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Monthly Archives: February 2014

betterEdited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 23, 2014

“Body Dysfunctions”  1 Corinthians 12:1-31

I grew up in a church where every Sunday was pretty much the same.  We sang  old hymns.  We read the Bible.  We stood during the (long) congregational prayer.  We sat still and listened to sermons (though I frequently wrote notes to my friends on my bulletin).  And after a closing blessing, we solemnly filed out of the sanctuary.  We all knew what to expect.  But then I went to college and I was introduced to a very different church experience.  There was freedom and excitement and enthusiasm.  People lifted their hands, the music was joyful and sometimes there was even dancing in the aisles.  Sometimes people were healed.  Often, people would speak in tongues that no one seemed to understand–except occasionally when someone would interpret.  And there was no bulletin!  Each week, there was a sense of anticipation and wonder.  One never knew exactly what would happen next.  The experience was liberating for me and I wanted to experience more.  

It was during this time that I was told about the “baptism of the Spirit”.  All the joy and exuberance was because people had been filled with the Spirit.  I wanted it.  So some friends of mine gathered around me, laid hands on me and prayed that I, too, would receive the baptism of the Spirit.  We waited.  We continued to pray that God’s spirit would fall.  We waited some more.  We were waiting for me to receive the evidence that our prayers were answered.  I was supposed to speak in tongues.  I didn’t.  I wanted to.  I was told that I needed “just let it happen.”  Honestly, I tried.  I followed all their instructions.  I babbled to “prime the pump.”  Nothing happened.  I needed to persevere.  I persevered.  Still nothing happened.

Since I didn’t receive the gift of tongues, and God says, “ask and you shall receive,” obviously something had to be wrong with me.  Maybe, I didn’t have enough faith.  Maybe I was blocking the movement of the Spirit as a result of some sin.  I confessed every sin I could think of.  I read the Bible cover to cover so I would better know God’s will.  I learned all I could about the gifts of the Spirit.  I prayed–hard.  I still didn’t speak in tongues.  Though no one said it, I felt like a second-class Christian.  There were other gifts of the Spirit, but speaking in tongues was THE evidence I expected.  It was the evidence that everyone else around me expected.  It was the one gift above all others that mattered; that made my infilling of the Spirit valid.  

Now that I have matured in my walk in the Spirit, I realize how dysfunctional my college experience had been.  Because there was so much focus on what I had not received, no one could appreciate what I had received–gifts that ultimately propelled me into pastoral ministry and prepared me to help others on their spiritual journey.  The problem was not that people were speaking in tongues–a legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence in person’s life, but that speaking in tongues was held up as the only legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence and as the pinnacle of personal spirituality.  Along the way I discovered that God had much more to say about spiritual fruit as evidence of the Sprit’s presence.  An over-emphasis on spiritual gifts–especially elevating one gift above all others–was evidence, not of spiritual maturity but of spiritual dysfunction. 

The church at Corinth exemplified this very dysfunction. They too were exalting one gift over all others and were minimizing the other manifestations of the Spirit.  And they were minimizing those members of the church that did not show evidence of greatest spiritual gift–the gift of speaking in tongues—especially “angelic tongues”.   Those who spoke in tongues were more spiritual than those who did not.  Those who did not speak in tongues were inconsequential and unnecessary.  Possession of THE gift led to spiritual pride and social arrogance.  They might as have well worn “I’m better than you” buttons.

Such dysfunction ultimately destroys the church and prevents it from fulfilling its God-given mission.  Paul writes to clarify in no uncertain terms that there are MANY spiritual gifts from God and ALL gifts are necessary to the healthy function of the church.  AND the Spirit distributes the gifts not on the basis of some maturity hierarchy, but as the Spirit wills.  Not every member will be a prophet.  Not every member will speak in tongues.  (Why hadn’t my college friends read that to me?)  Not every member will have the ability to heal.  Therefore, we need each other and the full range of spiritual gifts. 

