Christ’s Church and the Law
Leading Question: “Given the differing reactions to law within the human family, how can a single church unite them all in Christ?”
Introduction to the Issue. If we are serious about uniting all God’s children in his church, then we must learn how to live together with differing perspectives on the law and the various teachings of the church that result from those perspectives.
In Scripture, the best place to see that diversity at work is in Paul’s first letter to the believers at Corinth. In this letter Paul uses several different metaphors for depicting this diversity:
From the writings of Ellen White, the comments on “The Bible Teacher,” cited from Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433 in lesson six, are powerful and revealing. There she argues that having different Bible teachers for the youth is as essential as having different books of the Bible because “the minds of men differ.”
From the standpoint of our understanding of law, 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 may be most instructive, for it suggests that Paul was the one who sowed while it was Apollos who watered the seed. Spelled out in terms of church life, that would make Paul the evangelist, Apollos the pastor. Typically – though there are notable exceptions – those who give a strong substitutionary emphasis are more effective off-the-street evangelists. People who are becoming aware of their deep sinfulness are drawn to a message that addresses their despair and offers a healing balm in the sacrificial death of Christ. Apollos is more the pastor who deals with those who growing in Christ and may be more drawn to a presentation of the goodness of God.
A parenthetical comment is appropriate here, one that refers to the audio dialogue that accompanies this study guide. Dave Thomas, Dean of the Walla Walla University School of Theology, is more Pauline in his theology while I am more Johannine. Our conversations on the topic have enriched us both. Some time ago when we were comparing our differing perspectives, he shared what I consider to be a profound insight. Referring to our respective “spiritual autobiographies,” he noted that my growth in Christ seems to have begun with a deep appreciation of the goodness of God and that I am now deepening my understanding of the sinfulness of humankind. By contrast, his serious growth in Christ began with an awareness of his sinfulness before God and he is now deepening his understanding of God’s goodness.
In 1989, I preached a sermon with the title, “The Adventist Church at Corinth.” Using 1 Corinthians as my starting point, I portrayed the “three strands” of Adventist thinking, ordering them under the names of the three preachers who had stirred things up in Corinth: Peter, Paul, and Apollos. My point was that each had a part to play in the church and we should allow for all three. Taking my life in my hand, I gave names under each of the three headings. The outpouring of thanks from a wide variety of listeners startled me.I have never received so much positive affirmation of a sermon as I did following that event.
In my book, Beyond Common Ground (PPPA, 2009), I include a revision of that sermon – minus most of the names! I reproduce that chapter here with minor modifications.
The Adventist Church at Corinth
Whenever the church desires status in the world, worries about “looking good” before our upscale friends, plans for attractive new buildings that are properly “representative,” then the sporadic scandals, the inevitable antics of human beings who are members of the church cause us acute embarrassment. We cry out to ourselves, if not to each other, O that our church could always look nice so that nice people would want to belong!
That’s when it is particularly helpful to turn to Scripture and remind ourselves that God’s people seldom have had their act together for more than a few minutes at a time. Dip your finger into Scripture anywhere and ask the question: How were God's people doing? Whether from Old Testament or New the answer is likely to be grim.
That could be discouraging. But in a strange back-door sort of way, discovering that all God’s people have their troubles, even the ones we thought were perfect, actually can be encouraging. I still vividly remember an occasion in the School of Theology when one of our senior colleagues whom we all admired, was not just late for a departmental appointment, he plumb forgot. He was never late. Students were not late to his classes nor did they turn in late papers. On-time was always the word. I think the rest of us were a bit startled at our almost unrestrained glee when he slipped. The proof was in! He was human just like the rest of us! It was not an angry, so-there, I-told-you-so kind of reaction. Rather, a certain sense of relief that swept over us, bonding us even closer to a colleague we had long revered.
When I leaf through the psalms, I discover a record of unrelenting trouble. And I wonder why we memorized only the nice things when we were kids: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12, KJV). “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them” (Ps. 34.7, KJV).
But just as prominent in the Psalms, if not more so, is the solemn cry: “Thou didst leave me in the lurch, Lord.” Why did we not memorize more words like these: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea my soul and my belly. For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed” (Ps. 31:9-10, KJV). Or from another psalm: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent” (Ps. 22:1, 2, KJV). That was not just Jesus’ prayer, it was the prayer of a real, live, struggling saint in the Old Testament. To be sure, the Psalmists almost always move on to faith. But they do spend a chunk of time talking about their troubles.
