Monday, July 23, 2012

1st Clement 3 - A Tail as Old as Time

The Corinthian church was what we today might describe as a "successful" church, yet that "success", their strength and power, was to become their weakness.
Every kind of honour and happiness was bestowed upon you, and then was fulfilled that which is written, “My beloved did eat and drink, and was enlarged and became fat, and kicked.” Hence flowed emulation and envy, strife and sedition, persecution and disorder, war and captivity. (1 Clement 3)
 It is a cycle that has been repeated over and over though out the scriptures and the intervening centuries. When we are small and without much power, our trust and faith is in God. We look to Him for all we need and accept each new gift from Him with gladness and humility. However, as we grow in strength and power there is the human tenancy to trust in our strength and power rather than trusting in God; we trust in our gifts more than the giver of those gifts. When we turn our eyes and our trust from God, all kinds of evil find its way in. Consider what was said of Israel. God found her and bestowed His gifts and His beauty upon her.
"'Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,' declares the Lord God. 'Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I also clothed you with embroidered cloth and put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet; and I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,' declares the Lord God." (Ezekiel 16:8-14)
God bestowed His beauty on His people and they delighted in it... for a while, then they turned from God and trusted in themselves. "But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing." (Ezekiel 16:15) This same tragedy was played out among the Corinthian church. The once beautiful church now trusted in themselves and their beauty was being tarnished by envy, strife, sedition, and divisions.
So the worthless rose up against the honoured, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years. (1 Clement 3)
One term used in this translation of Clement's letter, a term we do not use much today, a term used to describe the actions of the seditious is, "emulation." Today we tend to think of emulation in positive terms, such as when we try to pattern our lives after godly, successful, and honorable men and women. However, here Clement uses it in a negative sense. It refers to the envious and competitive behavior of those who seek to overthrow others and to gain their position, power, and honor for themselves. Its more than just saying, "I want to be like them," its saying "I want to be them" or "I want to replace them." It is like the boastful pride of Satan when he said,
"I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." (Isaiah 14:13-14)
How many times have I seen this in church after church. The rise of the proud and arrogant; the envious challenge of one asserting that the authority, position, and power of another aught to be theirs; the charge that they could do it better; and the appeal for others to join to their cause. They are not content to simply challenge others in high places but they seek to divide Christ's body into factions and parties; to try and force the attainment of that which for which they seek. In times where I've seen this, the outcome has never been good.
For this reason righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God, and is become blind in His faith, neither walks in the ordinances of His appointment, nor acts a part becoming a Christian, but walks after his own wicked lusts, resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the world. (1 Clement 3)
Irenaeus, in Book Five of "Against Heresy", wrote
"For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism." (Against Heresy, Book 5 33:7)
A sentiment that I believe Clement would have agreed with. All such "reformation" must be viewed in light of the carnage it leaves behind.

David Robison

1st Clement 2 - An Outporing of Power

While Clement continued to congratulate the Corinthians on their individual piety and their corporate character, he offers this interesting comment.
"Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and ye had an insatiable desire for doing good, while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all." (1 Clement 2)
 The Corinthian church was notable in that they were able to experience both the blessings of Christian community and the excitement of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the same time. Paul himself commented on this in his first letter when he wrote.
"I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
 Paul notes that the Corinthian church lacked in no speech, knowledge, or any other spiritual gift. The supernatural power of God was flowing freely though their mist, and yet they continued to also experience a community life that was characterized by the piety and pure religion of the individuals who made up the church.

Today, such a combination seems rate to me, at least amongst the church I have had the privilege to visit or attend; either they have community, power, or neither, but rarely both. Many have offered various reasons for this but most of the reasons are in fact problems of our own making. So what is the key or secret to having a church that has both community and power? I think part of the answer is in what Paul also wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian church.
"Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy." (1 Corinthians 14:1)
 We are to earnestly desire, be zealous for, spiritual gifts while we pursue love. Some have asked, "if you could choose character or power which would you choose?" However, this is a false question. We can only chose character; to chose to pursue love. An outpouring of the Holy Spirit is some thing that God gives, not something we chose for ourselves. Speaking of spiritual gifts, Paul says, "But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills." (1 Corinthians 12:11)

So what are we to do? We are to eagerly desire God's outpouring; to believe for it, to ask for it, to make room for it, and to be careful not to quench it, and all the while we are to be pursuing love one with another and the sanctification of our souls which is from God. Desire one, pursue the other, and accept with gratitude what ever is given to us from the hand of God.

David Robison

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

1st Clement 2 - A Corporate Culture

Clement continues to congratulate the Corinthian church on the quality of their character that was both individual and corporate.
"Moreover, ye were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive." (1 Clement 2)
Notice that he does not say "you" but "you all" (or as we say in Virginia "all y'all.") The character that marked the Corinthian church were not just individual but together formed a corporate culture that pervaded the church. This was not a culture that was selected and molded from "the top down" but was the result of individual lives having been changed and purified by the living word of God. The culture of a church is determined by the character of its individual members. To change a church's culture you must first change the character of its people.

