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The Greatest Church That Never Was

When I was a pastor, I regularly received fliers from various “consultants” who offered me a scheme to “fix” my church. I threw them all away.

These patent nostrums purveyed various forms of organization that would transmogrify my congregation from a candidate for “The Biggest Loser” to a suitable starlet for next season’s episode of “The Bachelorette.”

I can still recall some of the biggies: elder rule, house churches, the pointiest of pentagram Calvinisms, along with various forms of “blessings” which I could imbibe at various locations.

Each one promised an end of carnality and bickering, full offering baskets, jam-packed pews and a worry-free parsonage.

As I say, I dust-binned the lot of them. Not that my church never needed “fixing.” It usually did; after all, it had me for its pastor. No, I threw them away because I know quackery when I see it.

The give-away was that these mountebanks all promised to take my church back to the pristine condition of “the New Testament Church.” I didn’t feel obligated to read their advertisements if they hadn’t read the New Testament.

Paul has barely launched into his letter to the church at Corinth – an outfit of which he was the founding pastor – before he tears into them for their divisions.

They had asked him many important, intricate theological questions, but Paul defers all of that to take up the more important issue of the four-way free-for-all going on in the fellowship (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-18).

All of this leads me to a few conclusions about the local church.

First, nobody’s flowchart is going to produce a conflict-free church.

I once heard Dallas Willard say, “The problem isn’t the church; it’s the people.” Willard was too good a Baptist to be serious about that distinction, but I understood what he meant. Any organizational method run by sinners will go awry soon and often.

I stopped arguing much about church polity when I realized that fellow-pastors from Rome to Wittenberg to Geneva to Canterbury and straight on to Nashville faced pretty much the same issues.

Second, nobody gets a pass on the local church.

I remember a man who left our congregation once and declared that he and his wife were going to be a church unto themselves.

He admitted some vague preference in the New Testament for assembling together, but explained that the church today is such a pig’s breakfast that, well, those passages are past their sell-by date.

I responded that nobody in our church (at least as far as I knew!) was sleeping with his stepmother, as was the case at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5), so the Scripture was probably still in effect.

Finally, the only cure is crucifixion.

Paul wraps up the opening section of his letter by pointing to the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17). That jars us less than it should because we read it as modern Americans, not ancient Romans.

“The very word ‘cross,'” Cicero once wrote, “should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” Paul, by contrast, says we should hear, see and bear nothing else.

The real problem with the miracle cure medicines those pill-peddlers pushed on me as a pastor was not that they wouldn’t work.

Indeed, this had already been demonstrated, as they all had been tried more than once in church history and hadn’t worked

So, their real selling point was a chance to an easy way out. It was an opportunity to take Cicero’s advice and let the cup of the cross pass from me.

As I say, I threw them all away.

Doug Jackson is assistant professor of spiritual formation and director of Logsdon Seminary programs at the Corpus Christi campus. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Sermoneutics, and is used with permission.