Modest proposal #2: Skipping Sainthood

Ministers are servants, not Saints, ministering by calling, not coronation. “What, after all is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor 3:5-9)

When you read Paul’s description of ministry in this and the next chapter, you might think his concept of ministry is simple. But it isn’t. It’s not simplicity he’s emphasizing but essentials. It’s as if you took the back off a fine Swiss watch to see the tiny, precisely engineered and fitted parts in action.

Because of technology, ministry looks a lot different now than when a face-to-face meeting or a letter were the only means of communication. Most ministers study Greek and Hebrew because the Bible has come down to us in translation from ancient languages that don’t always yield exact equivalents in English (or French or Urdu or Russian).

But like the Swiss watch, it’s the component parts that must function as they are intended or we end up with a handsome piece of functionally useless jewelry.

So here, for example, is what God has done:

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).

And then this is an example of what man has done (and still does):

“Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. . . On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel” (1 Ki 12:31,33).

So why did Jeroboam do what he did? For the same reason ministers flout the design of God today, a following:

“Jeroboam thought to himself, ‘The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam” (1 Ki 12:26-27).

If you’re not getting that, look at how Paul characterizes the “quarrels among you” that were threatening to divide the Corinthian church: “What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’;  another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’ (1 Cor 1:11-12).

But surely if God gave some to be apostles, etc., these are honorable ministries and worthy of praise. And they are. Elsewhere Luke said of Apollos: “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately.” When he reached Achaia, “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed” (Acts 18:24-27). Sounds gifted to me.

But if you’ve studied the letters to Corinth, you know being gifted is not without its problems.

First, if you recall the gifts of various ministries in Eph 4, they are given that we might be “built up . . . and we all reach unity in the faith.” But when you “take pride in one man over against another” (1 Cor 4:6), which is at the root of “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos,” it divides the church.

Have you ever wondered why there can be (at least in America) so many churches in any given locality, with many of them barely getting by and seemingly going nowhere? It’s because they belong together. But as it is, they’re often competing for followers.

Instead of a lot of pastors or ministers each basically functioning like a one-man-band and more or less getting by, God has given some to be pastors, teachers, etc. How much is some? In Paul’s day, it was enough.

Remember, there weren’t rival Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Willow Creek churches just off the town square. There may have been multiple congregations in Corinth, but they were all one church served by Paul, Apollos, and others, gifted ministers. But if you subvert the gifts, you undermine “God’s building,” Paul’s term for the church.

“So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas” (1 Cor 3:21).

In case you’re not sure where this is going, when seeds of discord are sown by “tak[ing] pride in one man over another,” we harvest the Protestant version of sainthood, denominationalism.

While Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians beseech the saints, many others venerate the leaders, past and present, of their respective denomination or fellowship of churches, and with an added twist: we venerate them to the exclusion of others. Because “I follow Paul” also means “I don’t follow Apollos.”

And that has left all of us less mature, less unified and inexorably “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14). It shouldn’t be so.

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