-to-be, and their two children. They had begun attending church as an unmarried couple, still lost, and a couple of older Christian families had taken them in almost like their own children—invited them into their homes, shared the Bible with them in group and personal studies. They had embraced, welcomed, and shown love to this couple, and eventually the man and woman were baptized. Now they were doing the right thing and being married. And the groom said something to me that I won't soon forget: “This is what I always thought church should be.”

What a beautiful thought. And yet that congregation of the Lord's church, the one that had welcomed and eventually helped convert this family, is one I had always thought about as one a little shaky on doctrine and worship. I wasn't sure about their stands on certain issues, especially as it relates to worship. I won't go into all the details here, because the particulars don't matter.  Now, I'm not saying that doctrine doesn't matter; I doubt anyone here today cares more about doctrine than I do. But I have to admit that while I spent time nitpicking about the doctrine and worship practices of that particular congregation, they were actually out in the street doing the real work of the Kingdom.

The New Testament has something to say about real religion, and it may not be what you think it is. Our lesson text is found in James 1, verses 26-27:

If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

We don't generally like the word “religion” today. The word has many misconceptions and many ideas that have nothing to do with true godliness. But there it is in the New Testament, and that means it's worth learning about. So this morning we'll spend a few minutes learning what true religion is and how we can live and practice it.

First, notice that true religion includes controlling the words we say. That's what it means to bridle the tongue. Just as a bridle is used on a horse to guide, control, and steer the animal, we should bridle our own tongues. It doesn't mean literally to put a leather harness on our tongue (although somewhere I suspect some group of Pharisees has tried it at one time or another). It simply means controlling what we do and say. As the Apostle Peter wrote, “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile” (1 Pe. 3:10). In this passage James phrases control of the tongue from the negative angle: if someone acts religious but doesn't control his epeech, then he's fooling himself if he thinks he really is religious. True religion is shown, first, in what we say and don't say.

And this control of the tongue goes far beyond what we call “dirty words,” although that is certainly part of it. Our culture has some weird ideas about words when you think about it. If we talk about certain bodily functions using the Old English words that our ancestors used every day, then it's considered “dirty words.” But if we talk of exactly the same functions using words that come from Latin, well that's just fine. But weird or not, many people have decided to get worked up when they hear certain Old English words, so Christians should certainly avoid using them. That's something I work on every day. I spent years as a soldier and was a rugby player before that. It takes work to bridle the tongue, especially when no one is around. But “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34).

But bridling the tongue is so much more than avoiding “dirty words.” It also includes telling the truth and never lying. I'm amazed at how many Christians seem to ignore that one. Paul told the Christians at Colossae, “Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds” (Col. 3:9). In Revelation John sees a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, but not everyone is there, “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (22:15). Murderers, sorcerers, idolaters, that's pretty harsh company for liars. Yet so many Christians seem to think it's OK to tell a “white lie.” Some even lie to themselves that they're not really lying. But Christians, we have been warned to examine ourselves when it comes to speaking the truth. That's a part of bridling the tongue.

There are many others mentioned in the Bible, too many to cover within the limitations of this message. But the kinds of speech we are called to avoid include quarreling (Titus 3:2), gossip (Prov. 11:9-13; 2 Cor. 12:20; Jas. 4:11), rash words (Prov. 12:18), and all unwholesome talk (Eph. 4:29). I encourage you to read through the Word of God and see for yourself how many kinds of speech we should avoid because it dishonors God.

But the solution is simple: bridle the tongue! Get control over your words! We won't always do as well as we should, because the tongue is like a wild horse that's hard to control even with a bridle. But if we're Christians we should see some change. If you're not at least making an effort then you obviously don't care about controlling your tongue, and that means you don't care if your religion is real or a sham!

Here's another sign of true religion: Good works, right actions. James mentions visiting widows and orphans in their affliction. Let's be clear what he's talking about here. He's not talking about saying, “How's it going!” and hanging out at their house. In this case visiting means giving attention to and meeting their needs. In New Testament times widows and the fatherless were the neediest of the needy. There was no such think as Social Security, SNAP, EBT. Widows and their children might literally starve if no one would help them eat. From the very earliest days, therefore, the church helped its widows. It took some real effort back in the days when survival for most Christians was hand-to-mouth. Hundreds of years later the church was wealthy enough to begin helping others' widows as well.

Today the church doesn't have that role as much as in years past. In the 1930s religious groups in this country made a strong push for supporting widows and orphans through government action, through taxes instead of freewill offerings. Supporting widows and orphans may or may not be the proper way for government to spend tax dollars. But it was definitely wrong for the “church” to pass off responsibility for caring for its own members to the government.

Of course, what James is talking about here is not limited to widows and the fatherless. The principle is the same for others as well. The church is called to help the weak and afflicted wherever they are found through many different means: clothing giveaways; supper and Bible study in their homes; weddings at their house; by cutting the grass, doing house repairs; generally doing good to all, especially those who are of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).

At the same time, Christians in need have to admit that they have a need. Years ago my family attended a rather large, wealthy congregation of the Lord's church. One Lord's day morning an old, retired brother who could no longer drive himself came to church in a taxi. Someone said to him, “Don't do that again; let me know, and I'll bring you to church.” “OK,” he said, and the next week he came to church in a taxi. So Christian, don't expect the church to read our minds. We need to be humble enough to ask for help from the brethren when we need it. And if we really are the Lord's, then helping a brother in need is at the heart of true religion.

The bottom line is this: if we are truly religious, we've got to be doing something for others. Do you think that simply having the right doctrine and showing up for the assembly is all the Lord requires? Well, that's important, certainly; if you're not doing at least that much, then you are in serious trouble with the Lord. But is that all you're doing? Each one of us here should ask ourselves: What am I doing to help the weak in their affliction?

At the same time, remember that doing good for others doesn't somehow make up for our own sin. Perhaps that's why James reminds Christians here to remain “unspotted” by the world. The world may actually smile on your good works for the poor. In New Testament times that's how pagans gathered honor for themselves. Rich Romans built reputations based on how many poor people they fed each day. The men who fed hundreds had statues built in their honor to commemorate all the good works they were doing. Jesus, of course, warned his disciples against doing good works for the sake of personal honor: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). If you're doing good for no other reason than to get praise from those around you, then you are spotted by the world.

“Unspotted by the world.” That's a vivid image in a way. It reminds me of trying to make your way through a long field of wet, watery mud that splatters everything that goes through it. Even if you try to be careful, it splatters mud up on your pants, and if you're not real careful you'll end up with spots of mud on the back of your shirt. That's what the world is like—a big field of watery mud. It's hard to walk through it very long and stay clean.

Last week we looked at the outrage culture where the press and social media get people worked up in hysterics about what's going on in the world. That's a fairly new form of worldliness. Of course there are always the old reliables: sensualism and materialism, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye. Last week Levi bought himself a used car. You may have seen it parked out front the other day; it's the one with a jaguar on the hood. It's not a Jaguar; it's a Hyundai. But the previous owners tricked it out to look like a 2004 Jaguar X-Type instead of a 2004 Hyundai Sonata. I think we all know why someone would want to do something like that. And I think we know why we never see a Jaguar modified to look like a Hyundai.

Human beings just like to show off what they have. It's in our DNA, I think. We won't admit it, of course. We always pretend, even to ourselves, that we have to have that Cadillac or BMW or $60,000 truck for some reason like work or driving safely through blizzards or something like that. Nobody wants to admit they got an expensive vehicle to show off. We all want to look “unspotted by the world,” but do our actions say something else? I'm afraid for many, they do. Many in the church are good at talking a good game but not doing very much for the poor and afflicted.

