What happens when a church becomes openly critical of its apostle and founder? The answer can be found by examining a situation that occurred in the church at Corinth. It's a sad story that contains a message for the Church today.
Paul raised up the Corinthian church (Acts 18:1) between A.D. 50, and 52 and continued to labor in the city, laying the foundation of the church.
No church in Paul's domain exceeded Corinth in terms of its spiritual gifts (I Cor. 1:4).
There's a cause and effect relationship here. Paul — not just any minister, but an apostle — worked hard to make sure the church did not come behind in any gift. With God's help and his labor, he got it off to a good start.
But, in the presence of this abundance of spiritual gifts were also problems. Three to 3 1/2 years after the church began, Paul alludes to the difficulties there.
"Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you... For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
"Now this I say, that everyone of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Cor. 1:10-13).
Paul's point was that the Church as one body cannot be splintered into various factions, divisions or sects.
But the Greeks came out of a democratic society, the world's first. Naturally they looked at the issue democratically and wanted to elect, or select, their own leaders.
Church becomes openly critical The Greeks weren't in the least hesitant about criticizing their leaders either. This church, which Paul raised up, became openly critical of Paul, so much so that it's almost unbelievable.
And the Church of God at Corinth was more than just critical of Paul. He was, in essence, being judged by them.
I hope you see the irony in that. What business did this church have in judging and criticizing the very man responsible for bringing them into the Church? But that's the condition that had developed.
And Paul's letters to them show his patient efforts to ward off the inevitable consequences of such critical and embittered attitudes.
Looking at it from the Corinthians point of view, Paul could have been criticized for many things. After all, he wasn't perfect, and never claimed to be. Look at I Corinthians 1:14-16 for example.
"I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanus: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other."
Can't you just hear the complaints after that statement? "He doesn't remember? He doesn't remember that he baptized me? Well, what kind of a pastor...? Does that man have any love? I mean, how could he baptize me and lay hands on me and then forget he baptized me?"
Paul's defense Paul's defense in this regard was a good one for an apostle. "For Christ [verse 17] sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel [to evangelize on a broad scale, the way an apostle is called and commissioned to do]: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect."
So Paul just wrote that off. He said, I've got one job in life — I'm supposed to preach the Gospel. Sound like anybody you know?
The Corinthians thought of themselves as very knowledgeable, very wise. But Paul said: "And I, brethren [I Cor. 3:1], could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as babes in Christ. I have had to feed you with milk, and not mea t, because you were not able to bear it, even now you're not able" (paraphrased).
He told them that they were carnal uninspired human beings with their eyes focused on people — eyes blind to the spiritual calling of Jesus Christ.
The background in chapter four makes the attitudes that prevailed at Corinth a little clearer. Paul is having to say here, "Please, please think of me as a minister of Christ, as a steward of the mysteries of God."
Why did Paul have to say this at all? Why should there have been any question? Least of all from these people. If Paul wasn't a minister, how'd they get into the Church?
Judgment is God's business "It's counted with me... a very little thing that I should be judged of you or of any man's judgment: I judge not myself. I know nothing by myself [that is, of which I'm guilty], yet that doesn't justify me: he that's going to judge me is the Lord" (I Cor. 4:3-4, paraphrased).
Judging apostles is God's business, brethren! Paul knew that. He wasn't answerable to the Church of God in Corinth, he was answerable to Jesus Christ.
So he told them, "Don't judge anything before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God'? (I Cor. 4:5, paraphrased).
Paul finally brings the issue home in II Corinthians 6:11-13 when he tells the Corinthians that all the contention and division in the church IS not his problem; it is their problem.
"O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened, [constrained] in us, but you are straitened In your own bowels.
"Now for a recompense in the same [for a little repayment on my investment of love for you], (I speak as unto my children,) be ye also enlarged."