There is unity within the body of Christ, for we are all baptized by the Spirit into one body, but that does not require uniformity.  In fact, it requires many parts.  To illustrate his point, Paul used the analogy of the human body–a single body made up of many parts–some visible, some protected inside the body, some covered out of modesty, some seemingly inconsequential.  However, ALL parts are indeed needed.  To exalt one gift or one calling or one perspective over all others will only result in spiritual disability. To denigrate certain parts just because they are not visible or because they are small; to say to any part, “I don’t need you,” is the height of arrogance.  

Their hierarchical understanding about spiritual gifts had also led them to a hierarchical attitude toward those who possessed the lesser gifts.  The church had once again divided itself into a group of “haves” (they have the gift) and the “have-nots” (they have not the gift).  This was beyond social class structure–another issue in the church.  Now the church was creating a spiritual class structure!  And the “haves” had little concern about the well-being of the “have-nots”.  

The purpose of spiritual gifts–all the gifts–is for the upbuilding of the entire church.  It is for the common good.  Mutual edification can only occur in an atmosphere of humility and love (the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13).  For the common good to flourish, we must treat each other as though they are God’s gift to us.

The church that God means for us to be is a church that values diversity of gifts and diversity of people demonstrated through respect, mutual care and equality.   Unfortunately, many churches, while giving lip service to diversity, have actually pursued segregation.  One of the foundational principles of the Church Growth Movement is that churches can only grow in homogeneous groupings of people.  In a book entitled, Our Kind of People, C. Peter Wager wrote, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers”.  Therefore, segregated churches based on socio-economics, education, race, language, generation and even spiritual gifts have been (and continue to be) planted throughout America.  Rather than the church embracing diversity and the gifts of different cultures, experiences and perspectives, the church has chosen instead to organize itself on the principle of “separate but equal” (which is never truly equal) and on the de facto statement, “I don’t need you.”  This structure has resulted in mega-churches and mega-church wannabes that have little power to challenge the status quo.  And because the body of Christ is not engaging the gifts of all the members, the result is a church that has actually lost its voice.  We can hardly speak about systemic injustice when our own systems mirror the injustice.

The church needs a reformation which affirms the need for all gifts, experiences and perspectives.  The church needs to make new choices about welcome and inclusion.  The church needs a structure that allows for those of “lesser gifts” to do their part with great respect and honor.  While diversity of people and gifts within a denomination or a local church is challenging, it is what God desires.  Isn’t that why God gave us the Spirit in the first place–to empower us to do God’s will in the world and to be God’s witnesses across all lines of division?



ImageEdited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 16, 2014

“We’re A Classy Organization!”  1 Corinthians 11:17-34

What class are you?  Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, Working Class, Lower?  We even define an Underclass–people who are no longer connected to the normal support systems such as employment, housing and even public aid.  According to a 2012 Gallup survey, a large majority of Americans define themselves as Middle Class.  But Class in America is nebulous since it is a self-definition and self-perception in relationship to others.  Besides, who wants to self-identify as “low class”?  Often, class identity is related to levels of education, profession or job choice, ethnicity and race.  But most often it is determined by wealth.  Historically, Class and privilege go hand in hand.  If you’ve seen the movie “Titanic”, you will remember the defined boundaries of class.  One may go down the decks (if one so inexplicably chooses), but never up and there are locked gates to remind you of your class.  The higher one’s class, the more rights and privileges one enjoys.  The higher one’s class, the more access one has to participation in corporate life and all the benefits participation affords.  The higher one’s class, the more power one has to set the rules for full participation.

In the US Constitution, we say that all men are created equal and that all men have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But equality has never been equally distributed.  Initially, it was reserved for white males property owners.  African Americans were 3/4 of a man.  Women didn’t count.  And it has taken long battles to expand the definition of equality.  Less than 100 years ago, women finally got the right to vote, and women have come a long way (Baby!).  But women still don’t have the economic security that men enjoy.  Lass than 50 years ago, African Americans were included in the right to vote, but despite the election of an African American to the presidency, they continue to face economic and social marginalization.  “Equality” has never been a given and class and economic status continue to determine where one lives, what job one does, where one shops, what one wears, what one eats, what kind of education one’s children receive and what one considers “possible” for the future. In a supposedly “equal” America, we have a very unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity which results in very unequal health, housing, education—virtually every aspect of life.