And isn’t that more typical of our lives? Think of the people close to you, your family and friends. Think of this past week, this past month, this past year. Do you not see more than enough pain, sorrow, uncertainty, and discouragement?
Given this seething cauldron of a world in which we find ourselves, the church is God’s gift to us, a community where we may find help, healing, and understanding. Yet is it not curious that this healing community is the source of so much strife?
Maybe it is because we see the church as the guarantor of truth. And, of course, we are easily convinced that our view of truth is the one the church must preserve and we act accordingly. Though we are drawn by the presence of the divine, all too often we are driven away by the presence of the human. It is easy to hurt others in the name of the truth.
But if our community is a troubled one, God has given us the story of another troubled community from which we can learn. One of the most instructive for us, I believe, is the church at Corinth.
Drawing its membership from people with a very checkered background, the Corinthian church was checkered still. Paul reminded the saints that not many of them had been wise, powerful, or of noble birth when God had called them (1 Cor. 1:26). He ticks off a list of violent offenders against God and the human race, adding, “And such were some of you.” (1 Cor. 6:11). But he goes on to say: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Washed and sanctified? Not completely. Judging by Paul’s correspondence, the Corinthians believers still were struggling with just about every category of sin known to humankind. Perhaps most alarming of all, they were choosing up sides behind their favorite preachers.
And yet, right at that point, Paul and the church at Corinth have something important to tell us, for the three favorite preachers at Corinth, Paul, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos, can serve as convenient types of three different perspectives in Adventism, three different ways of relating to God and world. These same three perspectives can be found in Christianity in general, but they have come to stand out rather vividly in Adventism in recent years because charismatic spokespersons for each tradition have wanted to say, “This is the way, walk ye in it.”
Paul, however, wants to argue that each of the three traditions, each of the three preachers, has a proper place in the church. You can’t just choose one. You need all three. The church as the body of Christ or as the temple of God can only be complete when all three parts are there. That is the point of this chapter.
Now I must caution you that I am taking some liberties with the text of 1 Corinthians, a risky thing to do in the presence of numerous competent New Testament scholars. But since the New Testament is that part of the Bible that tells us most clearly about the priesthood of all the believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9), perhaps they will allow an Old Testament student to tread carefully upon their sacred turf.
So let us focus on some important sections of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17. Here Paul identifies the three key spokespersons: Peter, Apollos, and himself. Later in the same letter he comments briefly on Apollos, but says nothing further about Peter. So if we are to use these three names as “types” of three different perspectives, we will have to fill in the picture from elsewhere in the New Testament. Actually, if we were to identify the three perspectives by means of their favorite New Testament literature, we would put Peter with Matthew and James, Apollos with John. More about that below. But first we must look more carefully at the chapter in which Paul describes the relationship between himself and Apollos and how each serves the larger church in a particular way.
1 Corinthians 3. Earlier in this book (chapter 8), several “pictures” from 1 Corinthians 3 were noted under the heading of “Biblical Pluralism.” Chapter 3 begins with a food model: milk is for babies, solid food for adults (1 Cor. 3:1, 2). Any congregation is likely to have both.
The next picture is agricultural: Paul sows, Apollos waters, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6-9). In short, the work assignments are different.
The next picture is a building that uses different materials, all of which are important for God’s “temple,” the church (1 Cor. 3:10-17).
In 1 Corinthians 12 yet another picture, the human body, illustrates the diversity of gifts within the church.
All these contribute to our understanding of a robust biblical pluralism. For my purposes, the truly crucial verses are 3:5-7 where Paul describes himself as the one who sows and Apollos as the one who waters. In other words, Paul is the front-line evangelist, Apollos is the pastor/nurturer. The language of 1 Cor. 3:16-17 drives home Paul’s argument. “All of you are God’s temple,” he argues. “God will destroy anyone who destroys his temple and you” – he tells the Corinthians – “are that temple.” In other words, if you drive out Paul, Peter, or Apollos from the church, and thereby weaken the church, you are in deep trouble with God. The temple of God needs all three to be strong and whole.
But now let’s live dangerously and make the application to the Adventist church. I could mention a goodly number of prominent Adventists in each category. That would make for more interesting reading. But I have resisted the temptation. In very brief form, however, the following characterizations of what it means to “obey” can get us started:
Peter & Co. say that you must obey and can obey. The perfectionist element is strong here.
Paul & Co. say you must try to obey, but you never really can. Jesus pays the price for you. Grace and substitution are particularly strong here.