Well, what are we going to do about it? That's a question I frequently ask, and I sometimes say, “I'm not thinking of anyone here when I say this.” But I'm not saying that this time. There may be those in this room today who are fooling themselves on how serious their religion really is when there is a real disconnect between words and deed. And please don't look for clues by who I'm looking at when I say this. Look inside yourself—all of us should be looking inside ourselves. And then what? What if we look inside and don't like what we see?

James leaves the ball squarely in our court. Notice v. 21: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” Lay your sin aside! In other words, get to it! Strive! Struggle! Godliness is always a struggle against our own sin. We don't give enough attention these days to the place of struggle in life, especially in the life of a Christian. Notice, though, that James says nothing about level of success or performance. I don't think that matters much. We may fail over and over again to do what we know we should and what we strive to do. Success isn't what matters. What God wants is a sincere effort, honest striving, real struggle. We will fail often. But if our religion means anything, then we must be striving to live the Word that saves our souls.

And even as we struggle we are called to pray. And that prayer means a whole lot more when we struggle and fail. In fact, when our hard struggles lead to failure, that's when we pray in meekness, and when, I think, we are closest to God.


Copyright © 2018, A. Milton Stanley Sr.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Thoughts on forgiveness

The following is adapted from a long comment I posted several years ago on the weblog Contratimes. Because that blog is now available only behind a permission wall, I'm posting my comments here.

From a biblical standpoint, is forgiveness conditional? In other words, are Christians called to forgive those who have offended them only if the offender is repentant, or are Christians to offer blanket forgiveness even if the offender has no remorse or regret for the wrong he has done us?

Part of the difficulty in finding answers to that question is that several processes are involved in what we commonly call forgiveness. Lawyers, I think, call this situation a difference without a distinction. Let's look first at forgiveness by Christians and see if we can then better understand God's forgiveness.

One type of forgiveness is described in Luke 17:3-4:

Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’forgive him. (NASB)
If a brother repents, we are to forgive him in the fullest sense of not only giving up trying to make him pay the punishment for his wrong, but in re-establishing a faithful, brotherly, shalom relationship with him. This kind of forgiveness is hard to do but is empowered from both ends: by the offending brother's willingness to repent and the offended brother's letting go of his superior position in occupying the moral high ground (at best) or his spiteful desire for revenge (at worst). This first type of forgiveness is characterized by mutuality and a re-establishing of relationship. In that sense you might call it conditional, although I don't think that distinction is particularly helpful--mutuality and restoration are probably more descriptive terms.

Although this first type of forgiveness involves what might loosely be called forgiving and forgetting, it doesn't necessarily mean all consequences of the initial wrong are ignored or that the offending party literally forgets the wrong. For example, a church might forgive a treasurer who is found stealing from the collection plate (provided he repents). In restoring the relationship, the church might do well not to press criminal charges and welcome him fully back into the life of the congregation. At the same time, they should make arrangements for him to pay back what he stole and not allow him to handle the church's money any more. In short, accepting forgiveness in this or any other sense does not erase all consequences of the initial offense. God may be able to forgive and forget, but human beings do not and cannot forget in the strictest sense. In fact, trying to forget a serious wrong is quite simply a psychological pathology--denial or repression I think it's called. So we shouldn't try literally to forget. We are, however, called to forget in the metaphorical sense of not re-fracturing the relationship by continuing to dwell on a past wrong.

Another and probably more common type of forgiveness is more limited. It simply involves letting go of the prerogative of exacting vengeance for a past wrong. Christians are called to practice this kind of forgiveness even for those who do not repent--up to and including our enemies. Giving up our claim for vengeance is not the same as excusing a wrong; it is simply acknowledging that "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). From a practical standpoint, this kind of forgiveness takes a weight off the soul of the offended party. This second type of forgiveness doesn't necessarily establish shalom between the two parties, but it at least makes it possible on one end. Only by giving up one's claim to vengeance is a Christian truly able to find God's peace and to love his or her enemy.

So those are the two kinds of forgiveness from the standpoint of Christians. My wife, Carolyn, points out the bigger picture that ties together these two types of forgiveness. In short, forgiveness is not an end in itself but rather a means of establishing peace, shalom. Whether or not the offender repents, the offended party is called to forgive in order to do his part in re-establising shalom. Whether peace is actually re-established, of course, depends on both parties. Conversely, the offender is called to confess and repent whether or not the offended person forgives. In the broadest sense, then, confession, repentance, and forgiveness are all components of establishing shalom--not only between human beings, but between us and God.

What about from God's standpoint? It occurs to me that God also does both of these types of forgiveness, although because he is God, the results play out differently. On one hand, God re-establishes a shalom relationship with those who truly repent and cooperate with him in re-establishing that relationship. For those who do not repent, God nevertheless offers shalom in Jesus Christ, but if the offender does not respond, the relationship is never restored. The difference, of course, between God's forgiveness and ours is that God is not only the one who forgives, but the one who brings vengeance. So even though he offers forgiveness and peace to the unrepentant, he will eventually bring vengeance upon those who reject it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Valedictory address

Delivered by Levi Stanley, Valedictorian, Class of 2014 
Coffee County Central High School, Manchester, Tennessee
May 23, 2014

Truth is not a particularly popular concept in our culture today, wherever we turn.

In the political arena politicians, pundits, and lobbyists focus only on what helps them gain and hold power rather than what is true and good for the country. Advertisers cry for our attention from every direction, but only proclaim that side of things that encourages us to buy their products.

As a people we are so awash in a torrent information that we are mentally and morally numbed to the messages that bombard us. At a day-to-day level Americans just don't seem to have much time for truth as we stare at screens—sending texts, watching videos, playing games. How often do we take time to really consider what is true?

Today that question itself sounds vaguely old-fashioned and irrelevant. Yet knowing what is true is vital for living a full life, both as individuals and as a people. In truth we discover our world and how we fit into that world. As painful as it may sometimes be to face, truth is power and freedom for life.

As many of us go off to college we will face yet another assault on truth—the academic dogma that all truth is relative and tentative and subjective; that each of us has his own truth; and that your truth is no better than mine. Most of us will encounter professors who have spent decades tearing down what students believe to be true and attempting to indoctrinate us into believing either that nothing is really true, or—worse—that their own warped picture of reality is the way things truly are.

To an extent, having our conceptions of truth challenged is not all bad. None of us has everything figured out, and much of what we think we know undoubtedly could be refined to more accurately reflect the truth. As wonderful as the human mind is, much of reality is far beyond our ability to grasp intellectually. And not all truth can ever, in this life, be known with the certainty of mathematical formulae.

And yet I urge you never to give up, never despair in searching for what is really true.

In the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different impression of what an elephant is really like: one feels only the tail and concludes an elephant is like a rope; another a leg and concludes the elephant is like a tree, and so on. But in truth an elephant is none of those. It is an elephant, much more full and complex than any of those subjective experiences can convey.

And so it is with truth. Truth exists whether we choose to see it or not. Truth is a treasure, a pearl of great price, worthy of seeking and finding.

I believe that, ultimately, Truth is not so much facts, as a person. Yes, a person. And if you do not see the truth in that statement about Truth, I urge you to continue seeking until you find.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Shining the light

Driving this morning to a job interview with a local non-profit ministry, I rehearsed, out-loud, answers to questions I might be asked. At one point I was articulating why I care about ministering to underserved members of the community. I reached down into my heart for what I really believe, and my answer came out something like this:
I don't believe your value comes from how good a job you have or how good the choices you've made or how well you did in chosing your parents. The value of every human being comes from being created in the image of Almighty God, and that makes every one of us infiinitely valuable and worth caring about--especially those who most of us might not like to take the time to meet and know and encourage.
I suddenly found myself touched deeply by my own words, which seemed odd. Then I looked at the heart from which that answer sprang and said to myself, "That's really beautiful!"