Class is not a new idea.  According to James Jeffers, author of The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, Roman society was extremely stratified with very clear “class” lines that could not be crossed. You were born into a specific class of people and you likely died the same class. “The Romans evaluated a person’s status based on whether the person was a citizen or a foreigner, patron or client, free or slave, ethnic Roman/Latin or not, voluntary ally or conquered enemy, male or female, and married or unmarried” (p. 182).

In Rome, one literally wore their class. In high school, I took 2 years of Latin—don’t ask me why.  In that class, I learned two things.  First, I learned the phrase of Julius Caesar, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”   The second thing I learned was how to wear a toga—basically a sheet wrapped around the body that had to be held up by one arm.  I had to wear one for a day to be initiated into “Latin Club.”  It was quite embarrassing because if I didn’t hold it up exactly right, I could end up…um…bare assed.  Besides learning to hold up my toga, I learned that only male citizens of Rome could wear a toga.  (Women wore Stolas.) The toga identified one’s class.  In addition, not all togas were created equal.  Togas with 2 thin purple stripes down the sides (purple was the “power color” of the day) were reserved for the “equestrian class”.  These were not horse owners, but men of “noble birth”.  A wide purple stripe down the middle of the toga was reserved for the senatorial class—the ruling class.  Class within a class.  Upper middle, Lower middle…we understand the concept.

If you were not a citizen, you were likely a freedman—a former slave (and you got to wear a simple tunic–without colors.  Freedmen could never become citizens and remained dependent upon a “Patron”—the head of the household.  You were the “client”—basically hired help.  You became a member of the household (which gave you some security—a place to live and some income).  But in exchange for the security, the client lost all privileges and was under the control of the paterfamilias (the father of the household).

If you were not a freedman, you were likely a slave.  The slave class had no rights whatsoever and was considered property. The best they could ever hope for was to be given their freedom so they could become a “freedman.”  Unlike slavery in the US, it was not race based, and often took the form of indentured servitude.

Women were a subset in each class.  In Rome, citizen women had the right to divorce their husbands, but not much else.  It was a male-dominated society.  In everything, pater potestas was the order of things—the power of the father.  Even adult married men with children were under the power of their fathers or grandfathers until his death.

Benefits of being in the “toga” class included getting the best seats at shows, entitlement to bigger portions and better quality portions of food or wine than the lower classes, and greater access to courts and justice. Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of caste and class. For instance, if a patron had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high class to be served more and better food and drink than others sitting at the table of less social standing.  If you weren’t part of the “toga” class, you would likely be served the leftovers (or the crumbs) in a separate location after all the guests had been served to their fill.  All this was as natural as breathing.  It was the way the world worked. It was just accepted practice.

So let’s go to church in Corinth.  The First Century church met in a home—probably the home of a patron.  The church likely included everyone who was part of the household—the “clients” and the slaves–and the guests of the patron.  The weekly “church service” probably included a meal that concluded with the Lord’s Supper.  So far, no problem.  But there is a problem in the church that has been reported to Paul.  Not everyone was being given access to the meal!  The social stratification that was so “normal” was shaping the practice of the church.  When the Lord’s Supper was being served, the ‘haves’ were getting gorged and drunk and the “have nots” got the crumbs that were left on the plate.

While this way of behaving might have been “normal” in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it was completely unacceptable.  His response, “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this! 

Why is Paul so incensed by the behavior of the upper class?  Because their behavior toward the poor is a complete mockery of the work of Jesus’s death remembered at the Lord’s table and of the new community God had created through the baptism of the Spirit.   Paul reminds them in 1 Corinthians 12:13,  “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  The Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (I Corinthians 10:17) The inequality being practiced in the assembly at Corinth during the Lord’s Supper was a denial of that unity.  Whatever was “normal” outside the church was not to be replicated inside the church, the Body of Christ.  The church at Corinth had turned the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions and claim higher “approval” from God based on their class.   As a result, their assembly was doing more harm than good.

