Foolishness, Pride and Church Growth
Paul described some of the people in the Corinthian church as “puffed up.” The Greek word (phusioō) means inflated, proud, even haughty. He repeated the charge in the next verse. He spoke as if a major aspect of the problem that he was addressing — God’s wisdom verses the foolishness of the world — was related to pride, as if there is a relationship between pride and foolishness. And that is a point worth repeating because there is such a relationship. Pride and the foolishness of the world are intimately related. They are cut from the same cloth. They emanate from the same spirit.
Paul threatened to visit Corinth in order to expose the pride and foolishness of those leaders with whom he disagreed, those who were teaching other than he had taught, those who were filling the heads of the Corinthians with worldly foolishness. How would he do that? He would come and be an example of Christ-likeness in their midst. The example of his own faithfulness and humility would stand in stark contrast to the pride and foolishness that the Corinthians were used to. He believed that his own imitation of Christ (or Timothy’s imitation of him) would reveal their pride and foolishness by contrast. The light of truth would reveal what the darkness concealed. The example of his humility would reveal the reality of their pride.
Finally, Paul asked them, “What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and the spirit of meekness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). Interesting question. This verse is difficult, not because it is hard to figure out what Paul was trying to say, but because what he said so confounds our expectations of Christian behavior. Again, Paul was talking to the leaders of the Corinthian church. He was asking the leaders how they thought he should deal with them.
Imagine that Paul is your boss, who has been away, and you are talking to him on the phone. He has a disagreement with how you are handling things in his absence, and he tells you that he will return next week. Then he asks you how you would like him to approach you about this problem when he gets back. Should he bring a “rod?” In other words, should he come brandishing the authority and power of his position? Or should he come with love and meekness? He’s really asking whether you will have complied with his instructions by the time he returns. If you haven’t, he will bring the rod — discipline. If you have, he will come in love and humble appreciation.
But what is Paul’s threat? What will he do to them if they fail to comply? What is the “rod” that he threatened to bring? We don’t know. Scripture doesn’t say. And it doesn’t really matter. The point is that Paul exercised his authority against a group of Corinthian leaders who had abandoned the gospel by substituting the values of Greek culture for the values of the gospel. It is a very contemporary message, one that speaks to the churches today. The message is that the values of the world have no place in the church, regardless of their ability to make churches large, rich or influential.
Christ’s churches cannot be what God intends them to be unless they are fueled by the biblical gospel itself. As Paul said to the Romans (1:16), “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel itself is the power of God. So, if we want to get the church right, if we want to get evangelism right, we must get the gospel right. Our concern is not the results, not the growth, but the cultivation. Paul had previously reminded them that he “planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Planting and watering are the work of cultivation. We do not need to be worried about church growth, that’s God’s responsibility. We need to do the work of church cultivation. The gospel is the wisdom of God and always stands in opposition to the foolishness of the world.
Author of many Christian books, Phillip A. Ross has been a pastor for over 25 years. He founded http://www.Pilgrim-Platform.org in 1998, which is loaded with information about historic Christianity. In 2008 he published an exposition First Corinthians that demonstrates the Apostle Paul’s opposition to worldly Christianity. Paul turned the world upside down and Ross captures the action in Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians.