Is the Spirit in?

A growing field in Christian missions is called member care ministry. Workers in this field help global workers—missionaries—with emotional and spiritual hurts that have come from their time in ministry.

Our question for today, then, is: Why the wounds? And who’s doing the damage?

We may have heard the easy answer to the Why question: “It’s spiritual warfare—go read Ephesians chapter six and you’ll have your answer!”

Yes, let’s agree that Paul’s answer in Ephesians addresses features in a triad of trouble: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yet member care workers find particular troubles to be more concrete, and more tangible interventions are needed even if “the schemes of the devil” are ultimately behind such problems.

We need, especially, to answer the “Who” question: who are the “flesh and blood” figures in Paul’s summary?

The sad answer is that most spiritual and emotional wounds are caused by “blue-on-blue” incidents: cases of Christians hurting Christians.

This was true even in Bible times. In Galatians Paul wrote to believers being opposed by other professing believers. The antagonists were preaching “another gospel”—one of moral duty—so that Paul had to write about any such teacher, “let him be accursed.”

Colossians, too, was written because of internal church difficulties. So, too, were both letters to the Corinthians. And the books of Hebrews and 1 John.

It’s helpful to note how Paul addressed a range of problems in these blue-on-blue struggles. At one end of a spiritual spectrum some of the Corinthians were simply immature: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1).

Yet in a later letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the far end of the same spectrum. He warned that some of the leaders in Corinth were frauds: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Do we still face a similar range of problems in ministry today?

Yes.

Most hurts and ministry disruptions represent immature judgments and selfish choices. Yet in extreme cases there will also be glossy agents of evil at work. Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre were a terrible reminder of this in the last century.

Unfortunately we don’t have explicit instructions on how to differentiate the spiritually immature believer from “deceitful workmen.” But Paul did leave us some guidelines when he confronted the Galatian heresy and its leaders.

First, Paul addressed the content of the gospel. Paul received his gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12). So the question of sound content was primary: gospel truth reveals God’s heart. So, Paul insisted, any known teachings of Jesus must overturn alternative claims.

Second was Paul’s question about pneuma or “Spirit.” In the church fight, was the Spirit more apparent on one side of the conflict than the other? Watch how he used this measure.

The Galatian party relied on Torah based law-keeping to achieve salvation. So Paul asked, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (3:2). His premise, following Jesus in John 3, is that salvation depends on the Spirit joining a once-dead soul.

And the Spirit’s work, once present, will be obvious. So he pressed the connection: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” By “flesh” he meant any human emphasis on law-keeping spirituality. He acknowledged a prior time for such behavioral themes: the law was a “guardian until Christ came” (3:24). But now the Spirit-based life is displayed by “faith working through love” (5:6).

The apostle then set up a scale for measuring church disputes. First, anyone who intervenes can ask whether one side is trying to “bite and devour” (5:4) the other. If that’s the case, it’s time to set up a two-column list.

One column includes: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (5:19-21). There’s also an addendum, including those who are “conceited, provoking one another, [or] envying one another” (5:26). Here the Spirit is absent.

The second column offers a happier set of alternatives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (5:22-23). Here the Spirit is active.

Of course this isn’t a guaranteed test. In some settings the Spirit may be absent on both sides! Yet Paul’s guidelines are still crucial. And in many conflicts we will quickly see the Holy Spirit’s presence in some lives but not in others. If that’s the case we can’t ignore the real problem.

So here’s the question always to remember in any blue-on-blue episodes: “Is the Spirit in?”

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About R N Frost

R N (Ron) Frost is a student of history, especially the history of Christian spirituality. Ron served for more than 20 years at a Portland, OR, college and seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was a professor of historical theology and ethics. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. This involves a number of trips to worldwide destinations each year, each by invitation. All his services are gratis, so ministry partners are needed and welcomed. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.