Paul is asking them to love him as he has loved them. To forgive. To be a little more tolerant, a little less judgmental. To be a little more patient and a little less critical. He is speaking to a church that is slipping away from his control and influence, and hence from God's.
Satan's influence In II Corinthians 2:10 Paul deals with the disfellowshipping of a person in the church there. Paul says, If you forgive the person, I forgive also. And if that's taken care of, fine. Let's not let it be a problem. If you've forgiven him, so do I.
(Verse 11) "Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices." Here Paul uses the first personal plural, which is usually meant as the first person singular. He is saying, "I am not ignorant of his devices." Paul was mindful of what Satan could do to a church.
While Paul may not have been ignorant of Satan's devices, the church in Corinth was. They thought they were full and rich, like kings.
It is interesting in this connection how often Herbert W. Armstrong has spoken about Satan's influence. He's written about it voluminously — how Satan works in moods and attitudes, and how a big part of our struggle is not just human nature, but dealing with Satan's influence directly.
And we have less excuse for naivete than the Corinthians, because we've got their story. Let's take heed.
Proof of apostleship Paul was continually being asked to prove his apostleship. "In all things we are approving [or the Greek implies simple proving] ourselves as the ministers of God. We prove our ministry daily in much patience and affliction and necessity, in distress, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, labors, watching, fasting; pureness, knowledge" (II Cor. 6:4-6, paraphrased).
What do you want? He could say it — he had done it, he had lived it.
He says in II Corinthians 6:8-9 (paraphrased), we prove ourselves the ministers of God by "honor and by dishonor, evil report and good report: [he was called] a deceiver and yet he was true; he was an unknown [in some quarters] and well known [in others — just like Mr. Armstrong today]."
Don't think, brethren, that the proof of a man's life or his ministry or his apostleship rests solely in good reports, honor and fame. It doesn't. There will also be dishonor, evil reports and shame. Don't be influenced by that. Paul would cite those things — such as imprisonment — as proof of his apostleship.
Satan's use of evil reports Satan uses evil reports today to sway your mind as he did with the Corinthians, causing the1m to break their faithful, prayerful, constant allegiance and support of God's servant in their day and time. And it works every time. Many of those people fell away.
The same thing happened in Asia, with apparently even more devastating results. Paul said, "All they that be in Asia have forsaken me." It isn't exactly clear what "they" means, but it's scary in its implications. To think that an apostle would have to say that a whole region, such as the eastern seaboard of the United States or Canada or Australia or some other part of the Church, had just dropped out is unimaginable.
"We have wronged no man, we have corrupted no man, we have defrauded no man. I speak not this to condemn you: for I have said before, that ye are in our hearts to die and live with you.
"Great is my boldness of speech toward you, great is my glorying of you" (II Cor. 7:2-4). He's bold, very plainspoken in his relationship with his congregation. "Receive us, accept us," he says.
Are we coming to the time in this Church that Mr. Armstrong will have to write in this same way? I think he has already had to. And that's ridiculous, brethren.
If we can look back 2,000 years into Church history objectively, we can see the absurdity of it, the spiritual folly of a church writing off its apostle. Those who do are committing spiritual suicide.
Read the rest of II Corinthians and notice how Paul pleaded with those people not to leave the Body of Christ or reject the ministers placed over them.
The sad story of the Church of God at Corinth is the story of unrequited love, love that didn't flow both ways.
Paul loved Corinth. He spent of himself, of his emotions, of his bowels of compassion and concern. And isn't it sad that he would have to write, "Though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" (II Cor. 12:15).
A final warning Paul's final warning to the church is found in chapter 13, a formal, legal-like statement. "This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." The moment of truth had arrived.
"I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; that if anybody had sinned I will not spare: you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which toward you is not weak [Okay, you're going to get it. If that's the way it's got to be I can do that too, but I don't like to have to do so]...
"Examine yourselves [Don't spend all your time examining me, Church of God — examine yourselves]... prove your own selves. Know you not your own selves, how that either Christ is in you or you're reprobate? I trust that you know that we're not reprobate...