To maintain the social class structure within the way the church organizes itself and practices its communal life is an affront to Christ and an affront to the brothers and sisters who have been mistreated and humiliated.  To marginalize those of lower economic or social status is to bring shame to Christ and act as one who betrays Christ.  Eating the Lord’s Supper while maintaining the inequities is eating in a manner that is unworthy of the Lord.  It is to fail to discern the body of Christ.  The church in Corinth has continued to structure itself along the same lines as the caste system of Greco-Roman society.  And they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

The Church we were never meant to be practices the social hierarchy of the culture. God wants the church to be a place of equality where the lines of class and caste are completely eliminated.  Whatever you are on the outside should no longer make a difference on the inside.  It should be revolutionary.

Wow!  I never heard this growing up in the church.  The “words of communion” were lifted out of this passage so I always thought that the commands about self-examination and taking communion unworthily were about introspection about my personal sins.  Taking communion without first doing a self-assessment related to my wickedness was a dangerous thing.  It might lead to sickness or even death.  The self-examination that Paul commands is about assessing how the church treats those who do not have the privileges of the upper class.  To celebrate a class based Lord’s supper to to eat in an unworthy manner.  The church is unhealthy because of inequitable relationships within the church. The church is dying because the poor have been humiliated.  The church is dying because the church has maintained the divisions of social class.

The solution?  First, eat at home!  In other words, don’t bring your social biases and structure into the assembly and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  And secondly, wait for one another.  The word “wait for” can also mean “welcome” or “include”.  In other words, make sure that you eat with those who have been marginalized.

It’s a good thing we’ve learned from Corinth!  We’ve got celebration of the Lord’s Supper down.  We all get a little piece of bread and a little shot of juice.  All about the same size–tiny.  Then, we all eat it and drink it at the same time.  And we all go home hungry.

But are we really that different from Corinth?  If we look deeper than the logistics of communion, the church in America has a long history of marginalization and unequal treatment based upon class or status.   We have Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists because of slavery.  We have churches we perceive for the wealthy and churches we perceive for the poor.  “High Church” and “Low Church” often refers as much to class as it does to liturgical structure.  We still make distinctions and we still practice those distinctions in the life of the church.  We have denominations that ordain women and other that refuse based on an restrictive view of women’s spiritual capacity–a view Jesus never shared.  We have churches that are open and affirming and those who “hate fags” based on a restrictive view of gender and sexuality–a view the early church never shared since those of undefined sexuality–eunuchs–were fully included in the life of the church. In making the distinctions, we continue to fail to “discern the body of Christ.”

I can hear Paul saying to the 21st century church:  “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this! 

What is the solution for us?  “Eat at home!”  Check your biases and class consciousness at the church door.  Whatever is ‘normal’ outside the church MUST be ‘abnormal’ inside the church.  Don’t bring your preconceptions of class (either your own or other’s) into the assembly of the church because it is incompatible with the unity of the body of Christ.  “Wait for each other.”   If we are going to preach the “one-ness” of God’s people where in Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no gay or straight, no black or white, etc, then we must practice a radical welcome and a radical inclusion that gives the full rights and privileges of being members of the household of God to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, irrespective of their caste or class or status.  Otherwise, we will remain the church that we were never meant to be.  Class dismissed.

food fightText of Pastor Ray’s message on February 9, 2014

“Food Fight!” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Food, glorious food!  We love our food.  Years ago, Kimball Church had a reputation for enjoying their food and eating—a lot.  We had some amazing cooks and it always seemed that we were having potluck meals or special dinners to prepare and eat.  The eating tradition continues.  We still have great cooks and I look forward to potluck meals.

