‘It’s a glorious mess!’ That’s what one of my co-workers said a few weeks ago. I can’t remember what was going wrong. It may have been that a machine broke down. It could have been that co-workers on another shift neglected to do something important. It may have been a flick in the hydro and it took an hour to reboot things. You’ve likely had those days at work when nothing seems to be going right. The point is, it was the phrase that struck me: ‘a glorious mess.’
I think that really describes the church at Corinth. I’ve written about their church before. They were royally jacked up! They had their pastor faves (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was division in the ranks (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). There was a guy in sexual sin up to his eyeballs (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). They were suing each others pants off in court (1 Corinthians 6:1). They were pigging out and getting hammered at the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:21). There were some serious misunderstandings around a particular spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 14). It was one royally messed up place.
But from the get go, Paul offers thanks to God for them:
 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,  that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,  who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:4-9 ESV)
They had received God’s amazing grace in salvation and sanctification. He had saved them and was changing them. The testimony of Christ was alive and well among them. They were not lacking in the gifts department. They would be carried and held to the end of their lives, by God. He would sustain them spiritually.
Now after much of the church dirt was exposed, Paul did challenge them to examine their salvation to see if it was the real deal (2 Corinthians 13:8) but the reality was that there were many among the group that were genuine believers but were doing stupid and selfish and sinful things.
I heard a phrase a while ago that I really liked: ‘repentant believers’. That’s what genuine believers are supposed to be. If you dig into Mark 1:15 you will find that the implications of the original is that faith and repentance is at the start of your journey with Christ but repentance and belief are also ongoing evidence of genuine faith. And when we repent as believers the implication is that we can do some pretty stupid and selfish and sinful things. Christians are not perfect but they are in the process of becoming more like Christ…and that’s a lifelong process.
Sometimes people are looking for the perfect church and they attend for a while and may even become members…but then something happens. As they get to know some of the people in the body, they start to see some blind spots. They see some behaviour in the body that makes it on their naughty nine or terrible ten list….and they get rattled. How could a believer do such a thing? And at this point the new people become uneasy. They tend to see the sin better in others than seeing the sin in the mirror. They may consider pulling the plug and looking for another church home.
Should we be surprised when believers sin? The Bible does paint believers with warts and all. Look no further than the church at Corinth.
When we come to terms with our sin, we are to fess up. That is a good and glorious thing when believers confess their sin…to God and each other. But because believers are tripping and slipping and sliding into sinful areas, does that mean we’re to run? We’re to pray for them and care for them and lend a hand to them and to confront them and console them… and they should do the same thing to us.
I see being a part of a local church body as something like a marriage. We’re to be lifers. There are times when I believe there are biblical grounds for a person to leave a church (Tim Challies just re-posted on this…I have a link at the bottom) but I also believe that when you sign on the dotted line to be a member of a local body it’s like you’re signing like you did on your wedding day (if you happened to be married).
The deal is that marriages are not to make us happy, they are to make us holy. After the honeymoon season in a marriage, we start to see the blemishes of the one we love. So, do we tell them to change or hit the bricks? No. We challenge them to change by the grace of God and we are receptive to them challenging us to change by that same grace. The reality is that when we point out the blind spot in someone else chances are we have at least three fingers pointing back at us. Reality is that most of us are more gracious with ourselves than we are with others…and I admit I’m at the front of the line.
Sanctification takes time…a lifetime. And the longer you hunker down with a body of believers…change takes place…over time. I am not the same person I was when I walked the aisle almost 25 years ago and neither is Bonita. Iron has sharpened iron. The same thing is true in the local body. Iron sharpening iron year after year after year after year. When people bounce from church to church to church their growth is stunted but to cry and pray and correct and encourage and help the same body of believers over the long haul can bring great spiritual growth.
Could it be that God has placed frustrating people in your local fellowship of believers for your sanctification? If you run away from them, you’re really running away from the opportunity to grow. That, my friends, is one to think about…amen.