"Finally, brethren, farewell, be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind [be unified, be together, get over this strife, the division, the party spirit and all that led up to it]. Live in peace, and the God of love shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss" (II Cor. 13:1-12, paraphrased). The book concludes as it began, with an exhortation toward unity.
A sequel to the story And so the biblical account of the church at Corinth ends. But that's not all. The church went on. We have, in a letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, a sequel to the story.
Postapostolic apocryphal literature, which is mostly Greek mythology and the like, does contain, however, a letter of Clement that sounds much like the writing of a true minister of God. He's writing perhaps as late as the 80s, maybe a bit earlier.
But in a little introduction in The Apostolic Fathers, there's a reference to what happened at Corinth years after the biblical account ends.
A feud had broken out in the church. Presbyters appointed by the apostles or their immediate successors had been unlawfully deposed. Clement's attempts (this is after the death of all the apostles except John) to deal with the situation are recorded.
He mentions that certain men were unjustly thrust out of their ministries. And he reminds them that they will not find any record where righteous men were ever thrown out by, holy men. Evidently they kicked out the hand-picked successors of the apostles in Corinth.
Clement's letter And he said, "Your division has perverted many. Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul, the apostle [now he refers back to Paul's letter], what he first wrote unto you in the beginning of the Gospel, of the truth he charged you and the spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos because even then you had made parties.
"It is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ that you should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, makes sedition against its presbyters [in other words, an uprising against its duly appointed ministers]. Let us therefore root this out quickly."
And later he says: "Who is therefore noble among you? Who is compassionate? Who is filled with love? Let him say, If by any reason of me there be faction and strife and division I retire, I depart whither you will, and I do that which is ordered by the people. Only let the flock of Christ be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters."
That's the critical issue here at this late date. These church leaders were "duly appointed." But once the apostles had died, there was quite a bit of infighting and political maneuvering for power.
"You therefore that laid the foundation of this sedition [maybe the same people that we read about in I Corinthians], submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart, learn to submit yourselves, laying aside the arrogant and proud stubbornness of your tongue; for it would be better for you to be found little in the flock of Christ and to have your name on God's roll than to be had in exceeding honor, and yet be cast from the' hope of Him."
John's account Let's compare that with III John 9-10 because what Clement was writing about was a condition that came upon the New Testament Church in the decades just after the apostles.
John said: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes [a Greek name], who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. [They no longer would accept the authority of the apostles.]
"Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren [probably John's representatives]...[but rather] casteth them out of the church."
John is likely writing about the same circumstances as Clement. The church was so turned around that anybody who came from God's apostle was automatically rejected. Now think about that. That's where this type of criticism and examination of those who have duly constituted spiritual authority leads.
Guard against' a negative, turned-off and embittered attitude. If you're already in one, God help you, literally, to get out of it.
Remember whom God used to build our Church today, and who has, what Clement would have called, duly constituted authority — authority that is lawful and right and straight from God. We're encouraged in Hebrews to follow such people.
"Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, consider the end of their conversation" (Heb. 13:7).
Finally, brethren, there are sensitive issues in the Church today. Matters come up from time to time that trouble us. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do.
Our chief defense Prayer, along with Bible study, is our chief defense. When matters come up that Satan could use to disturb a lot of people, we should go straight to our knees and talk to God about it.
But what happens instead? People talk to others when they should be talking to God. If we prayed about those things more and talked about them less, the results would be much more positive.
Mr. Armstrong has said that some day we're going to wake up and realize that this was the most important Work in 1,900 years.
If we're still around at the end, we'll see that we were not stumbling around under human influence. This is the Work of God. We should consider ourselves privileged to have a part in it.
The story of the Church of God at Corinth reveals the results of a disintegrated relationship between a church and its apostle. We dare not let that happen to us.