For the last fourteen months, we have been exploring how 1 Corinthians is relevant for the church in the twenty-first century. We have seen how Paul addressed a number of issues vital to the unity, health, and function of the Corinthian house-churches, and we have shown how many churches in our context could still benefit from Paul’s words.
Now, in the final post in this series, we turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter, Paul reminded his converts of what really mattered, and in so doing, he reminds us of where our focus needs to be as we move forward in the twenty-first century.
Defining the Gospel
There are four, interrelated processes we see on display in 1 Corinthians 15, and those processes are vital to the maintenance of spiritually healthy congregations in our own time. The first of these processes can be thought of in terms of defining the gospel.
People sometimes think the definition of the gospel is a single, uncontroversial thing, but, in their excellent book How to Think Theologically, Howard Stone and James Duke show this is not the case. And, they rightly argue one’s understanding of the gospel will inevitably shape one’s ministry.
For those of us who belong to evangelical churches, the Bible itself is the last word on such questions. Nevertheless, controversy continues to rage about how relevant biblical texts ought to be interpreted. Scholars such as N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight have challenged older notions about what counts for “good news,” and these challenges have helped all of us think again about what it is that shapes our lives and our proclamations to others.
Still, there have been dissenters to some of these new ways of construing the gospel. Sure enough, our current text presents the gospel in story form, but the way it tells that story accents the death and resurrection of Jesus–and especially the atoning significance of that complex of events. Can we really boil the gospel down to “the story of Jesus,” or must we also include a) its significance for those of us who hear the story and b) the demand to respond appropriately to what we hear?
I think our text nudges us in the direction of the latter, and I think it also requires us to, at some level, place our proclamation in a particular theological, cosmological, and historical context. We must tell the story of Jesus, but we must place that story within the framework of God’s ongoing redemptive work in history. And we must suggest the many and varied ways Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection can impact our life, our vocation, and our future.
The reason it is important to define the gospel in these broader terms is because there are always heresies which need to be confronted. A “heresy” is a doctrine out of step with the core of the Christian message. It is not a disputable matter, and it is not an issue of no consequence. It is a matter about which Scripture is clear and which has the potential to shipwreck the faith of those who accept it.
The processes of schism theory have fully taken hold in American Protestantism. We are tearing ourselves apart, often over peripheral matters and as a result of selfish ambition. Nevertheless, there are some things that are worth fighting over, some beliefs and practices that have the potential to either give us life or enslave us to death. Understanding the gospel helps us determine what is really worth fighting for and to build our unity on those things.
One characteristic of heresies is they often enable sin. From what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, that seems to be what was going on in Corinth’s house-churches. Paul clarified his understanding of the gospel and applied it to a specific heresy in order to address the sin that was present in these house-churches.
Sometimes, the sin is overt, like when people use theological speculations or alleged visionary experiences to defend their sexual or financial misdeeds. Sometimes, however, the sin is more subtle and more personal. Heresy is promoted to stroke the ego of the one promoting it or to separate his or her group from other, supposedly less spiritual, people. Either way, it is vital we name these instances of heresy-induced sin and root them out of our churches.
But the processes we observe in 1 Corinthians 15 are not all negative. Paul also works to develop hope among those who read his letter. In the case of the Corinthians, those who had bought into the lie that there is no resurrection may have been making themselves happy (either by stroking their own ego or by enabling them to live a life of sexual, and other, indulgence), but they were undermining the hope of others in the congregation.
That is often how sin works. It makes the one doing it feel better, at least for a time. But it destroys those around it. By contrast, the gospel is good for everyone. It gives us the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to endure what is undeniably a harsh world full of injustice, grief, deprivation, and pain. In the words of singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan, it promises us “we will be free,” and it encourages us not to “ever turn back”—even when “the mountains are steep and the valleys low,” even when “[we’re] weary but [we] have so far to go.”
You see, the gospel does not promise us that we will achieve our best life now. It never has. That’s why Paul can say we should be pitied above all people if there is no resurrection. But because there is a resurrection, we can “remember to whom [we] belong” and “who makes us strong” “when sorrow holds [our] hand and suffering sings [us] songs.”