Posted by: Moses | April 29, 2010

Christian Unity and Liberty: Part 2 of 4

Unity Despite Differences in Nuances of Theology

1 Cor 1:10-4:21 reveals a sustained argument for believers to cling to their commonality in the gospel rather than fracturing into nuanced factions. Paul introduces his argument in 1:10-13, appealing to the Corinthians that they all “agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind” (1 Cor 1:10). Different factions of the Corinthian church were claiming various leaders of the early church over and against other early leaders. In 1:18-31, Paul teaches that no one should believe in and of themselves; there are hindrances to both Jews and Greeks in their natural states, but the “foolishness of God is wiser than men” and can work the miraculous gift of regeneration in the souls of both Jews and Greeks (1 Cor 1:25). Thus in this first section of his argument Paul appeals for unity on the basis that all depend on God, that in Gordon Fee’s words, “those who believe must trust God alone and completely.” In 1 Cor 3:10-23 Paul contends that all the Corinthian believers share a foundation in Jesus Christ that Paul himself delivered to them. They will be individually held accountable for what works they build on that foundation of the gospel (1 Cor 3:13-15). However, Paul next delivers one of his sternest warnings against divisiveness: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him . . . . you [plural] are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17 ). According to Paul, God takes special interest in preserving the unity of His people.

Having established the foolishness of divisiveness and the importance of unity and humility, Paul begins to offer a solution. First, he describes himself as a servant but also as a steward “of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1). As a “steward” A. T. Robertson describes the Apostolic position as “a slave . . . under his lord . . . but a master (Luke 16:1) over the other slaves in the house . . . . Jesus had expressly explained that . . . the disciples (Matt. 13:11) . . . [were] expected to teach them.” Thus Paul vindicates himself as humble under God’s Word but also bound to deliver His message to them. He is just a servant, but carrying a powerful message. Though the truth is not indifferent, neither are humans omniscient (1 Cor 4:3-5). He disregards both their opinions and his own, cautioning the Corinthians not to judge things “before the time, before the Lord comes” (1 Cor 4:5). Paul argues from this second-coming perspective that the Corinthians do not have to judge everything perfectly now. Herman Ridderbos presents 1 Cor 4:1-4 as eschatological reasoning seeing “the judgment of the Lord as the only authority competent to justify Paul…before men.” The Corinthians were to judge things within their sphere of responsibility, but to admit when something was outside the scope of God’s revelation to humanity (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13).

Scholars disagree over what “beyond what is written” means in this context. However, regardless of the difficulty in discerning what writings he specifically intended, Paul appeals to a written standard of sorts. In agreement with David Garland and many other conservative scholars, I believe that Paul referred specifically to the Scriptures in Paul’s preceding argument. However, the same line of reasoning could extend theologically to any Scriptures extant to the Corinthians from the OT or the Apostles’ writings (Chrisostom, Jamieson et al.). Due to the immediate context establishing himself as a steward of revelation, Paul seems to have at least had his own argumentation in mind to some extent (1 Cor 4:1).

As believers we must cling fast to the clear truths of the Word and never sacrifice those truths on the altar of answering every theological question. Jamieson puts it this way; “Revere the silence of Holy Writ, as much as its declarations: so you will less dogmatize on what is not expressly revealed.” Moses conveys the same thought: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut 29:29). Reverence for and dependence on the Word is not only demonstrated by founding doctrine and practice upon the Word but by refusing to dogmatize about what the Word does not emphasize. Furthermore, when facing other believers who are opposed in such peripheral matters, believers should respond in humility rather than pride and self-assurance. In Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, he declares that they should have paid attention to the nuances of the law, but also not to “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23). Similarly, scholars and amateurs both should pay attention to the nuances of Scripture, but not miss the forest of unity and love for the trees of nuance. Part of truth is its importance in relationship to other truths. This principle would still stand for any modern doctrinal factions and denominations today that go beyond the clear teaching of the Word.

Even in dealing with heresy, Paul exhorts Timothy to rebuke Hymenaeus and Philetus “with gentleness” because “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). If Paul extends such charity even to the enemies of the faith, how much more should we be careful that the knowledge we gain should be used humbly to build up the church, never to attack or divide (1 Cor 12-14, Eph 4).

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