In our last couple of posts we’ve been looking at Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth, and to the church in general, about how Christians ought to serve each other.
In the context of picturing the church as a construction project, Paul wrote:
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 3:10b–15)
Last time we noted that the “building work” each Christian has done for the church will be tested by fire, and that the first set of building materials mentioned here (gold, silver and precious stones) would be able to survive fire while the second set (wood, hay and straw) would not.
What does this mean?
First, Paul isn’t actually talking about a physical building. When people today think of a church, they might tend to think of the physical place in which Christians meet to share worship, which of course needs to be built and maintained and to stand up to the elements.
Here, however, that’s simply an illustration. Paul is referring to we Christians ourselves, to you and me and everyone else in the community of believers we are part of.
What, then, does it mean to speak of “building” a community of people?
Paul wrote these words in the context of the importance of church unity. The church at Corinth was allowing itself to be divided into factions and personality cults based on who their favourite Christian leader was. This was having a destabilising effect on the church and making it weaker, less able to endure in times of trial and hostility from the surrounding culture.
One example, therefore, would be anything that helps the church to stand united as a family. This could mean healing longstanding divisions, promoting forgiveness of past wrongs, or finding ways of agreeing to disagree on points of teaching which are not essential for salvation.
It could mean reminding each other that all Christians are on an equal footing and that there is no place for putting our favourite leaders or teachers on pedestals. It could mean reminding each other that there should not be social cliques or close-knit biological family groups who rarely interact with anyone outside their own small circle.
More broadly, we can take “building” the church to refer to anything and everything that you and I do to help our fellow Christians in their faith. It could mean teaching or encouragement or counselling or practical support with daily needs or church discipline or the instruction of children. It could mean ensuring that nobody is excluded, that the lonely and the socially awkward and those who struggle with illness or disability are all included and given ways in which they can serve.
It is inevitable for all churches and all individual Christians that times of trial will come, what Paul describes as “fire” in these verses here. That could mean persecution from those in power over us or pressure to conform to the values of the surrounding culture. It could mean experiencing doubt or questions that we cannot find answers to. It could mean a time of great emotional stress caused by someone else in church. It could mean a loss of health or a family member or a job.
We will all at different times experience hardships that shake the foundations of our lives or our beliefs. It could happen to you as an individual or your church as a whole.
When those times come, how strong will the construction of church be? Again, not the physical building, but the community of believers ourselves.
Will we split along political or family lines when we disagree strongly over a particular issue or personality clash or societal crisis that might arise?
Will we possess the emotional and/or intellectual resources to weather the storms of doubt and questions?
Will we stand together if the state becomes hostile to our faith and tries to silence us?
Will we be able to maintain our faith when tragedy or disaster strikes our personal lives?
Will our children be able to find answers from us when they are challenged by friends at school or by sceptical sources they find on the Internet?
The answer to all of those questions is, at least in part, that it will depend on the quality of the construction work we are putting into our church now.
Are we truly healing divisions and addressing people’s concerns or are we simply papering over the cracks?
Are we giving sufficient answers to those who are struggling with doubt or are we simply giving them platitudes?
Are we instructing each other in resilience and faith that will survive tragedy and disaster or are we simply teaching a feel-good-about-yourself message?
Are we teaching our children to know God and trust him or are we simply giving them a set of stories and assertions?
Those are only a handful of examples. I am sure you can think of more. To reiterate the crucial point, however, the extent to which our church will stand up to future testing of fire will depend on the quality of the construction work that you and I are putting into our church on a daily basis right now.
Our next post will ask us to consider our motivations and our priorities when we do that.