That realization wasn't proud or arrogant at all, because if God's Spirit is in me, he's shaping my heart more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. The glory is his, not mine.

I'm pretty good at turning a critical eye on myself and seeing the sin and evil inside, but it's rare for me to see and appreciate the ongoing work of God in my own heart. By this time next week I should know whether or not I'll be working at Greenhouse Ministries, but I've already been blessed beyond measure, before I ever set foot on the site.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Answered Prayer

My family lives so far out in the country that the closest thing resembling a town is a collection of buildings five or six miles down the road. We typically pass through town several times a week, more often than not on our way to one of the larger towns up or down the highway. What you might call downtown consists of a volunteer fire station, convenience center, community building, ball park, two church buildings, and a few houses and trailers. A couple of the houses have burned nearly down, and some of the nearby yards combine the casual mess of rural life—rusted car bodies; shabby outbuildings; discarded stoves and refrigerators—with cramped, in-town lots. As an unincorporated town, there’s no local codes enforcement, so houses and yards run the spectrum from well-kept to thoroughly shabby.

Lately I’d been noticing a dog tied up just off the side of the road: a big yellow dog on a very short leash—too short to reach beyond the bare spot he’d worn in front of the trailer. The last couple of times I’d been in town I couldn’t help but notice the dog’s eyes: sad, hopeless, even. Sometimes when I passed he was pulling against his chain, apparently trying to find a more comfortable position in the dirt. Most of the time he was simply lying there, chin on his front paws, eyes nearly closed. Always he was listless, sad-looking, alone. Driving through town last week I found myself whispering a prayer that God wouldn’t allow the poor fellow to keep on suffering.

This week, on the way through town I noticed the dog had gotten loose and was galloping, with obvious relish, around a neighbor’s yard. For a moment I thought he might gallop right into the middle of the road, but he stayed in the grass, clearly glad to be free. I went on to the highway and took care of some business nearby.

On my way back through town I came upon a rather unusual sight for this road: a traffic jam. More precisely it was a slow-moving line consisting of two cars and a pickup truck with a lawnmower trailer. It didn’t take long to find the slowdown’s source: the big yellow dog. He was bouncing along the side of the road, and the drivers were trying to give him room. Just as I came around a curve and up to the line of cars, the dog galloped across our lane of traffic and right into the path of a Buick coming the other way. The car’s front bumper caught the dog solidly on the head and sent him spinning backwards into the path of the pickup truck, which didn’t have time to swerve. The car directly in front of me blocked my view of the dog. I held my head and prayed he was still alive.

The Buick pulled up beside me and the driver opened her window. She was an older woman with an even older-looking man beside her and a poodle-sized dog in the seat behind. The woman’s hand was over her mouth, and tears had begun welling up in her eyes.

“The dog ran right out in front of you.” I told her. “There was nothing you could have done.” The car in front of me had driven on so that I could now see what kind of shape the poor animal was in.

The dog was struggling to rise up off the ground. The flesh of his lower jaw hung from the bone, and both his front paws were already covered with blood. He wagged his tail over and over as he struggled without success to stand. “It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.” The woman closed the window, and the Buick slowly drove on down the road.

I moved my car up closer and parked it to shield the dog from oncoming traffic. The driver of the pickup truck had parked up ahead, and he and a couple of neighbors were coming over to see about the dog. One man walked quickly, ahead of the others, and called the dog by name, “Biscuit!” No response. It wasn’t particularly hot, but the dog was panting in the sunlight. His eyes were open wide with emotion as unmistakable in a dog as in a human: terror.

“Somebody ought to put him down,” the man said. He said he had a gun back in his trailer, but nobody there wanted to shoot someone else’s dog. The dog’s owner, someone explained, had gone out and wasn’t answering her cell phone. “Her husband’s on oxygen and can’t leave the house,” another neighbor said.

A truck passed in the other lane and Biscuit struggled again to stand up. He had managed by now to pull himself into a sitting position but still wasn’t able to stand. He sat there now without a sound. The skin was torn away on one back leg, apparently from when the pickup truck’s trailer had run over him.

“He’s going to have to go to the vet if he’s going to make it,” someone said.

“I could take him,” I said, “but I’d have to put him in the trunk of my car. Does anybody have a truck?” The man who knew the dog by name went back up the road to see what he could do.

I stood between the wounded dog and the sun, rubbed his back and talked to him as soothingly as I could. After a few minutes a couple of men came and used an old sheet to load Biscuit into the back of a pickup truck and carry him a hundred yards or so to a shady spot in front of his owner’s trailer. I got back into my car and drove up behind. The owner’s husband was already at the door, in his wheelchair, talking with the men about what to do. I drove on, praying softly for Biscuit’s healing and that those taking care of him would show wisdom and compassion.

Then, just outside of town it hit me: Maybe God had already answered my prayer. Last week I had asked God not to allow the dog to keep suffering; could this be his answer?

I came into town again a few hours later. Nobody answered the door at Biscuit’s house. A woman across the road told me his owner had taken him to the veterinarian to be put down. The owners, she went on to say, had been trying to give him away—he needed a family with children and lots of room to run around—but nobody would take him.

Was Biscuit’s death God’s answer to my prayer for ending his suffering? Yes, I believe it was—at least as far as I’m able to understand God’s will. That’s not to say God caused the dog to be wounded and die for my benefit. We humans are on shaky ground whenever we assign specific motives to the intricacies of God’s workings. An individual Christian, for example, may have prayed for opportunities to serve others and later found the events of 9-11 provided a direct answer. Does that mean God destroyed the World Trade Center so a Christian in New York City could hand out bottled water to firefighters? Of course not. But God does use painful events, from the trivial to the most enormous, for answering prayers and serving his purposes.

And not only do I believe God answered my prayer that day, but I think my seeing Biscuit’s injury as it happened was God’s way of reminding me that he had. As I drove through the countryside toward home, I thanked the Lord through tears for both. And in the quiet of driving down a country road, alone with God, I was reminded of a few other truths as well.

First, God hears and answers the prayers of his children—including me. I understand this fact doctrinally, of course, but sometimes it’s a blessing to be reminded deep down. God’s attention to his children is something I now know not only in my head, but in my heart.

Second, sometimes answered prayers hurt more than the unanswered ones do. Biscuit’s sadness while tied up was painful to see on those occasions when I drove past, but most of the time I gave no though to his situation; his suffering and death however, have been a painful memory ever since. Needless to say, those same events were far more difficult for Biscuit himself. In the short term, at least, the end of Biscuit’s suffering was much more painful than his earlier plight. But one day’s intense suffering may have saved him from years of unremitting hopelessness. It’s not the outcome I would have chosen—I prefer happily ever afters. But there’s a reason we love happy endings in our stories: we don’t always get them in a world full of sin and death.

Thus it is that in a fallen world blessings sometimes come only at the cost of pain and suffering. Often the best outcome involves blood and tears. On a small scale, God’s answer to a prayer for healing may come through the suffering of surgery or other painful treatment. On a grand scale, prayers for the downfall of an oppressive regime may be answered through warfare, as when Nazism and Japanese imperialism were broken through the horrors of World War II. At its extreme, redemption in a fallen world comes at the highest imaginable price: the perfect Lamb of God’s bloody death for the sins of the world.

And so we live in a world where the beauty of creation is stained with sickness and death. The greatest triumph grows up from a seedbed of pain, and every life is sustained only through taking the lives of other creatures. Even God’s most merciful answers to prayer often involve pain and suffering. Biscuit no longer experiences the despair of being tethered and alone—thanks to being slammed in the head by a Buick. A young woman no longer suffers with liver disease—thanks to the death of a transplant donor. Are these the results of answered prayers? Yes, they are. Does God enjoy answering prayers through the suffering of others? No, I don’t believe he does. These kinds of situations are by no means a function of God’s callousness or some perverse, cosmic sense of humor. Rather they are a result of our own sin. Death and suffering came into the world through the sin of human beings long ago, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

But praise God that one day those consequences will be destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man. The Word of God promises that a new heaven and new earth are coming; in that new creation will be no tears, no pain, no death, but only the glorious reality of God and his Kingdom (Rev. 21). Despite all our sin and suffering, the beauty of God’s creation still shines through in this world. And sometimes God answers our prayers in a way that reminds us how much more beautiful and complete that one will be.

