In our last post we saw that both Jesus and Paul describe the church in ways which make it clear that Christian faith is not about an exclusive relationship between you and God. Christian faith is about the church as a collective – more than that, as a family – having fellowship with God through Jesus.
As such, Christians do not have the option of hiding away and preserving our own holiness while refusing to have anything to do with the rest of the church. We have a responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that every single man or woman in our church will receive eternal life.
That can seem like a daunting prospect. What can you or I possibly do to make that kind of a difference in someone’s life? How can you or I possibly compare to other Christians that we know or know of?
Paul described how the first Christians were entrusted by God with a variety of different abilities:
Now there are different gifts, but the same spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. (1 Corinthians 12:4–11)
Here Paul is writing in the context of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit which were given to the church in its earliest days. I do not know of anyone who possesses these same gifts today, but I think the same principle can apply to work done within the church without miraculous abilities.
We are all given different abilities and entrusted with different responsibilities. Some people are naturally good at leadership or public speaking. Some people are naturally good at listening and empathising. Some people are naturally good at book-learning and discerning between truth and error. Those are only the first three examples that came to my mind. There are countless others, all of which serve at least one vital function of the church.
Of course, some people are born with natural talents that stand out a mile and some people are not. Many Christians may struggle to find any role or function within the church that they feel “gifted” for.
As we saw last time, if the church is a body then we are not all eyes and we are not all feet. If all of these functions are necessary for the church body to survive and grow and mature, then none of them is any more or less important than the rest.
As humans we have a tendency to value certain members or functions within the church more than others. Typically the Christian who gets up and delivers Bible talks in front of the church will be elevated more highly than the Christian who quietly listens to the concerns of others or visits the elderly or cleans up the mess left by the children.
There are two important things to keep in mind. First, the Christian who fulfils a role that is typically elevated more highly should not think him- or herself above helping out with the “lesser” responsibilites.
Second, the Christian whose role is normally to fulfil the “lesser” responsibilities should neither consider him- or herself less of a Christian nor see the “greater” responsibilities as something to covet or aspire to.
In the early chapters of his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul warned the Christians there about the dangers of allowing factions and personality cults to exist within the church.
It seems that their church was divided into groups depending on which Christian leader they saw as the best. Some said Paul, some said Peter, some said Paul’s friend Apollos.
Paul’s response to this was as follows:
What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:5–15)
Paul wanted them to understand that it doesn’t matter who gets which role within the church nor who is best at which particular task. All that matters is that the church can grow or, using the image of a building, can be constructed using the best materials that Christians can contribute.
It’s possible to “build” the church using the best materials we have, such as precious metals or stones.
It’s also possible to “build” the church using ordinary everyday materials such as wood, hay and straw.
What’s the difference between these types of material? I think there are two.
First, Paul says that fire will test the “building” work that has been done. Precious metals and precious stones will survive fire. Wood and straw won’t.
Second, precious metals and stones are considerably more valuable than wood and straw, and therefore considerably more difficult for a person to be willing to contribute.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Our next thoughts will explore these two differences in more detail.