When “Ministry” Trumps Community

We’re finishing up our study of 1 Corinthians in my 11th grade Bible class at TCA this week, and yesterday we concluded our discussion of chapters 12 through 14, Paul’s instructions about spiritual gifts. An old thought from a new passage of Scripture dawned on me as we talked, but first some background . . .

Paul has acknowledged that the Corinthian church is “enriched in [Christ] in all speech and all knowledge . . .  not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Corinthians 1:5, 7), but that they have allowed their gifts to become a source of division among them (1 Corinthians 1:10-12, 3:3, 4:7, 12:25, 14:12).  Two forms of pride were cropping up in the congregation:  the obvious pride of those who think there gifts are not only most important but also the only ones needed (12:21-26), and the more subtle pride that masks as low self-esteem or false humility, but is actually saying “if my gifts aren’t going to be noticed, I just won’t use them,” much like the school kid who says “If I can’t be the quarterback, I’ll just take my ball and go home” (12:15-20).  So, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to be a community unified by the gospel for the sake of their gospel mission (1:10-31, 3:1-23; 12:4-13, 12:25-27, 14:5, 12, and 25).  Paul’s instructions reflect Jesus’ desire for the church to be unified, both in their relationships and their ministry, and so show the world the unified persons and  purpose of the Trinity (see John 17:20-23).  In essence, Paul was concerned that the church was putting “ministry” before relationship to the degree that the ministry (aided by the use of spiritual gifts) was fracturing the community and as a result was hindering true ministry.

Because of Paul’s earnest desire to see the Corinthian church become a unified community on mission, it is significant that he dropped chapter 13, the “love chapter,” smack dab in the middle of a discussion about the purpose and practice of spiritual gifts.  Paul seems to be urging them to get their priorities in order: mission flows from community.  It’s as if he’s saying to them, “Your lack of love for one another is thwarting the mission you’ve been given to share and show Trinitarian love to the world!  Your spiritual gifts were meant to run on the fuel of loving service to God and others (13:1-3), but you’re using them to get God and others to serve you.  Your spiritual gifts were given to you so that you might use them build up the entire body of Christ, but have allowed your concern for “your” ministry to trump your concern for your brothers and sisters, thus destroying the body of Christ.”  Ministry without community is noisy, empty, and unhelpful (13:1-3).  In our day we might say “people take priority over programs.”

In the first half of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that the spiritual gifts are pointless without love, and find their power in love (13:1-3).  In the second half of the chapter he says that the gifts are partial, while love is permanent (13:7-13).  The heart of chapter 13 is verses 4-7, a beautiful description of Trinitarian love as it is expressed in human relationships.  Loving one another is the priority, Paul says.  Jesus didn’t say, “A new command I give to you, make sure your spiritual gifts get used and noticed,” but rather “A new command I give to you, love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).  Nor did he say “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you are recognized for your ministry gifts,” but rather “if you have love for one another.”

Here’s the old thought that was confirmed in a new way in this passage:  today’s churches are too often willing to sacrifice community for “the ministry.” The modern American church is gifted, no doubt, but we’re not good at relationships.  We are in danger of spending lots of time and effort creating and designing programs that run well leaving little time or energy to disciple people who relate well.  But no matter how “quality” the  ministry is, if the quality of our relationships with one another is weak, the “ministry” will eventually collapse or cave in.

These are just some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head and heart.  If you’ve stayed with me to the end of this post, first, I thank you for reading, but second, give me your feedback.   Have you seen this trend in the church? What must we do to reverse it?

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