© Copyright 2009, A. Milton Stanley

Update: One of my sons points out that he's seen the son of Biscuit's owner visiting with the dog and that, although he was tied up at the time, Biscuit looked pretty happy. Also, the owner's son has been in school most of the days I've been driving through town. Those are good points. I certainly don't want to suggest that Biscuit's owners mistreated him in any way or that they did anything less than their very best in taking care of him. The thoughts here are my own reflections and not an evaluation of anyone else's character or performance.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Glory of Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:35-58
Given Sunday morning, March 11, 2007
Buena Vista, Virginia, Milton Stanley

We’re coming to the end of 1 Corinthians, and the Apostle Paul has saved the best for last. At the very beginning of this letter he wrote of Jesus Christ crucified. Now he concludes with Christ’s resurrection—and ours. In writing clear of both Christ’s and our resurrection, the Apostle was running counter to the wisdom of his day. Earlier he called the crucifixion of Christ “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1]. And if the crucifixion was folly to Gentiles, then resurrection was doubly foolish. But it is the heart of Christians’ faith and hope. At the beginning of the “resurrection section,” Paul goes to some length to explain that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Here he spends even more time describing when and how Christians will be resurrected. He also shows why the coming resurrection is Christians’ hope not only for the future, but for today.

The questions Paul quotes in v. 35 indicate that some of the Christians doubted a bodily resurrection. Considering what Paul said at the beginning of the letter about worldly wisdom, that kind of doubt is what we would expect from those saturated in Corinthian culture. Let’s remember that Corinth was at the heart of Greek civilization—between Athens and Sparta on major land and sea routes. The Corinthians were saturated with Greek thinking, and resurrection of the dead had no place in Greeks thought. Sure, some religious groups, such as Mithraism and the mysteries, believed in an immortality of the spirit. But immortality of the body was considered ridiculous. Paul’s experiences with the Athenians (Acts 17) gives a good picture of how sophisticated Greeks viewed the idea of resurrection—as silly and supersitious.

So these questions in v. 35 are apparently those raised by some of the worldly-wise Greek Christians. They seem reasonable enough: How are the dead raised, and what kind of body will they have? After all, resurrection of the body is not easy to understand. You may have heard the hypothetical question about a man who drowns at sea [2]. The elements of his body are eaten by fish and become part of the bodies of those fish. Later, fishermen come along and catch the fish, and the elements that once were in the drowned man’s body enter the bodies of many other men. If there’s a resurrection, whose body will get those elements? Haven’t you wondered those kinds of things yourself? I certainly have. But Paul doesn’t have much patience for those kinds of questions: “You fools!” he says. The questioners, it seems, were asking not frp, a desire for knowledge, but from doubt.

People today still doubt the resurrection, even in the church. Like sophisticated Greeks of the first century, many Christians today claim a belief in the resurrection of the body when in fact they believe in the immortality of the soul. But the two beliefs are different, and those differences are important. Immortality of the soul means that our souls or spirits break free from our bodies at death and float up to be with God. That’s pretty much the same as some Greek philosophers taught in New Testament times. But it’s not a Christian picture. How many times have you been at a funeral and heard a preacher say, “Well, the departed is with the Lord now.” That’s an appealing thought for those who’ve just lost a loved one. It would be nice to think my mother has been in the heavenly throne room since 1999. But that’s not the picture we see in God’s Word. Hhere in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 1 Thessalonians 4, we learn that Christians will be taken up to heaven at the end of time. And it won’t just be our souls. We’ll have new bodies.

Paul describes that resurrection in some detail here at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our earthly and resurrection bodies to a seed and the plant that springs forth from it. The seed has to die for a new growth to spring forth. Unless the Lord returns first, these earthly bodies have to die in order for us to inherit our heavenly bodies. These bodies have a sort of earthly glory, but not the kind suited for heaven. But our heavenly bodies will be glorious indeed.

You notice we still haven’t answered the question: how can rot and decay turn into glory? The simple but complete answer is that God does it! He created the world out of nothing and mankind out of dust. If he wants to, rest assured he can create heavenly bodies out of the dust and decay of this earth [3]. Our bodies will be sown as perishable, subject to decay, but they will be raised as imperishable bodies, immune to rot and wear (v. 42). When we are raised for heaven we’ll have bodies, but heavenly ones. At the end of time we’ll not dissolve into the cosmic mind or evaporate into Nirvana. We will have individual, bodily existence forever. As we see elsewhere in the New Testament, that existence will be in the very presence of God.

As Paul continues with the seed analogy, please notice that our bodies will sown in dishonor but raised in glory (v. 43). This description is important. Why will our bodies be sown in dishonor? Because they will have died! Remember that human beings were not created to die, but that death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. As every human being shares in the sin of the first man, so every one of us shares in his death. Every death, therefore, is a testimony of sin and dishonor. But one day we will have bodies untouched by sin but full of glory. Our bodies will be sown in weakness but raised in power (v. 43). These bodies here wear out, grow sick, and die. But our heavenly bodies will never grow weak or decay.

Christians will be sown as natural bodies but raised as spiritual bodies (vv. 44-50). In death all humans identify with Adam, but in resurrection Christians identify with Christ [4]. Christ came to earth in weakness to suffer, die, and be resurrected so that we might be forgiven and saved for the Kingdom of God. He came down to share our weakness so that we may rise up to share in his strength [5]. In our baptism, Christians become one with Christ (1 Cor. 6). And when we are one with him, we have to take the bad with the good. Yes, on the cross Jesus paid the price for our sin, but he invites us to suffer and die, too (Lk. 9:23-24). Some Corinthians seem to have forgotten this fact [6]. They wanted the glory of spiritual wisdom and power. Perhaps because they expected to slough off their bodies one day, they believed they could indulge their appetites today. But Christians are called to identify not only with Christ’s glory, but with his weakness in the body and his dishonor on the cross. And if we’re willing to be one with Christ through thick and thin, then one day we’ll be given bodies fit for heaven.

Paul describes the transformation from one to another as a mystery (vv. 51-53). Here we have a small glimpse of when and how we will receive our new bodies. Not all Christians will die, but all will be changed (v. 51). When? At the end of time, when the last trumped sounds (v. 52). At that point the dead in Christ will rise from the dead, and all Christians, living and dead, will be changed instantly from mortal to immortal bodies—even the Corinthians who thought they’d already arrived [7]. The word Paul uses here for “change” can also mean “exchange” or “trade-up” [8]. What a thought, that we’ll trade in our weak, decayed or decaying bodies for bodies that will never decay or die—bodies specially designed for life in heaven. And when we receive those new bodies, we will be lifted up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4).

Some Christians are concerned about the time between death and resurrection. It’s hard for some of us not to know where our loved ones who have died are doing. I’ve heard people say they can’t accept, for example, that their dead loved one is in the dark, or in the wet ground. I’ve had people ask me if their loved ones might be frightened in the grave. Whenever someone asks me this type of question, I tell them what the Bible says about the time between death and resurrection—nothing! For reasons that only God knows, he has decided not to tell us what awaits us in that period of time. Apparently we don’t need to know. But let me ask you a question: Don’t you think the one who makes us out of dust can take care of us in the grave? If we trust him for our eternity and for our now, don’t you think we can trust him with our in-between? Whatever may happen to us in the grave, we know that the Resurrection makes our future glorious and our present much better than it would be without that hope.