We all need to eat.  It is basic to human survival.  So one would think that food would be the last thing human beings would fight about.  Long before the current controversies about ‘organic’ vs. ‘non-organic’ or “GMOs” vs. “non-GMOs” or “farm raised” vs. “wild caught” or the foie gras debacle or the “transfat bans”, there have been food fights that usually center around the statement: “Here’s what you cannot eat.”   Every culture seems to have its delicacies that others find disgusting.  “How can you eat that?” is a question I’ve asked more than once—most recently at a restaurant that served raw quail eggs atop raw oysters.  I don’t like my eggs over easy, so I could not bring myself to try raw eggs.  It looked disgusting.  Religious traditions also have their rules and regulations around food.  Maybe it all goes back to that little situation involving a piece of fruit that Eve took from a banned tree and gave to Adam.  Though it is not recorded in Scripture, I’m sure the first couple had a “food fight” after being banished from Eden.

Food gets quite a bit of space in the Old Testament Law.  The dietary laws give strict guidelines about what God’s people can and cannot eat.  The list of dirty foods includes pork rinds and lobster tail.  And good observant Jewish boys and girls never eat bacon double cheeseburgers.

While God permitted the eating of meat after the flood, God seems to lean vegetarian.  Daniel and his friends—God’s good guys—were given the finest cuisine in Babylon, but they rejected it, choosing instead a vegetarian diet of vegetables and water.  Everyone expected them to wither away.  But after a few months, Daniel and his friends were found to be in better physical and mental shape then their carnivore peers.  Vegetarians love that story.

Because of the strict Old Testament dietary laws, it is not surprising that food caused a stir in the New Testament church.  I’m sure the Gentile converts were relieved when the gospel of Mark recorded Jesus’ statement that it is not what goes into one’s mouth that defiles a person.  Mark added the interpretative statement, “In saying this, Jesus declared all food clean.”  (Mark 7:19)  “Whew!  There.  Jesus has given us the definitive word.  I don’t have to change my diet.  I can still enjoy my blood sausage and bacon. ” You would think that Jesus’ words would end the food fights.  It didn’t.

Food continued to be an issue in the early church as evidenced by the Scriptures we read today from Romans 14:14ff and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.  Some Christians ate meat, others were vegetarian.  Some Christians maintained the OT dietary laws.  Others openly ate pork and shell fish.  Some Christians imbibed in alcoholic beverages.  Others abstained.  And each group looked at the other group suspiciously.  Those without any dietary restrictions were viewed with suspicion by those who observed some boundaries.  They were undisciplined and unspiritual.  Those with restrictions were viewed with the same suspicion.  They were weak brothers and sisters with overly sensitive consciences who needed to loosen up a little.

Nowhere was the fight over food more pronounced than in Corinth.  And the fight was over whether Christians should eat the meat that had been sacrificed in the pagan temple rituals or eat at the temple.  Now it is important to consider that in Corinth and other Roman cities, the temple was the main slaughterhouse.  Worship included making an animal sacrifice to the gods, barbecuing a portion of it for the gods and the priests (they got the prime cuts) and then enjoying the rest of it with other worshipers in a feast.  Going to temple was a little like us going out to a restaurant with our friends.  Purchasing meat was tricky too.  Large amounts of the temple sacrifices were not eaten and were sold in the meat markets located next door to the temples.  One never knew if the meat on sale had been a part of the temple sacrifices that day or not.  Some Gentile Christians who had come out of pagan religion had trouble eating meat because they couldn’t verify where it had come from.  They could not separate the act of eating from the act of pagan worship.  Their weak consciences did not allow them to enjoy a nice steak dinner with their friends because it was too much like returning to idolatry.  Other Gentile Christians didn’t have a problem and continued to eat meat and some may have continued to join their friends and relatives for a nice dinner out at the temple.  So there was a question:  Is it alright to eat the meat sacrificed to idols?  Food Fight!

Before Paul answered the question, he addressed a deeper attitudinal issue at the heart of the food fight–the Corinthian’s emphasis on gnosis (knowledge) and exousia (rights/freedom) to guide behavior rather than love.  Knowledge and freedom was being placed in higher importance than relationship and connection to one another within the body of Christ.

“We all possess knowledge,” they said.  Paul cautioned them: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  The old adage is true: The more you think you know, the less you really know.  And Paul says, in essence, that their lack of love indicates that their knowledge is incomplete.  Knowledge is not the correct basis for the decision about food; love is.

