…a spiritual disease
We’re about 30 minutes into a movie that I’m about to snap off, because it’s the umpteenth version of clichéd plot #74, that one about The Cop who Plays by his own Rules. He doesn’t “go by the book,” so he gets suspended and has to turn in his badge. His apartment is a mess; his relationships messier. But in the end he’s the only one who can catch the bad guy; the chief then has to grudgingly admit him back into the police force. Oh, and what seems biologically improbable, he always has a three-day growth of beard, no more and no less.
In the early church, it was Corinth that fancied itself the Bad Boy, the church that tried to play by its own rules, the one that acted as if it were unique. Do a quick read-through of 1 Corinthians, and you will see Paul repeatedly assuring them that, “Every church has to play by the same truths – the gospel and sound doctrine and spiritual behavior – so, what makes you imagine you’re special?”
1 Cor 4:6-7 – “learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you?”
1 Cor 5:1-2 – there is a gross instance of sexual sin by a member of the church, and they are so “sophisticated” about it that Paul exclaims, “And you are arrogant!”
1 Cor 7:17 – “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”
1 Cor 8-10 – There were Christians who thought they were so knowledgeable that they didn’t need to follow the same rules that “ignorant” believers did; “we know that meat sacrificed to idols won’t harm us,” they claimed, “so we should be able to eat it.” Paul spends three whole chapters on this one.
1 Cor 11:16 – “If anyone is inclined to be contentious [about women wearing veils in church], we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”
1 Cor 14:33-34 – “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.” 
Paul usually slips into his introductions some indication of where he is going with the epistle.
So it’s not surprising that in 1 Cor 1:2 he opens with, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Notice the important clues: first, he doesn’t speak of the Corinthian church, but about the local branch of the church of God in Corinth (likewise in 2 Cor 1:1); conversely, in 1-2 Thessalonians, he speaks of “the church of the Thessalonians.” Second, God has called them along with individuals and congregations in every place. The churches at Ephesus, Athens, Philippi, Antioch and Jerusalem also call upon the name of Christ. These are not some general religious words to make the Corinthians feel good about being Christians. Rather, Paul is laying the groundwork for what he will say through the letter, that all his churches received one and the same teaching – and so, Corinth cannot play by its own rules.
We’ve all heard of churches which act as if they are the one and only manifestation of God’s Shekinah glory in some city or another. It’s as if they have posted signs announcingCongratulations! You’ve Arrived! over the entrance. But Corinth’s problems ran deeper. The great scholar on this epistle, Anthony Thiselton, says that “the Corinthian concern for ‘autonomy’ led them to devalue the trans-local character of Christian identity.”  In much simpler terms: the Corinthians wanted to be their own authority, and so they failed to look past their own city limits. They felt themselves a breed apart. They believed in their own “exceptionalism,” the notion that the normal rules do not apply to it.
In a nutshell, the exceptionalist says: Yes, this is normally true, except in our case, because we are different from everyone else.We’re not being disobedient, it’s that we’re different! We have a special set of circumstances.
I have seen, in both North America and Latin America, Exceptionalist Churches, who live as if the regular rules don’t apply to them:
- “No, normally a pastor should not badger his congregation about obeying him absolutely, but our situation is so different that it is allowable.”
- “Yes, normally churches should test prophecies, but this prophet is so anointed that it would be a lack of faith to raise questions.”
- “No, normally a church’s accountant should not falsify the books, but our church is in a situation that makes it permissible this time.”
- “Our church has been uniquely called by God to bring the Word to all other churches;” or “Our pastor has been called as an apostle to lead all other churches in our nation”
When I took a course on the history of the early church, some of my fellow students wondered why they should be spending their time studying what happened in AD 325 or 1447, when there were so many exciting things happening today. Later on, as a pastor, I saw the reason why: We study history, because history keeps repeating itself. There were Exceptionalist churches in the first century; they also exist today.
But we forget the lessons of history; for how many times do we hear things like this:
- “God is working today (whether it be in 1995 or 2002 or 2015 or 2032) in a fresh way; this has never happened before, and so we have to put aside all past experience and start anew.”
- “There haven’t been any apostles since the first century; but now there’s a revival of that gift, and God is giving certain men absolute spiritual authority.”
- “Yes, Christians should read their Bible; but we cannot put new wine into old wineskins, so we should ignore those who tell us what we’re doing is not biblical. How could they possibly know how God is working today? The letter kills, the Spirit gives life!”
- “The devil has bothered this nation since before Columbus; but just this year we have prayed this certain prayer, and so from now on the devil and his demons cannot have a foothold anywhere in this territory!”
- “Yes, Paul told the Christians not to speak aloud in tongues in a meeting unless there was an interpreter; but we live in the time of the ‘latter rain,’ and we cannot contain the Spirit as we did in the past!”
- And above all: “We cannot put God in a box!”
In fact, these very people are the great offenders when it comes to boxes, to placing limits on what God can do; they imply that “he specially or uniquely reveals himself to me and my group, this month and year, in this town.” They sin by ignoring that God works outside of their little experiences and has worked for thousands of years around the world.
Alcoholics Anonymous points out that many addicts feel that their situation is unique: People shouldn’t drink heavily, but my situation is different! People should be able to handle their problems without taking drugs, but I’m not built that way! My situation is so unusual that I should have the right to use a chemical to relax! Other people might not be able to control their drinking, but I can! We creative people are high-strung and we need extra drink or drugs to relax! A. A. labels attitude “terminal uniqueness.” It is “terminal,” because this belief will end in death. The person will die or lose his mind while still shouting, But I’m not like all the others!
All around the world and all through history there have been small churches and megachurches, tiny sects and mass movements which have caught the same virus. And the result, every time, is that Christians with terminal uniqueness put themselves on the path to their own destruction.
The cure? Humbly obey what God has commanded for all churches in all times, listen to other believers who are trying to follow God’s leading, and focus on the one Lord, not the Exceptionalist Church.
NOTES: This passage is a complex one, leading some scholars (notably, Gordon Fee in his NICNT commentary) to argue that Paul did not write it, and that it was slipped in at some point during the copying of the manuscripts. I find that theory unconvincing. At the same time, “women should keep silent” does not mean absolute silence; it means something like “not be talking,” as I read it, during the time when a word of prophecy is being evaluated. Paul rebukes the church for not following the apostolic teaching about veils and about women in church, but it strikes me that he is concerned more for their lust for “uniqueness” than he is about the practices as such.  P. 330, in Anthony C. Thiselton, “The significance of recent research on 1 Corinthians for hermeneutical appropriation of this epistle today,” Neotestamentica 40/2 (2006): 320-52. This is a very useful article on many points.
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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://christmycovenant.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/cmc-gary-shogren-sm.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Copyright Gary Shogren.
Gary has a PhD in New Testament Exegesis. He serves as Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica[/author_info] [/author]