The resurrection is hope and triumph for Christians, and its glory enlightens our present. Notice how Paul ends this section? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Notice the emphasis on work? After so many words on what could be called theoretical or future reality, Paul brings it down to the practical work at hand. Knowing the truth about the resurrection enlightens our minds and gives us power to do God’s work with abundance and steadfastness. As someone has said, “False doctrine leads to passivity,” while “true doctrine inspires diligent service” [9]. False doctrine can give us a thousand reasons not to do God’s work, but true teaching from the Word will inspire us abundantly. How?

First of all, when we see clearly what God has in store for his own children, then we lose our fear of death. Do you know what I’m talking about? During my youth I spent years running from God and terrified of death. In the daytime I was able to keep my mind turned away from the emptiness and lostness of my soul with a thousand diversions: television, music, friends, food, family. But every night around 4:40 a.m. I awoke in the silence of the darkness and faced the terror of near death and judgment really were. I sometimes lay in bed till dawn considering the many ways I might die, no matter how far-fetched: rabies, tornado, house fire, plane crash. But a steadfast hope in a risen savior frees us from fear. As the author of Hebrews wrote:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15)
Christians are no longer slaves to fear of death. Do you know how much energy it takes to run from God and deny our fear of death? Facing up to death with hope of the resurrection frees up huge amounts of energy in our lives. Like Paul, we can confidently say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (vv. 54b-55). Now that’s motivation.

Through the resurrection of Jesus we are also freed from the power of sin. Notice the connection in v. 56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death comes as a result of sin, and sin from violating God’s law. Here on earth we have victory over sin through Jesus Christ, but we still struggle in the flesh to overcome it (re. 1 Cor. 7). But when our earthly bodies are transformed to heavenly bodies, we won’t struggle anymore to overcome sin in the flesh. We’ll be ready for heaven in the presence of God.

The hope of resurrection also frees Christians for purposeful service. The coming resurrection of the dead is a landmark of the Christian walk. If you’ve ever practiced orienteering or land navigation, you know the value of a landmark. If you take a bearing and simply try walking in a straight, it doesn’t take much error to end up far away from your intended target. But if you shoot an azimuth and find a landmark—a tree, a hill, a building—then you can walk confidently in that direction without swerving to the right or left. The landmark keeps you focused. In the same way, the glory of the coming resurrection through Christ Jesus is a landmark for discipleship. Our work is not in vain, no matter how painful or frustrating life on earth may be. That’s because we’re headed for glory.

Steadfast service is a whole lot easier when we know the rewards are not all in the here and now. The Christian walk is a long haul, not a sprint. The burdens of discipleship are far, far easier to bear when we know what’s been done for us (Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected) and what’s still in store (our sharing that resurrection in glory).

So, Christians, be encouraged. Jesus Christ has done the great work of salvation for us. He has joined us in weakness so that we might join him in glory. Like Jesus, we will suffer on this earth. But oh, what glory is in store!


1. Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
2. Constable, Thomas. Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed. Online commentary at Pp 171-2.
3. Deffinbaugh, Bob. “A Refresher Course in the Resurrection of the Dead (1 Cor. 15).” Online study at
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Findlayson, Bryan. “Victory Though Jesus Christ.” Online study at
8. Deffinbaugh. See also Danker, Frederick William. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University Press, 2000, p. 46.
9. Deffinbaugh.

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Monday, March 12, 2007

United in Mind and Judgment

1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Preached Sunday morning, July 9, 2006,
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

First Corinthians is rich in timeless truth, but it’s also especially timely for the church today. The first-century Corinthian Christians were facing many of the same problems as Christians in our own culture and time. As was his custom, Paul began his letter to this church by reminding them of the great things God has done for them. We saw last time how, even with their many problems, Christians are saints gifted by God for good work. But in this epistle, Paul quickly turns to the Corinthians’ problems, because they are many and severe.

The first trouble is factionalism. It’s a sin very easy to fall into and the root of many more. Factionalism is particularly destructive in the church because it arises from pride. We’re not talking about the pride of feeling good for a job well done but of the sense of being superior to others. It’s especially important to recognize pride if we’re trying to do Bible things in Bible ways. Pride causes factions, even if the factions consider themselves anti-faction! Pride is a constant temptation of Christians who care about doing things right. Fortunately, the cure for pride does not involve doing things right!

Division has a certain allure. When the Apostle Paul wrote this letter, the Corinthians had begun forming cliques around certain teachers. We don’t know if the names Paul gives here are those of the actual factions or if he is merely using them as examples. In any case, dividing the church into parties was as sinful then as it is today. The danger of division is inherent in Protestantism. When each congregation is independent of every other, it becomes too easy for birds of a feather to flock together. And I’m not talking about simply the division between Christian and non-Christian. Romans 14 has a lot to say about differences of opinion among brothers and sisters in Christ. But even today, Christians form competing factions and congregations over issues that should be matters of individual conscience. We see these factions in our own midst not only among the denominations, but among conservatives and liberals, mainstream and “antis” in Churches of Christ.

During the last century, Churches of Christ formed factions around the so-called “editor bishops” of various brotherhood papers: David Lipscomb, Austin McGary, Foy Wallace Jr., etc. A hundred years ago you could tell where a man stood by whether he read Lipscomb’s Gospel Advocate or McGary’s Firm Foundation. In the same we have the New Wineskins and Seek the Old Paths. factions. There's nothing wrong with publications themselves. It's simply that many Christians choose to use them as rallying points for their own selfishness and pride. One writer has called factionalism focusing around prominent preachers and writers “a vicarious ego trip” [1]. No Christian is exempt from the temptation of forming into these factions. It’s a way of puffing ourselves up by hitching our wagons to various doctrinal hotshots. Unfortunately, when our pride becomes more important than our risen Savior, we’re practicing a form of idolatry [2].

Factions, with their foundations of pride, are dangerous places to be. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” [3]. Factionalism threatens to destroy fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And as the Apostle John reminded us, if we do not have loving fellowship with our brother, we cannot love God (1 John 4).

There is, however a cure for division, and it’s right here in Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians. The cure lies not in who wins—conservative, liberal, whatever. The cure for factionalism is found in the name of Jesus Christ [4]. Let’s be very careful here. We won’t have unity in the church simply by calling it by the right name. Of course, the church should not take on factional names; that’s a sinful, proud approach. But simply saying “Church of Christ” doesn’t put us above the fray, even if we write “church” with a little “c.” It sickens me how much pride some Christians take in the name Church of Christ—and I’m not talking about the good kind. The unity of the church must come from more than words. Togetherness must rise from the hearts of Christians [5].

The Christian community is not a place for rivalry but unity. When you think about it, God exists in a community of Father, Son, and Spirit. God calls the church to testify to the world what true community can be [6]. If this church truly cares about Christian unity, we need to be very careful in how we approach denominations, lest the cure we present becomes worse than the ailment. We must proclaim the truth, but let us choose our battles carefully.

Unity in Christ is more important than having our way. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to stand up for God’s way. Clear sin needs to be called sin clearly. But a dash of humility is always in order. For example, I for one am convinced that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated with one cup of fermented wine. That’s the way every Church of Christ celebrated the supper until around the 1860s. Our practice of using little individual cups of unfermented juice is an innovation of the nineteenth century. Well, you may ask, why am I not preaching at a one-cup, fermented, congregation? Simple. Because breaking fellowship over what kind of cups to use for the Lord’s Supper is absurd. It reminds me of a factional Church of Christ known by the other congregations in town as the “One Cup With a Handle Church of Christ.” I’m willing not to have my way on this matter in order to stay in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

But how can we tell what’s actually worth dividing over and what’s merely a matter of choice or pride? Well, let’s begin with Jesus’ call for his disciples to take up our crosses daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). If we do that, then we may begin to see the main idea emerging here in Paul’s letter. And what is that main idea? The cross of Jesus Christ. Paul came to preach so that the cross of Christ would not be made empty (v. 17). The power of the church is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. That is where Jesus paid the price for our sin. It is where we gained access to the presence of God. And it is where Christians’ site should always be focused.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)
Jesus Christ crucified is at the heart of Christian unity and the supernatural power we proclaim.