So what about the food?  Those who had no trouble with eating the meat offered to idols based their decision on the knowledge that the idols are not really gods at all and there is only one true God.  So the food offered to idols is no different than any other food.  “We can eat the food because we know the sacrifice is meaningless.”  Logical.  True.  Theologically correct.  In one of the most powerful theological statements in Paul’s letters, he affirmed, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”  BUT….  “not everyone possesses this knowledge.”  There are still many people who have come out of paganism that still think of the idol as having a reality.  For them, eating the food offered to idols is a return to pagan religion.  And their faith in Christ is compromised as a result.

Knowledge may lead to freedom and the “right” to eat, but that does not make eating right.  Love supersedes that knowledge.  Love for the other person–demonstrated by concern for their spiritual well-being–should lead us to give up our “rights” and limiting our “freedom” in order to build them up and protect them in circumstances where they may feel vulnerable.   Knowledge does not give anyone the “right” to be destructive of others.   If continuing to demand the “right” to eat food offered to pagan gods because of their superior knowledge led to the faith of others being destroyed and leading them into sin against their conscience, then it is better not to eat.  Again, Love supersedes knowledge.  Love supersedes freedom.

Placing knowledge at the top of our values demeans those who do not share our knowledge and we live in denial of our unity in Christ.  The “weak” Christian is our brother or sister.  We are a community, and as a community we take care of one another and sacrifice for one another to ensure that everyone progresses in their walk with Christ.  And we recognize that not everyone is at the same place in the journey.  An “us” and “them” mentality ultimately destroys the body of Christ.   An attitude that says “I’ll do whatever I have the right to do,” is antithetical to Christian community.  Love is patient.  Love is not arrogant.  Love always protects.  Love sacrifices.  That is the model of Christ, who though he was in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to.  No, Jesus took on the role of a servant, giving himself up for us all in death.  (Philippians 2:6) Jesus did not come to be served (demanding that his “rights” take priority) but to serve (giving up his “rights” for the sake of others).  

As Paul reminds the Philippians, “Have this attitude that was also in Christ Jesus.”  We are to humbly look out for the interest of others.  If my freedom leads another believer to compromise their walk with Christ, then it is good to limit my freedom for their sake.  True knowledge of Christ will lead us to the love that gives up.

The church God wants us to become is a church that places community and love for each person–no matter how “strong” or how “weak”–as its highest values.

Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 2, 2014

“Anything Goes?”  1 Corinthians 5:1-8; 6:9-20

In 1934, Cole Porter wrote clever lyrics that documented changing mores and behaviors around sexual expression called “Anything Goes.”  While the tone of the song communicates uncertainty about the changes in attitudes and standards, the reality is that the change is a tidal wave that cannot really be stopped so you might as well not fight it.  In Porter’s words…

“The world has gone mad today,

And good’s bad today,

And black’s white today,

And day’s night today,

When most guys today

That women prize today

Are just silly gigolos

And though I’m not a great romancer

I know that I’m bound to answer

When you propose,

‘Anything goes’.”

Here we are 80 years later.  Attitudes have continued to shift and now we have ‘sexting’, ‘twerking’ and adult content of every conceivable sort available 24/7 in the privacy of our homes via internet.  There are few boundaries around sexual expression left.   We live in a day when, indeed, anything goes.  What will 2094–80 years into our future–look like?  If we continue the direction we’re headed, God knows, everything goes!

We are not the first society be sex-crazed.  Ancient Greece and Rome had their own “anything goes” attitude toward sexuality—at least for men.  A 2010 exhibit at the Cycladic Museum in Athens presented everyday objects from ancient Greece that were covered in sexually explicit art—cups, saucers, plates, vases, lamps, jewelry.  Adult content was always accessible to men in ancient Greece, even without the internet.  Sexual expression was built into the routines and rituals of daily life–including religious worship.  Men were encouraged to have wives for legitimate children and mistresses for pleasure.  Sexual activity between men was seen as healthy for relationships within society.  And the philosopher Plato discussed the merits of sexual expression between men and adolescent boys in his dialogue, “Symposium”.

