June 21, 2015

A Message for a Church in Turmoil

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In the 1890’s, in a small Baptist church in Mayfield County, Kentucky, two deacons were constantly arguing with each other. They just simply could not get along. Their bickering came to a head one Sunday, when one of them installed a small wooden peg in the wall at the back of the church, so that the pastor could hang up his hat.

When the other deacon discovered what his rival had done, he was furious. “How dare you put a peg in the church wall, without first consulting me,” he fumed. As word got out about this latest disagreement, people began taking sides. Some thought installing the peg was a tribute to the pastor; others thought that it desecrated the sanctuary.

Eventually the feud split the congregation and many people left to start their own church. To this day, the residents of Mayfield County still refer to the two churches as Peg Baptist and Anti-Peg Baptist.

If you consult a list of North American Christian Churches, you will discover that there are over 50 different varieties of Baptist churches. My favourite is the Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptist. This denomination is part of a larger sub-group referred to as the ‘anti-mission’ Baptists. This splintering of the Baptist church is symbolic of what has happened to the Christian faith down through the ages, as it has endured countless disputes, - (often hair-splitting over minor issues of theology) which has resulted in the fracturing of the Christian Church.

But wouldn’t you think, that in the first century A.D., with all the excitement caused by Jesus resurrection, and the deep faith of those who responded to their risen Lord, that life in the early church would be enthusiastic and harmonious? After all, there was so much energy among Christians at that time, that congregations were springing up in cities and towns all over the Roman Empire. So you’d expect these congregations to be models of unity and commitment, free from the petty squabbles that have cause problems in more recent years. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; at least not in the case of the Corinthian congregation.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give us clear evidence that some serious problems had erupted within that congregation soon after it was established. And both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were meant to address these issues, and to strengthen the faith and commitment of the people.
But we have to wonder, why was there so much discord in that congregation? To fully understand what was going on, we need first to look at the city of Corinth itself.

Corinth, located about 40 miles west of Athens, was situated on a narrow neck of land stretched between two bodies of water. This was a strategic location which made it a center of trade, which in turn made many of the citizens of city very wealthy. Somewhat like the city of Markham today, Corinth had a very racially mixed population which resulted in a culture that was less restrictive, than one where all the people come from the same tradition. In fact, to put it bluntly, this was a city filled with citizens who were unapologetically absorbed by material possessions and the pursuit of pleasure. In other words, it was a hedonistic society.

On a hill overlooking the city was a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodites. This temple was filled with both male and female prostitutes who provided sexual intercourse as part of the religious observance of the worshippers. As a direct result of the presence of this temple, sexual permissiveness permeated throughout the whole society.

Corinth wasn’t the kind of city where you would expect to find a Christian congregation, yet that’s exactly where Paul planted this church. He was drawn to Corinth because there was a Jewish synagogue already established there. It made sense to go first to this synagogue, because Jesus had been a Jew, and most of the first converts were Jewish. And so, as Paul made his way through the Roman Empire, spreading the news of Christ’s resurrection, he always went first, to the synagogues throughout major centers of the Empire.

But in Corinth, as soon as Christ’s teachings collided with the rules and regulations of traditional Jewish faith, Paul was met with stiff opposition from the leadership of the synagogue. So he turned his attention to the Gentile population of the city, where he received a much warmer response. Paul spent two years building this congregation, before moving on to another community.

His first letter written several years after he left Corinth, was motivated by two concerns:
It was, first of all, prompted by his great love for the Corinthian people. Paul felt a special bond with them.

But his letter was also in response to some very disturbing reports he’d received that told of a moral cancer that was threatening to destroy the integrity of the congregation and corrupt the behaviour of the new converts.

According to these reports, some of the new members of the congregation were refusing to break away from their former pagan lifestyles. From a Christian perspective, their behaviour was immoral. The response of the leaders of the congregation was divided; some were willing to tolerate this immoral behaviour; others condemned it. Paul knew he simply couldn’t allow this immorality to continue, because it would destroy the integrity of the whole congregation. And so out of his love, he called all the members of the congregation to strive for a higher standard of morality; one that would set them apart from the rest of the Corinthian society, and show the world what Christ expected of His followers.

Just how forcefully he addressed these issues, is evident in the sixth chapter of First Corinthians where Paul wrote:
“Don’t you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9-10)

It’s important for us to understand that Paul wasn’t judging the Gentile society outside the church, but simply calling Christians to a higher standard of moral behaviour.. Listen to how he expressed it:
“ I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Don’t even eat with such people.”

Then, referring the rest of the city’s population, he said:
“ What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (I Cor. 5:9-12)

As you can imagine, Paul’s letter stirred up a great deal of discussion and controversy amongst the members of the congregation. Some welcomed his call for a higher moral code, and made every effort to live up to the standards he proposed. But others felt he was treating them like little children and responded with contempt, accusing him of being far too heavy handed. A few even went so far as to challenge his right to speak on behalf of the Christian faith.