In service to a crucified and risen savior Christians find unity as well as answers to the tough questions of faith. We don’t please God by insisting on our way, by playing the big shot or puffing ourselves up. Some of the Corinthians were doing those kinds of things, to the harm of themselves and the church. Christian discipleship is an exercise in service, in sacrifice, and in humility. It is the discipline of following the one who has already accomplished the great work of salvation for us. When we begin to follow Christ in sacrifice and service, we walk in the power and wisdom of God.

The power of the cross is why God entrusted his work to the church. God did not entrust the work of proclaiming the gospels to the wisest, the most educated, or the religious professionals. Through the power of Jesus Christ, the most important tasks of the Kingdom are entrusted to the most ordinary men—but men who deny themselves so that Christ may be proclaimed. Unity in the church comes from dying to ourselves and focusing our energies and attention on our Savior. Unity comes from actually caring about unity with God. If our goal is simply to get along with one another, whatever the cost, then we will drift away from God and, eventually, each other too. But if our goal is pleasing God and proclaiming Christ, then we will get along with one another, too.

The Corinthians had been enriched in all wisdom and knowledge (1:5). So have we. This congregation harbors many talents, much knowledge, and much skill. But what matters most comes not from what we have but from what Christ has given us; looking at ourselves, but at the cross of Christ.


1. Piper, John. “Christian Unity and the Cross: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.” Online sermon text and notes at
2. Loader, William. “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary. Epiphany 3. Online notes at
3. James 4:6. Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
4. Verse 10. See Stedman, Ray. “Behind Divisions.” Online sermon text at
5. Chrysostom, John. “Homily III.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. XII. Online copy at
6. Neuchterlein, Paul. “Epiphany 3A.” Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Decently and In Order

1 Corinthians 14:26-40
Sunday morning, February 4, 2007
Buena Vista, Virginia, Milton Stanley

Because we’ve been away from 1 Corinthians for several weeks, let’s review what we’ve learned so far in this letter. When we study this week’s passage about prophecy and speaking in tongues, let’s remember that the Corinthian Christians seem to have been infatuated with speaking in tongues. And can you blame them? Wouldn’t you be fascinated with the Spirit-given ability to speak in a language you had never learned? But they were even more infatuated with something else: themselves. They were proud of their Spiritual power, their worldly wisdom. Their pride and knowledge had puffed them up, but the Corinthians were worldly, and so they were in fact small children in the Kingdom of God.

Remember that the Corinthians were a church with a number of problems. In Churches of Christ we strive for the simplicity of the first-century church. Certainly the early church didn’t have all the centuries of trivial additions and harmful tradition that we fight against today. Yet the church of the first century was far from pure of error. The Corinthians were split into factions, prone to bringing lawsuits against one another, plagued with sexual sin, disorderly in the worship, and confused about gender roles—much like the North American church today.

The immediate context of this letter is Paul’s discussion in chapters twelve through fourteen about prophecy and tongues. At the beginning chapter 14 we saw that prophecy is superior to tongues because it edifies believers and convicts the lost. Prophecy does not necessarily involve predicting the future but rather is proclaiming the deep truths from God. It’s not exactly the same as preaching today, but that’s the closest equivalent we now have. In the passage we’re looking at this morning, Paul wants to make sure the Christian assemblies in Corinth are proper and orderly in three areas: prophecy, tongues, and women. The overall theme is expressed in verse 26: “Let all things be done for building up” [1].

Building up, or edification—let everything done in the church be for building up the Kingdom of God. OK, that’s simple enough. But here’s a question. Why does Paul describe the purpose of the assembly as edification of each other rather than worship of God? No one would argue that building up is important, but isn’t worshiping God more important than serving each other? Well, if we’ll take a moment to see what’s being said here, not only will we better understand Paul’s message to the Corinthians, but we’ll gain an insight into interpreting all the Bible.

First of all, it’s understood—to Paul, the Corinthians, and Christians today—that the assembly is where Christians gather to worship God. Remember that 1 Cor. 14:25 mentions worshiping God in the assembly. And here’s the point that helps us understand not only this passage but many other passages in the Bible: Paul is addressing an immediate concern in both verses 25 and 26. It should be clear from Paul’s emphasis on edification that the Corinthians were not doing a very good job of building one another up! So that’s what Paul reminds them to do: edify. Paul is not trying to write a theological monograph here. He’s trying to help Christians in a specific place solve a specific problem. Remembering that truth helps us interpret Scripture. It also helps us see how the truths for the Corinthian congregation are truths ones still benefit the church today.

The focus of these verses reminds us of our two main emphases and obligations in the Kingdom of God. First is the obligation to love and worship God. Jesus told us loving God with all our being is the first and greatest commandment (Mt. 22:36-38). Of course, Jesus was quoting a Word given by God on Sinai (Dt. 6:5). Paul echoes that emphasis in verse 25 when he mentions unbelievers falling down and worshiping God. Second is our obligation to love and edify one another. Jesus called loving our neighbor the second great commandment (Mt. 22:39-40). That commandment, too, goes all the way back to Sinai (Lev. 19:18). Paul reminds the Corinthians of that commandment when he tells them that their worship must edify one another. We’ll look at a few particulars of that edification in a moment. First, though, let’s face perhaps the most controversial element of this chapter in our day.

In verses 34 and 35 Paul declares that “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” That’s clear enough what he says. The more difficult question is, what does Paul actually mean? What exactly does keeping silent involve? Before we try to answer that question we need to acknowledge up front that our North American culture is very unwell right now on matters of gender. That cultural sickness affects everyone’s judgment in one way or another, whatever our position on these types of matters may be. Let us then, approach the text humbly as well as faithfully. Let’s remember that cultural biases are just as real in our day as they were in Paul’s. Some of what Paul has to say may be directed strictly to first-century Corinthians, while much of what he tells them should be shaping our behavior as well. The challenge is telling the difference.

For example, when Paul says that the women should “keep silent,” is he using a figure of speech or idiom? Consider our own day. When we tell someone to “Be quiet,” what exactly do we mean? Depending on the context, that simple little sentence could literally mean, “Stop talking so much,” “Stop talking so loudly,” “Stop talking about a certain topic,” or “Stop talking at all.” How literally, then, do we take “keep silent” in 1 Cor. 14:34? Should women be allowed to preach and teach in the church? To say “Amen” at the end of a prayer? To speak before and after services as they’re entering or leaving the building? To lead prayer in the assembly? To sing in church? To shuffle in the pew?

Christians have interpreted these two verses in a wide range of ways through the years. Some simply take the passage literally—that women are simply not to talk at all during worship services. Some limit the silence to judging prophecies as in verse 29. Some think the command is for women to worship in an orderly way and stop chattering to one another during the assembly [2]. Others think the instructions here are purely cultural and have no bearing on Christians today. With so many widely varying interpretations, how can we be sure which is correct?

To arrive at a valid interpretation, we must look at passages like this one with the logic of God’s Kingdom. We must be thoroughly familiar with the values of the Kingdom as revealed in the Word and the church. As a first step, we must look at the rest of Scripture and the practice of the church. And what do we find when we look at the contexts of 1 Corinthians in particular, the New Testament in general, and the history of the church?