The Greek city of Corinth, where Paul established the church, was also sex oriented.  Built at the crossroads of trade and commerce, thousands of people passed through daily.  Dominating the city was one of the largest temples built for the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility.  It is said that the temple housed over 1000 temple prostitutes who would welcome worshipers beneath the “fornus”–an arched area at the entrance of the temple.  (It is from the “fornus” that we derive the word, “fornication” which originally meant “prostitution”)  Through ritual sex with the temple prostitute, it was believed that the man would become united with–and thereby empowered by–Aphrodite.  Corinth was also the site of the Isthmian athletic games second only to the Olympics.  Training centers were scattered throughout the city, and sexual activity was often part of the training.

Despite having come to faith in Christ, the predominately Gentile congregation remained embedded in a sex-saturated culture and the cultural attitudes toward sexual expression walked through the church doors.  And the church didn’t seem to see it as a problem.  In fact, according to commentator Gordon Fee, the church even developed a slogan to express it’s tolerance–a slogan that Paul quotes times in 1 Corinthians 6:12.  “All things are lawful.”  It was almost a church tag line:  The Church At Corinth: Where You Can Do Anything You Want.”   No limits, no boundaries, no judgment.  Anything goes.

Evidently, not everyone in the church was comfortable with the libertine attitudes and reported to Paul several “concerning situations” that had arisen in the church.  According to the reports, a man in the church was having an open ongoing affair with his father’s wife.  (1 Corinthians 5:off)  This would have definitely been offensive to Jews who were members of the church in Corinth. Leviticus 18, which lists taboo sexual partnerships, prohibited such a relationship.  But it was also considered taboo in Greek society (yes, Greeks had their boundaries too) because an affair with the wife of one’s father dishonored the father.  With so many opportunities in Greek and Roman culture to express your sexuality outside the home, taking your father’s wife was seen as an act of hostility toward your father.  We see the same thing in the act of Absalom having open sex with his father, David’s, concubines after his successful coup (see 2 Samuel 16).  A second “situation” involved men from the church visiting Aphrodite’s temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12ff).

And the church did nothing.  In fact, the church boasted about it.  Incestuous relationships in the church—not a problem.   Visiting temple prostitutes—not a problem.  This is the church of “All things are lawful for me.”  But upon hearing these reports, Paul was horrified and issued corrective action and corrective theology.

In both situations, bad theology led to bad ethics and bad behavior.  The church had allowed pagan religions and pagan philosophies and practices to influence their thinking and the results were a distortion of the gospel of Christ who came make things new.

  • First, the church had a distorted theology of spiritual freedom in Christ.  Paul dealt with this in other churches as well (see Galatians 5).  The argument went something like this:  Christ has set us from the law, therefore all things are now lawful.  The Mosaic laws restricting ones diet no longer apply–enjoy that bacon cheeseburger.  The Mosaic laws regarding sacrifices no longer apply.  The Mosaic laws about circumcision no longer apply.  We are not under law, but under grace.  Therefore, there is nothing unlawful. Paul’s theology is that we are free, but we are not to use our freedom as a license to indulge the sin nature.  We are free, but never lawless.  We are free, but never released from the royal law of love.
  • Second, the church had a distorted theology of the body.  By their logic, limits on the body were moot because the body itself was nothing but a container for the Spirit. Their logic is expressed another slogan, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” so what does it matter what kind of food we eat?  And what is true of food is also true of all other bodily appetites.  Sex for the body and the body for sex, and God will destroy them both, so what does it matter?  This mirrored Greek philosophy that separated the physical from the spiritual.  In Platonic thought, the spiritual was of higher reality than the physical, so the physical world was inconsequential.  Paul’s view of the body was much different. Here is Paul’s theology of the body:  Our bodies (not just our souls) have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, our bodies will one day be raised by God’s power.  Our bodies were made for the Lord.  Therefore, how we use our body matters.
  • Finally, the church at Corinth had a distorted understanding of the nature of the church.  Paul uses two images to correct their understanding. First, the church is a new batch of unleavened dough.  Paul uses the Jewish practice of getting rid of the leaven at Passover to make his point.  Yeast was very uncommon in that day.  Bread was leavened using something similar to a sourdough starter, so each loaf was made from the previous dough.  Over time, the starter could become contaminated with bacteria and ineffective.  The Jews got rid of the old starter at Passover.  Paul applies this to the church.  Through the sacrifice of Christ, the church has been made a new batch of dough.  But by tolerating and encouraging behavior that is part of the old nature, the church has been contaminated.  Paul gives a corrective:  Get rid of the old leaven (deal with the incest and the arrogance) so that you can be in practice what you are in spiritual reality.  Allowing the situation to continue only infects the church and makes its witness of Christ as the transformer of all things ineffective.  The second image Paul uses for the church is that we are members of Christ united with him in spirit.  While that is their spiritual reality, their tolerance of fornication denies that reality.  To unite with a temple prostitute, becoming one with her in body, was to become united with the diety she represented.  This was way beyond just having sex.  This was the equivalent of joining Christ to the idol.  Our bodies are not meant for false gods but for the Lord.  Uniting with a temple prostitute is a denial of our union with Christ.   Paul gives a corrective:  Flee fornication (prohibit participation in temple prostitution) so you can be united with Christ in practice as well as spiritual reality.

Implicit in Paul’s directives is a call to the church to change  their relationship to the broader culture and mindset.  Rather than mirroring the culture’s standards or even lowering the bar further (as in the situation of incest) the church must maintain a higher standard of conduct.  To the Romans, Paul wrote: “Don’t be conformed any longer to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may know God good and perfect will.”  And “give your bodies to God as a living sacrifice.”  (Romans 12:1-2)  Our sexual ethics must be different from the culture that tolerates and encourages “anything goes.”  Paul is not giving them a sexual rulebook (that would be no different from the Law), but he is guiding them to a lifestyle that raises relationships (love does no harm to a neighbor–therefore love fulfills the law–Romans 13:10) and recognizes the sacredness of the body (use the body as an instrument of justice–Romans 6:13).  Sexual expression that diminishes another’s personhood (objectification) or coerces (oppression) is NOT acceptable for members of the body of Christ–even if anything goes in the broader culture.  And idolatry is definitely out of the question.

But it goes beyond sex.  In all areas, the standards of ethics and behavior of the church must be different enough to challenge the standards of the culture.  The economic culture of our day has an “anything goes” attitude about business ethics, putting the bottom line at the top of the agenda.  The church needs to reflect higher standards, putting people above profit.  The corporate culture of our day gives lip service to preservation of life and creation.  The church needs to reflect higher standards toward care of the earth. The political culture of our day is built on a foundation of pay to play and corruption.  The church needs to reflect higher standards that promote policies that protect the least powerful not favoring those with wealth and power.   The practices of the church must reflect the new ways of the Kingdom—both personally and corporately.  Otherwise, we lose our voice and our power to witness to Christ and the Kingdom.  If we allow “anything goes”, everything goes—including our witness to the transformative work of Christ. 

We see this dynamic clearly in the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church regarding pedophile priests.  The church turning a blind eye to the problem, tolerating it and allowing it to continue by simply shifting priests from parish to parish.  The result: a diminished witness for Christ that is still impacting the church.  It has taken radical action from the top to get rid of this infectious leaven.  The rest of the contemporary church needs to learn from the scandal.

These are difficult topics, granted.  But the church needs to raise the issue and begin the dialogue so we can truly be the church that we were meant to be–a holy church that has obeyed the word of God, ‘come out from them and be separate.’ (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Where have you seen the mores and ethics of the culture seep into the church in a way that has been harmful to the church’s witness? 

Evaluate your own “separateness” from the standards of our culture.  Where do you sense that you have “gone to bed” with the world?  What radical action might you need to take to become in practice what God has made you in Christ?