Standing up for what you know is right and what God expects of you, can sometimes be very difficult. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you felt very uncomfortable about things you were being asked to do. This might have occurred in a social situation with friends, or in your work environment. But in either case, if you voiced your concern about the ethics of what was being done, you very likely encountered stiff opposition from at least some of your friends or fellow workers.

They may have accused you of being ‘old fashioned’ or out of step with the times.

There has been a lot talk in the media recently about ‘whistle-blowers’; people who speak out against things they know are wrong, and risk losing their jobs as a result. It takes courage to be a whistle-blower. It is so much easier, isn’t it, to simply backed off, and say no more; because it’s hard to stand up for what you know is right in the face of strong opposition.

But when the apostle Paul encountered opposition to the moral stand he’d taken in his first letter to the Corinthians, he refused to back down because he knew he was being faithful to Christ’s message. His second letter to the congregation bears this out.

To those who questioned his authority to act as the moral conscience for the people, he responded by declaring that he’d been personally commissioned by Christ to provide direction to the Church.
To those who thought he was exacting too high a standard, he merely repeated his position, saying to them, in the words of our text: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Then to justify his call for Christians to attain a higher standard of moral behaviour, he said: “I wrote you to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything.” (II Cor. 2:9)

Paul’s letters were directed to a first century audience, so you might wonder, what’s their relevance for us here today?

In many ways, the world in which we live is very much like ancient Corinth. Ours is a prosperous community; the society around us is extremely hedonistic. The accumulation of material possessions is highly valued. People are judged by the house they live in, the car they drive, and the clothes they wear.

The majority of our population is fixated upon pleasure seeking; and self gratification. The importance of sexual attractiveness is constantly being played out on television, in magazines and in our shopping malls.

And although Markham doesn’t have a temple to Aphrodites on a hill overlooking our city, we do have the internet which offers every conceivable sexual pursuit one can imagine, right within the confines of our own homes. Undeniable the internet is changing our society’s values, and as a result Christian morality, as taught by the Apostle Paul and others in the New Testament, is under attack.

Furthermore, just like ancient Corinth, ours is a multi-cultural society which confronts us with a host of different religions and belief systems. Whereas Christianity was once the majority religion in Canada, we can no longer claim that today. And in an attempt to be fair to other people’s believe systems, Christians have allowed our faith to be taken off the curriculum of our schools; allowed Sunday to become just like every other work day; and in some communities, even told municipal councils that they can no longer recite the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of their meetings. We’ve even allowed for the definition of ‘family’ to be changed, abandoning the biblical definition in favour of a more inclusive one.

Many of these changes are appropriate for a secular society; but they do put more pressure upon those who wish to uphold the standards of Christianity.

In the past, the voice of the church was a catalyst for societal change, but in recent years we’ve allowed secular society to change us, with the result that many denominations are in decline. Church attendance is down, especially among young people; congregations are closing their doors; and the influence of the Church is dwindling. Do you know, that since I was ordained in 1963, the United Church has lost members every single year; during a time when the population of Canada has more than doubled.

Today is Fathers’ Day; a good time to consider how changing social values are affecting men; particularly young men. Those who study these things say that men appear to be very confused about their role in society. They’re confused about their goals:- what education should they acquire; what careers should they pursue. Did you know that for every 100 men in Canadian universities today, there are now 134 women?

In past generations, the goals for young men were very clear: get a good education, choose a career that offers a good future; and start a family. Most of us who are seniors did those things in our 20’s. But that’s not what’s happening today. According to Statistics Canada, 42% of young adults between aged 20 to 29, (the majority males) are still living at home. Many young men are choosing not to pursue higher education; they’re postponing marriage until well into their 30’s; with many choosing not to get married at all.

When the Apostle Paul saw the values of a pagan society undermining the vitality of the church, his response was to call Christians to a higher moral code; one that would distinguish them from the rest of society. And when those Christians responded to his appeal, congregations prospered and Christianity to spread throughout the world.

So perhaps it’s time for the Christian church throughout North America to call all Christians to a return to the core values of our faith.

Now, since this is Fathers’ Day, I’d like to leave you with a few quotes about fatherhood which might offer some inspiration to the men of our congregation.

Billy Graham once said: “A Good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, and unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society.”

Anne Frank, the young German Jew who became a victim of the Holocaust during the second world war, wrote: “It is much easier to become a father than to be one.”

And Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of Notre Dame University, said: “The most important thing a father can do for his children, is to love their mother.”

The apostle Paul, having observed the effects of secularization on the Corinthian congregation, responded with two letters designed to help Christians resist the pressures of secular society; saying as he did so: “at an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Let us pray that Paul’s message may continue to help us today.