Well, we know that Christian women did prophesy in the first-century. First Corinthians 11 suggests that women prophesied and prayed in the assembly, and we read unambiguously in Acts 21 that Phillip’s daughters were prophetesses. As Acts 2:8-9 tells us, God declares that “even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” Yet we also know that men and women have different roles in the church. The same chapter in 1 Corinthians that suggests women used to pray and prophesy tells us without any doubt that the male is head of the female (1 Cor. 11). What’s more, Paul tells Timothy that he does not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man (see 1 Tim. 2:8-15). We also know from history that the church made it through its first nineteen centuries without women preachers or elders.

Beyond these general principles, I’m not sure we can say much more about exactly what Paul meant. There’s a name, by the way, for the view that men and women have different roles in the church: complementarianism, from the idea that men and women’s roles are different but complementary. That is not a popular view today in many circles. Modernity has produced what is known as the egalitarian view—that men’s and women’s roles are equal. But because women’s authority has typically been exercised in the private sphere of the family while men’s has been in the public spheres of business and politics, the egalitarian view is based on an underlying devaluation of femininity. Some will say it is unjust that women are not allowed to be preachers. One could equally as respond that it’s unfair that men are not allowed to be mothers. You might say that one is physically possible while the other is not. But simply because something is possible doesn’t make it acceptable to god.

Keeping a couple of principles in mind can help us better understand the complementarian view. First, even though our roles are different in the church, in a more important sense men’s and women’s natures are the same. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all stand in need of a Savior. All Christians are accepted as living members of the Body of Christ, in which there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). What’s more, the pattern of men and women being essentially the same but functionally different reflects an important characteristic of God. In John’s gospel we see that Jesus and the Father are essentially one (Jn. 1:1; 10:30), yet Jesus was subject to the Father (Jn. 12:49-50) [3]. Jesus was sent not exalt himself, but to deny himself all the way to the cross. Christians are to do the same (Lk. 9:23), and that applies to men as much as to women.

The concept of denying ourselves lies at the heart of Paul’s admonition for worship to be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Worship is not about expressing ourselves or satisfying our own needs. It’s about glorifying God and edifying one another. In this section Paul gives a list of activities that should be done in a proper and orderly manner. Not all Christians should be speaking in tongues at once (v. 27). Believers should speak in tongues only if there is an interpreter (28). Christians should consider, distinguish, or weigh what is said (29), and those prophesying should take turns (30-31). To those of us used to a single sermon at the worship service, Paul’s instructions for two or three to prophesy at one meeting may seem a little unusual. But keep in mind that the Corinthian church was plagued by big-shot syndrome. Paul is simply telling the Corinthians not to allow anyone to monopolize the meetings by talking on and on. At the same time, no one can honestly say he couldn’t stop talking because he was swept away by the Holy Spirit (v. 32).

Notice, too, that there’s nothing in this passage about Christian worship being buttoned-down and solemn. Worship should be orderly, but not hung-up! There’s nothing wrong with becoming excited, laughing, or generally showing emotion in church. In fact, the glimpses of Christian worship we find in the New Testament are far from buttoned-down. The disciples at Pentecost were so emotional that some folks thought they were drunk. Paul wanted men to lift up holy hands in worship (1 Tim. 2:8). Even in this chapter, we have a picture of folks falling on their faces to worship God (14:25). So let’s be sure not to write too much into the words of this chapter. Simply put, Christian worship should be orderly, rather than wild and chaotic, because God is not the Lord of confusion, but of peace (v. 33). In that way, the worship assembly should reflect the character of the Kingdom of God.

Before they received this letter from Paul, the Corinthians may not have realized how unlike the Kingdom their assemblies really were. Pride, it seems, had damaged relationships, reputations, and even their worship gatherings [4]. But a well-ordered assembly not only allows Christians to worship more freely, it is a reminder of God’s own order. He is, after all, the one who orders the sun, moon, stars, oceans, and all life. He is the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth. And he loves us. The old order all around us, where sin spoils everything, is passing away. And this world order is being replaced by the new order of the Kingdom of God. When the church gathers together, we are called to reflect and proclaim the order of that new Kingdom.

And that’s good news—not only that each of us individually can be saved, but that God is renewing all creation (2 Pe. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). So when we gather for worship, let’s remember the one who lived and died for us and for all creation. Let’s die to ourselves, and in the process, truly live.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
[2] Ray Stedman. “When You Come Together.” Sermon text online at
[3] Wayne A. Grudem."Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them: 1 Peter 3:1-7." In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper, 194-208, 499-503. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991. Book on-line at
[4] David J. Hoke. “Doing Church: The Place of Order in Worship.” What’s a Church to Do? Studies in First Corinthians, 34. Sermon text online at

(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley

Spiritual Gifts and the Great Commission

1 Corinthians 14:1-25
Preached Sunday morning, December 10, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our journey through 1 Corinthians, we are still in a part of the letter dealing with spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). But even though the immediate topic at hand is speaking in tongues, Paul throughout this section manages to turn the discussion to larger issues. In chapt. 12, for example, the Apostle used the topic of spiritual gifts to teach a lesson on the unity of the body. In chapt. 13, he reminds Christians of the centrality of love. Here, in chapt. 14, we learn about the superiority of prophecy over speaking in tongues.

By way of reminder, let's look back over the teaching in this section so far. Some Christians in Corinth apparently had the gift of tongues and had let the gift go to their heads. Spiritual gifts, given by God to edify the church, had instead become the subject of pride and one-upsmanship. The result was further divisions in the body. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the gift is not more important than the giver, God's Holy Spirit. That Spirit is love, not simply the sentimental kind, but love that changes thoughts and actions. In chapt. 14 we see how love looks in practice. And if we look carefully, we will find powerful implications for discipleship and evangelism. I urge you to carefully consider the text of this morning's lesson with me today.

The first lesson we learn here is that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Paul makes that point repeatedly in this chapter. In verse 1 he urges Christians to desire the gift of prophecy, and in v. 5 he tells them that he himself wishes it for them. The rest of the chapter then shows why prophecy is superior to tongues.

At this point you may well be asking why it really matters which is superior, because we don't have these miraculous gifts today in the church, right? Well, looking back through biblical history we see that miraculous gifts come upon God's servants differently in different generations. The first two centuries of the church were a time when these miraculous gifts were seen in force, but once churches began to have copies of the New Testament, these gifts began to fade from the scene. When it comes to tongues, that situation should be easy enough for us to accept. Paul speaks well here of the gift of tongues, but clearly sees prophecy as having a more important role to play in the congregation. And what is that role?

Do you see the answer in v. 3? Prophecy is given to the church for edification, exhortation, and comfort. Edification is a term meaning to build up. So prophecy is given to build up the church. Exhortation means to stir up to action. Therefore prophecy is intended to urge us on to good works. The word used for comfort here means to console the depressed and grieving. All of these qualities of prophecy, Paul reminds the Corinthians in vv. 4 & 5, are to build up the church. And while the church no longer has miraculous prophecy as in the days of Paul, we still have ways to edify, exhort, and comfort the church. The primary way the church brings that kind of edification about today is through preaching the Word of God.

God is not giving us new revelations as in the days of Paul, but today preaching takes the role prophecy played in the days of the New Testament. In fact, some modern versions of 1 Corinthians 14 translate the Greek word in this chapter not as prophecy but as preaching, proclaiming, or instruction [1]. In any case, today preaching the Word of God plays the role in the church once accomplished by prophecy.