Besides their humility, two other characteristics were common among the Corinthian church
"Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, ye were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes." (1 Clement 2)
The Corinthians shared a sense of contentment that allowed them to live for God and others rather than spending their lives in pursuit of their own selfish interests, wants, and desires. When we become discontented with God and with His allotment for our lives then our devotion and progress towards God gets interrupted as we begin to pursue other things. This often happens when our desire for material things supplants our desire for God. Our lives become a focused pursuit of material wealth while God becomes a hidden afterthought. However, we can also replace a pursuit of God with the pursuit of spiritual things. For example, our pursuit of spiritual power or experiences can become a greater driving force in our lives than our pursuit of God. Consider Simon who desired the same power that the apostles had to impart the Holy Spirit. He offered them money asking, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:19) Desiring the power of the Spirit is not bad, but when we desire the power of God more than the God of the power we have a problem. Simon's discontentment with God lead him down a path of destruction regarding his faith. So much so that, during a chance meeting with Polycarp in Rome, he asked Polycarp if he knew him and Polycarp responded, "I know you, you are the firstborn of Satan."

There was another characteristic that marked the culture of the Corinthian church, that was forgiveness and mercy.
"Full of holy designs, ye did, with true earnestness of mind and a godly confidence, stretch forth your hands to God Almighty, beseeching Him to be merciful unto you, if ye had been guilty of any involuntary transgression. Day and night ye were anxious for the whole brotherhood, that the number of God’s elect might be saved with mercy and a good conscience. Ye were sincere and uncorrupted, and forgetful of injuries between one another." (1 Clement 2)
 They were constantly mindful of their lives and quick to repent when they sinned or practiced that which did not please their God. Yet this concern was not solely for their own lives but also the the lives of their brethren and for the world around then; for those who had yet come to know the saving grace of God. In their concern for others they were not quick to find fault but rather quick to ask for mercy. I remember a time when, after observing the behavior of others, I marveled at their sin and their lifestyle that was inconsistent with the Gospel. While I pondered this God said, "If you loved them then you would pray form them." The Corinthian church did not simply identify the sins in others, but they besought God for mercy over those sins as if they were their own sins; it was not judgement they sought but rather mercy and forgiveness. This is a true expression of what Jesus meant when He said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39) They quickly repented of their sins, quickly forgave the sins of others, and were quick to ask for the mercy of God on the sins of their neighbors.

In summation, Clement has this estimation of the character and culture of the church at Corinth,
"Ye never grudged any act of kindness, being 'ready to every good work.' Adorned by a thoroughly virtuous and religious life, ye did all things in the fear of God. The commandments and ordinances of the Lord were written upon the tablets of your hearts." (1 Clement 2)
A true judge of a church is an examination of its culture and the character of its people. Perhaps we need a new yardstick to measure our own church, perhaps we need to reevaluate our own culture and character, perhaps we need a return to earlier values; values that pertain to a "thoroughly virtuous and religious life."

David Robison

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

1st Clement 1 - Living in Community

My wife and I have never been "church hoppers," we generally tend to find a church and settle down for the long haul. Occasionally, due to extreme circumstances, like moving, we have been forced to find a new church, but how does one go about finding a new church home where they can belong? In our western culture it typically involves visiting various church services to evaluate their worship, preaching, and programs for youth and kids. Our focus tends to be on how well and/or how Biblicaly they "service" those who attend their meetings. This is a good way to test and evaluate their preaching, worship, and other ministries but it provides us little in the way of getting to know the preacher, the worshipers, the ministers, and even those who are sitting next to us. We evaluate well what they do but come away knowing little of who they are.

When Clement wrote to the Corinthians, telling them how others have testified of them, he comments,
For who ever dwelt even for a short time among you, and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? (1 Clement 1)
Notice that he never asked, "who ever attended your services..." but "who ever dwelt among you." We are often so focused on the work and outward expression of the church that we tend to identify it "as" the church when, in fact, the church is none of those things. The church is not a meeting, a program, or a service rather the church is people. Those who visited the Corinthian church wrote not of the things they did but the people they were. A church cannot be known by examining their services but only by getting to know and love its people. Such a knowledge cannot be obtained in a couple of Sundays spent sitting in a service; it takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes interaction and relationship with people.

So how did they find the Corinthian church?
Who did not admire the sobriety and moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? And who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? For ye did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honour to the presbyters among you. Ye enjoined young men to be of a sober and serious mind; ye instructed your wives to do all things with a blameless, becoming, and pure conscience, loving their husbands as in duty bound; and ye taught them that, living in the rule of obedience, they should manage their household affairs becomingly, and be in every respect marked by discretion. (1 Clement 1)
In general, they praised the Corinthian's godliness in behavior, their hospitality towards others, and their sure foundation in the faith; a foundation not built upon hear-say but upon knowledge. Strikingly absent from this list is anything relating to their corporate "services"; no mention of their praise and worship team, no mention of their powerful preaching, and no mention of their dynamic youth ministry. Those who lived among the Corinthian church found people who loved God, loved others, and had a secure and well grounded knowledge of God and His message. It was these qualities that set their church apart from others and gave them a "venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved."

Perhaps we need to rethink our own churches; how do we see ourselves, on what aspects do we place our esteem, and in which ways do we believe that we too have a "venerable and illustrious name?" Are they the same things that separated the Corinthian church among the others? Is it because of the quality of our people and our fellowship and relationships with God and one another? Or is is merely our programs, services, and works that, while they may be great and worthy, reflect nothing of the people who make up the church. Maybe its time to re-imagine the church; what it was meant to be, what it should be, and what it could be. Maybe its time to reflect back on our early christian roots for inspiration and for a fresh new perspective on the church that we are suppose to be

David Robison