The pastor who became Nebuchadnezzar (Part 1)

“ . . if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I have made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” (Daniel 3:15)

“Then Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ They replied, ‘Certainly, Your Majesty.’

“He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’” (Daniel 3:24-25)

I have been a part of several charismatic churches and fellowships since the middle of 1980 (and other, non-charismatic churches as well). Or at least that’s what they were called back in the day.

You can’t really substitute Holiness or Pentecostal because those are actually denominations unto themselves. Spirit-filled always had about the same appeal as the substitution of pre-owned for what used to be called used cars. (Meh.)

There are other, pejorative names, but then Methodist and Puritan weren’t exactly terms of endearment in their day. But this is beside the point.

It wasn’t until I had spent several years in a nondenominational—that label is just as bad—charismatic church that I began to appreciate some of the more opaque references in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. “Everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26). Really? Not in any church I’ve attended.

And then some of the broader issues as well because, as he says immediately by way of commendation, “you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Cor 1:7).  He also commended them for being “enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge” (1:5). Gifted and rich in knowledge—who wouldn’t want that in a local church?

Unless you think Paul could be a flatterer—flip over to 1 Corinthians 3:1 to lay that to rest, where he calls them “mere infants in Christ”—this was a church with spiritual assets. And therein lies the root of some of the problems that he has to address.

Ephesians 4:11 says, “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” I call these the ministry gifts. They are given to some, not distributed as broadly as the spiritual gifts that Paul enumerates in 1 Cor 12 (and elsewhere).

It’s beyond what I can explain in one blog post, but if you’ve never witnessed a gifted (in the Eph 4 sense) minister, the discussion in 1 Corinthians about “none of you . . puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (4:6) will seem a little academic rather than practical and relevant.

Things are still shifting, but more people are beginning to recognize ministers according to gift than simply coming from a stable of theological thoroughbreds fed on orthodox doctrine alone. That doesn’t mean sound doctrine is now secondary or optional, by the way.

But Paul himself said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:4-5). I don’t know about you, but I’m casting my vote for the guy who wrote half the New Testament.

The issue that Paul dives right into, the reports of divisions along individual ministry fault lines (Paul, Apollos, Cephas) has to do in part with ministry gifts. Recognized gifts, or there would be no possibility of being “puffed up on behalf” of the respective ministers.

Who knows on what basis different individuals distinguished the ministries? Probably much more than how gifted someone appeared. It could have been something as fatuous as liking John over Paul or Ringo over George. No one was hawking DVDS “for a faith gift of any amount” and there weren’t enough dead saints yet to compete on the basis of which house church had the most relics in stock. (Sorry, sarcasm is one of my besetting sins.)

The point is, pride breeds competition, competition breeds comparisons and comparisons inevitably breed divisions, some of them incredibly bitter. And just in case you’re wondering how pride just shows up like mushrooms on a damp lawn, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1).

Whataboutism may not have an equivalent in koiné Greek, but Paul pointed this out: “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12). Back in 1 Corinthians 1 they were wise (“enriched . . in all your knowledge”). What happened?

When you look at Paul’s remedy for this, it’s not very complex when you break it down into its component parts. But don’t think for a moment that simplicity can’t be genius in plain clothes.

“Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit . .Then you will not take pride in one man over another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:6-7)

When I was in my late 20s, my grandfather gave me $5000 for inventory in a business I was starting. Added to my income from carpentry and remodeling, I had . . not much more than $5000 in my bank account. There was money I had earned and money that was a gift.

When it came to paying for the goods I ordered, the source (my wages, my grandfather’s gift) was immaterial. It was all good money, period. My monthly bank statement made no distinction.

But suppose I vainly and foolishly started to boast about the size of my bank account. I say foolishly because $5000 is not really that much in today’s business world. Saudi princes probably find that under the sofa cushions every Saturday morning.

Do I really have a right to boast about a gift when my HVAC tech next door neighbor may have earned the same amount by working long hours?

But in Paul’s world, no one earned their gift, himself included (“I have applied these things to myself and Apollos”). If there were any “balance” in their respective spiritual accounts, what did they have they did not receive? I can tell you right to the penny: zero.

Then the rhetorical question/knockout punch: And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” Another name for this is laying the axe to the root.

And it’s this root that led one of my pastors, about thirty years ago, to build a golden image of his ministry that ended up destroying him and the lives and marriages of several others and sinking the best church I ever belonged to like a stone. Stay tuned.

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