There is an even bigger principle involved here than prophecy itself. That principle is this: prophecy is superior to tongues not for what it is, but for what it does. Let's look again at v. 3: "the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" [2]. These results are far more important than someone flexing his spiritual muscles through the exercise of a spiritual gift. Prophecy is important for what it does. Speaking in unknown tongues is not as useful to the church because it doesn't build up the body. Unless someone in the assembly has the gift to interpret tongues, the tongues-speaker is only making noise as far as the rest of the congregation is concerned. As Paul says, it's better to speak a few words that minds can understand than ten thousand words that have no meaning to the hearers. Tongues are a vehicle for the Spirit to work, but it may not be a good way to edify the church. The lesson here, then, is that the vehicle for the Spirit's working is not as important as the results. Edification is more important than spiritual razzle-dazzle. The Lord wants the church to be edified, built up, through prophecy, preaching, or whatever means. And do you notice here that the prophecy, the building up, is directed inward, to the saints? This is not preaching or prophecy to the lost, but to the saints in the assembly. So the Apostle gives priority here not to reaching out to the lost, but to building up the saints.

On the other hand, let's look at vv. 24 and 25: "But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you." Did you catch that? Prophecy is directed to the assembly of Christians, but in the process, it may lead to conversion of the unbeliever! Remember the purpose of prophecy: edification, exhortation, and comfort. Not only do those qualities build the church, those are the qualities of God's Word that convert the lost. So even when we direct our attentions to building up the saints, the lost may still come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

This teaching in 1 Cor. 14 helps put the Great Commission of Mt. 28:19-20 in context. First Corinthians is directed to a group of Christians much like those in our own culture today: sophisticated, worldly wise, exposed to ideas from all over the world. And have you noticed, as we’ve made our way through the letter, that Paul never tells the Corinthians to go out and try to convert sinners? That’s right. The message is not to convert sinners, but to convert themselves. The Christians in Corinth need to come together in unity. And in the process, sinners might be saved. The Corinthians enjoyed speaking it tongues—but in doing so, they ran the risk of looking crazy to unbelievers. But if they were doing what they should—building up one anther—then visitors to their assemblies might be saved.

So Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to go out and try to convert the lost. Yes, he does say that tongues are for the benefit unbelievers, but he also says they are not as important as prophecy, which is for the benefit of believers. As we’ll see, it’s not that unbelievers aren’t important; it’s simply that the edification, the building up, of believers is more important.

Do we have the same emphasis in the church today? Do we keep the emphasis where it belongs? Remember, 1 Corinthians is written not only to Christians in Corinth, but to us as well (1 Cor. 1:2). Have we made building up the church a priority over bringing in the lost?

If we’ve read our marching orders, of course, we know that we need to do both. We call those marching orders The Great Commission. Let’s have a look at that Commission, from Jesus’ words in Mt. 28:19&20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That’s the church’s mission in relation to humanity: to baptize new disciples and teach them to be obedient to everything Jesus commanded. In other words, we are to bring in the lost and build up the saved. That’s the two-fold message of the Great Commission.

The problem is, we Christians naturally prefer the semi-Great Commission! And what is the“semi-Great Commission? Simply this. Left to our own devices, we will naturally gravitate to fulfilling only one of the “folds” of our two-fold mission. Christians are commissioned to bring in the lost and build up the saved, but if we're not careful, we'll favor one over the other. The problem is that following only half of the Great Commission is like buying half a horse. Can you imagine wanting to save money so badly that you buy only half a horse? In a way, it makes sense. We put the harness on the front of the horse, and it’s the back end that gives us most of the trouble. So let’s save money and buy only the front end! The problem is that half a horse won’t pull a load. And pretty soon, it stinks!

Sad to say, all too often a congregation wants to follow only half of the Great Commission. In fact, most congregations lean one way or another. Either they focus too little effort on saving the lost or too little on building up the saints. This kind of whop-sided work is as natural as gravity.

Some congregations, for example, are good at going and making disciples. They baptize soul after soul. But if they don’t build up those disciples, teaching them to follow Jesus, then pretty soon the congregation becomes arrogant. Discipleship becomes simply a matter of “We’re in, but you’re out. You’re lost, but we’re on God's good side.” Congregations that turn too much attention outward always become numbers-oriented. Why always? Because if a church doesn’t care to build up the saved, then they don’t really love the ones that are being saved. Baptism becomes not a way to build disciples, but to build attendance. And if we aren’t building up souls, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, then we’re not really making disciples.

And that stinks.

Some congregations are good at teaching one another. The members work hard on being better and better Christians, more and more obedient to Jesus Christ. They may develop a very comfortable fellowship, and they may work hard on keeping it that way. But all their attention is focused inward, on their own behavior, and there is no evangelism. Those congregations become smug, thinking they are better than the lost. Church becomes “our thing,” a little mafia. The problem is, if a church isn’t going out to the lost and baptizing the lost into Christ, then they don’t really love them.

And that stinks.

But when congregations fulfill both aspects of the Great Commission—to baptize new Christians and edify the saints, then we are following our marching orders. And here’s the wonderful lesson we learn from 1 Cor. 14: when congregations truly edify one another by the Word of God, the lost are saved. That’s right. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:24-25, when edification abounds in the assembly, the lost may well end up worshiping God. That’s why building up the saints is more important than impressing the lost. I can hear it now: “Milton says we don’t need to evangelize.” No. If we don’t seek the lost, then we have only half a horse. But if we edify one another, the lost will see the Holy Spirit among us and glorify God.

There’s another important lesson in these verses of 1 Cor. 14. Evangelism and discipleship are done by congregations. We need to ground new Christians in the Word to build them up. But where does that take place? In the assembly of believers. Yes, it’s important that Christians pray and study the Bible on our own, but where does the building up of Christians take place? In the assembly. There's no way around this process; it's part of the enculturation into the Kingdom.

Imagine if football teams worked the way some congregations try to do church. Let’s say the Oakland Raiders draft a rookie quarterback, fresh from college. Does Art Shell go to that quarterback and say, “Welcome to the NFL! Here’s the play book, now go back to your house and practice patterns in your front yard!” No. They take that young man and throw him into practice with the rest of the team. Sure, there’s an orientation for rookies, but the real learning comes when the rookie starts hanging with the big boys, when he learns what it means to scramble and pass and get hit by a 350-pound defensive tackle in the National Football League. Football is a team activity.

So is discipleship. It’s significant that the only time winning the lost is mentioned in 1 Corinthians is in the context of the spiritual power of a whole congregation. A whole congregation! Conversion is not primarily the job for the preacher or the brother with lots of notches in the cover of his Bible. It’s a congregational mission!

Are we edifying each other in such a way that the lost see us and want to praise God? Do we spend more time building each other up or tearing each other down? The way we build up the church is through edifying, exhorting, and comforting one another. Edification doesn’t arise out of pride, bragging or big dog syndrome; not from criticizing our brothers and sisters when they’re not around; not with blaming the preacher or anyone else for our problems; not with grudges and the silent treatment.

But with love. When a congregation begins to love so that our words and our works are sincere, then we can begin to build the Lord’s church like he intends. That’s what the Corinthian church needed, and that’s what this church needs. We already have the gifts to do it. Remember how 1 Corinthians begins?
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— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:4-8).
“In every way enriched in him . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Remember, too, that Paul is not talking here strictly to the Corinthians, but also to “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So if we already have those gifts, how do we use them effectively? By trying harder? No. God’s Word seldom if ever calls us to work harder. The only way we can learn to use God’s gifts to his glory is through repentance: through admitting our own weakness and God’s power in the Holy Spirit. Repentance, remember, is not simply turning from our sins at conversion. It’s the process of conversion that goes on throughout the life of Christians as we learn more and more to observe everything Jesus commands. It’s turning to his wisdom, his power, his strength. It’s remembering the message Paul preached day-in and day-out for eighteen months in Corinth: Jesus Christ and him crucified.


1. See, for example, the New English Bible, the New Testament in the Language of Today, the New Testament: An American Translation, the Twentieth Century New Testament, and The Message.
2. Scripture quotations here are from the English Standard Version.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley