In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes:
(Vs. 3-4) “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? …For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (Vs. 10-13) “…I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.”
We have a good friend who lives here in St. Petersburg, who was raised during the Soviet Union, the daughter of an underground baptist minister. Her father suffered great persecution for his work as a baptist minister, and today our friend has become very involved in ministry herself. Interestingly, in recent years – in her desire to follow and obey the Holy Spirit – our friend converted from the Baptist theology to Russian Orthodoxy. Her decision has been considered fairly controversial by many in her life.
One Christmas Eve several years ago while we were in the states, we decided to go to the Christmas Eve communion service at the Methodist Church in our town, and invited our friends who were with us to go along. However, when the time came for communion to be served, one of our friends excused herself, as she was a catholic, and did not feel it appropriate to take the communion at the Methodist Church. I told Charlie later that I had known that I was not allowed to take communion at her church, but that it bothered me very much that someone who was a believer would choose not to accept communion when it was offered to them. “There are churches in the world who use water and cookies to serve communion. Why was what we offered not good enough?” I asked.
During one of our first trips over to St. Petersburg several years ago, the team we were with decided to go to a protestant church that had been started by an American missionary, and which involved things like the “contemporary” praise and worship we see in the states, and which allowed casual dress (i.e. jeans). Some of the Russian interpreters who were with us asked to leave the service early as they had been raised Russian Orthodox, and were uncomfortable with the casual dress and the loud music. We Americans felt a bit offended at their leaving, and blamed the oppressive, false teachings of the Russian Orthodox church for their behavior.
In recent months, many, many stories and memories such as these have been turning and rolling around in my mind, almost all of them specifically regarding criteria I’ve used over the years to make judgments about others – judgments specifically about the apparent spiritual ”status” of the people in my life:
For example, about people I see participating in the church I might ask:
Which denomination does this person follow? (I.e Baptist or Catholic?, Orthodox or Protestant?)
Is this person an “active” church member?
Does he or she prefer contemporary or traditional worship?
On what committees does this person participate?
Does this person sit near the front of the church or near the back?
Or maybe a more social discussion to help with my judgments:
Is this person a democrat or republican?
Is this person wealthy or poor?
Is this person married or divorced?
Does he or she live in a nice house or are they on the streets?
Or even more obvious perhaps – the question of particular mistakes or bad decisions that people sometimes make:
What kind of television shows does this person like to watch?
Has he or she ever had a drink?
Has he or she ever smoked?
Did he or she ever go to clubs and listen to music?
Did he or she ever have premarital sex?
Has she ever had an abortion?
I mean, these are the kinds of things I and others around me in the church and in ministry talk about. These things are important things, right? These things are the reason so many of us feel called to the church in the first place.
But as I’ve recounted these memories recently, this terrible, nagging question has really been echoing – almost like the sound of the birds singing in the morning that you hear in your dreams and know its time to wake up, but you keep your eyes closed and almost become aggravated at how cheerful those birds are when all you really want to do is go back to sleep – and I can’t help but to ask myself:
What does ANY of this have to do with being a follower – a disciple – a lover – of Jesus Christ?
When we first came to Russia almost 10 years ago and saw the, then, 3rd world conditions in which many Russians were living, we were so quick to want to find something – someone – to blame. And then there was the sense of spiritual darkness – hopelessness – that seemed so prevalent here. We thought, certainly these things must have been someone’s fault, and it was our job as workers in the Kingdom to find out whose was to blame.
So we came into Russia as foreigners, and almost immediately, we began deciding who was at fault for the things here that we’d decided were so wrong. Many things made the list for criticism, but the primary targets were the government, and the Russian Orthodox church.
Now first, it never occurred to us at the time that many of the things we’d decided were so wrong with Russian culture, were, in fact, just different from what we knew in the states. This same cultural insensitivity was heavily relied upon as well, in our judgment of the Russian Orthodox church, as so many of the practices of that church are very different than what many of us had always known growing up in the states.
So we came in, almost feeling like saviors of some sort from the West, with our sermons about how Jesus can not be found in the Russian Orthodox church, but can only be found by using the formats, and following the traditions, and singing the songs used by the protestant church from the West.
Now this approach created issues in several ways. One example – the huge division that we created between the Western and Russian churches flowed into the relationships of the Russians who did start coming to the Western churches. We were teaching that in order to come into a relationship with Christ, the Russian people needed to make a decision AGAINST Russian Orthodoxy. As most Russians were raised in the Russian Orthodox church, a decision against Russian Orthodoxy was considered to be a decision against their heritage, their family.
Further, our very public and loud criticism of the Russian Orthodox church in the earlier years also drew to us a great deal of attention, and a great deal of resistance, from those with the most power in the Russian Orthodox church. We came in and made ourselves enemies of the most powerful church in the country.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand from believers in the Russian Orthodox church that serious issues do exist there in several areas, including understanding about who Jesus is and who we are in Him.
But I have to ask myself again – what do the issues of the Russian Orthodox church have to do with whether a member of that church is or can be a follower and a lover of Jesus Christ?
We in Russia are not the only ones guilty of this terrible error. I can tell you, for example, if and where almost all of my friends growing up went to church. There are only 1 or 2, however, about which I can truly say whether they knew and loved the Lord Jesus Christ. (In our culture at home, it is perfectly appropriate to ask, “Where do you go to church?” But you don’t just ask someone, “Do you know Jesus Christ and His love for you?” This is considered a private matter, even among fellow church members.)
Further, I can testify that some of the Lord’s biggest lessons in my life have come not out of the church as we often define it, but from experiences I’ve had with some of my more “worldly” friends. When Jesus does come up in my conversations with those friends, I often see humility and longing and love in those brothers and sisters that brings conviction to my own judgmental, condescending heart.
And so as I continue to ponder the various issues with which I’ve so greatly concerned myself, on which I’ve spent so much time and energy in my preaching and teaching, and I began to see how little each really has to do with whether and how we know and love the Lord Jesus, another question naturally follows:
How much time have I spent judging and critiquing and forming these extraneous details of the lives of my brothers and sisters – the foundations of gold and silver Paul mentions above in 1 Corinthians 3 – that I’ve completely missed seeing and teaching the Lord Jesus Christ Himself?
And then the next question that follows – What do I do about it?
I mean, these other issues that I’ve discussed – which church an individual attends, whether that person is in healthy relationships, whether they are making good decisions, whether they are being set free from sin – are all very important issues in the life of a believer.
But are we as disciples in ministry, wreaking of our own sin and failure and brokenness, taking too much responsibility in directing others in these issues over which only God really has any responsibility? Are we truly praying for and trusting the Lord to direct our brothers and sisters according to His will, or do we presume to know how others in the kingdom should look and live?
What foundations are we building, besides the foundation of Jesus Christ?
In 1 Cor. 3, Paul talks about the foundations that we build in ministry being put to the test of fire. Vs. 14-15 say, “If what he has built survives (the fire – mc), he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
I wonder if it is not time to consider whether or not those of us called into ministry might be missing the boat – building gorgeous foundations in the church that look very pretty and shiny, but which will only burn up when the fire comes.
I wonder if it not a time for us as leaders in the church to repent for our sins of judgment, and lack of trust in the Lord, and pride, and vanity, and disrespect, which we have shown not only to our brothers and sisters who may look or behave differently than we – but more to the point – which we have shown to our God, who created and loves His children, and to our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives in them.
Praise and thanks be to our God, Who’s grace and justice know no end. May He remove the planks of judgment from our eyes, so that we may be able to see more clearly His image, His love, His kingdom in His children, in Christ Jesus –
Love and truth to you in the Lord Jesus –