Wright: the church was messed up from the beginning

April 18, 2015


As N.T. Wright reflects on the divisiveness within the early church in his For Everyone commentary on 1 Corinthians, I find these words oddly comforting:

It’s a sobering thought that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a  single family those who had obeyed its summons.

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 8.

3 Responses to “Wright: the church was messed up from the beginning”

  1. Josh Says:

    Yep, I don’t see how you miss it if you spend time in the NT. I do disagree with the notion that Paul was just simply trying to “hold it together” as if unity was Paul’s sole concern. It most certainly was not. Paul valued individual people and did not want anyone who claimed the name of Christ to run after false doctrine and hurt themselves or the church. And, of course, doctrine in the NT does not just refer to propositional statements (for example, “God is good”). It also refers to ethical teaching. Doctrine was referred to in terms of health – either unhealthy or healthy doctrine. Teaching was connected to everyday living, as it should be. Anyone teaching something that hurt people, whether it was conceived to be doctrine or not, such as the false doctrine that it is O.K. for men to have sex with men and women to have sex with women. This is false doctrine, it is doctrine that brings unhealthiness (physical and spiritual) to those who practice it. Paul did not tolerate false teachers. He told Timothy to have nothing to do with them.

    J.D. Walt had some great words about this today on his Seedbed blog (if you don’t get Seedbed e-mails, you need to):

    1 John 2:18-19

    “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

    John is speaking to “children,” (not kids) but people who are not yet mature in their faith. Immature faith works like a magnet to attract false teaching. It can be like a chink in the armor or a weak immune system. False teaching shipwrecks faith. The trouble with false teaching is it often has an air of plausibility to it. Persons not steeped in the Scripture and the Spirit are most susceptible to buying into false teaching or following after false teachers. John calls them “antichrists” because of their false teaching about Jesus Christ.

    The greatest threat to the twenty first century church is the same as it was for the first century church. Immature faith. Immature faith opens the door to false teaching. False teaching leads to false faith. It desecrates community. It destroys unity. It was a massive issue in the first century. It’s going to be a major issue for the twenty-first century church. The Apostles knew what was at stake and they would not abide it. We can’t either.

    There’s a very deadly way to combat false teaching. It’s called compromise. Because false teaching destroys unity, people will often seek a compromise in order to recover unity. It never works. In our attempts to salvage unity in our church structures we do grave damage to the Body of Christ. There’s only one way to deal with false teaching. Maturity. We must grow in maturity.

    End quote

    The church was indeed screwed up . . . it was also a place where people heard the Gospel preached in all of its fullness, received God’s forgiveness and power, and people go their lives back. Agape love was experienced there and should be experienced now. I ironically take a lot of comfort from the fact that the church was not perfect. But I never use it as an excuse to accept brokenness and certainly not false doctrine. And by the way, Brent, I know that’s not the message that you are trying to convey at all. I just wanted to mention some of the aspects concerning this truth about the early church. I agree with you though, I find the words comforting too.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks. And a pertinent quote from Walt. I can’t imagine how that plays out in the UMC today, can you? 😉 Wright certainly isn’t suggesting that Paul was trying to “hold them together” at all costs. See my previous post, and Paul’s words about the man committing incest in chapter 5.

      • Josh Says:

        Yeah, I figured ol’ NT would never say “unity at all costs.” I had just read Walt’s quote this morning right before I read this post and I kind of connected some dots.

        I’m pretty sure that Walt – in a non-explicit way – was referring to the UMC situation. And I love the way he puts it: we either comprise and lose all unity or put on our big-boy pants, grow, and do the right thing.

        I figure the first will happen, I pray for the second, but I am to the point where it doesn’t matter that much to me anymore because God is always a step ahead and will always leads those who love him on to good things.

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