Apollos & Co. say the important thing is to try. Love is what matters and the heart is won by a picture of the Father’s love.
We can flesh the picture out a bit more:
Peter is optimistic, practical, and tends to think in concrete terms rather than abstract. He likes Proverbs in the Old Testament, Matthew and James in the new. Peter tells us to make a list of what needs to be done. Then do it. Peter can claim to be a perfectionist because he has reduced the claims of perfection to a list of things to do and a list of things not to do. Action, not motive, is what counts.
Paul is much more pessimistic, at least about human nature, and much more introspective and sensitive to that simmering cauldron of emotions that shapes our lives. The crucial letters here are Romans and Galatians. Life is more complex for Paul. He tries his best and still cries out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25). Paul can’t do it; he is absolutely dependent on the Lord Jesus Christ. God is the great judge of all; before that Great Judge, Jesus stands in Paul’s place, the substitute.
Apollos is optimistic, inquisitive, philosophically oriented, and is especially attracted to the Gospel of John. For Apollos, God is gentle and understanding, more a father than a judge. And Jesus is not so much the sacrifice which satisfies the demands of holiness up there, as God’s message of love to us down here. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14:9). That nurtures Apollos’ heart and soul.
Another way of characterizing the three positions would be to say that Peter is theocentric – human reason is not so important as obedience to a divine command. Paul is not only theocentric, he is Christocentric. Obedience to a divine command is still terribly important, but it happens in Christ Jesus. Human wisdom, human effort is suspect. God is everything and He gives it all to us in Christ Jesus. Apollos is more anthropocentric. For him it is important to understand the truth about God. Human beings are not so much wretched worms waiting to be saved as they are jewels just waiting to be polished.
But now let’s cast all this into a teaching model. The goal in each instance is to effect obedience and reunion with God. How would Peter, Paul and Apollos go about the task of teaching?
Let’s imagine each of them as the piano teacher for a ten-year old boy. The task: Play a Mozart Concerto:
Peter: Peter as a teacher is happy if the student has no memory lapses and gets the notes right. “Perfect!” he exclaims. But he can only speak of perfection because the standard is a limited one. He does not expect a ten-year old to reflect all the fine nuances of great music. The danger is that the student may never even attempt to reach the higher standard.
Paul: Paul as a teacher is a very sensitive musician. “This is great music,” he says. “But you can’t possibly master it. Here, I’ll play it for you.” The substitute takes over. Great music is produced by a master and the student is captivated. But the danger is that the student may never seriously attempt to bridge the gulf between his own abilities and those of the master.
Apollos: Apollos as teacher is especially concerned that the student’s efforts be rewarded. “Good job!” he says, when the student tries hard – regardless of how rough the music might sound. The student feels encouraged. But the danger is that he will mistake effort for mastery.
Note the weaknesses of each: With Peter, the student can view as mastery something that actually is less than mastery. With Paul, the student can allow another to attain mastery instead of attempting it himself. With Apollos, the student may be content to allow effort and good intentions to replace mastery.
A master teacher will incorporate the best of all three elements. I well remember sitting in on a music lesson when one of my daughters was just beginning with a new cello teacher. I was absolutely intrigued as I watched this master teacher blend the best from all three worlds: You can do it! (Peter). There is an awesome standard beyond your reach! (Paul). You did your best, that’s good! (Apollos).
Most Adventists can and do profit from all three perspectives. But our failure to be careful Bible students, distinguishing between the three emphases, makes us very vulnerable if a particular spokesperson for one of the three strands becomes too forthright or too narrow in public statements. One of the best examples is Desmond Ford, who was heavily involved in the Adventist campmeeting circuit, blessing Adventists right and left with his preaching, until his Adventist Forum presentation at Pacific Union College (Oct. 27, 1979). At that fateful meeting he declared that there was “no biblical way of proving the investigative judgment.” Immediately the church was polarized. Careless statements on all sides made matters worse. And some were entirely too eager to paste the label of “new theology” on anything that sounded new, different, or even remotely similar to something Ford might have said. That made teaching or writing very difficult in the church and we are not yet out of the woods on that score.
The differences in people and differences in our relationship with God at different times in our life will often determine which one of the emphases is most helpful at a particular point in our experience. Three key aspects from Adventist life and lore can help to illustrate the differences:
Sin: For Peter, sin consists of deeds; a list of things to do and not to do. Paul sees sin more as a twisted nature, a distortion at the very heart of man. Apollos simply sees sin as flawed intention, a lack of love.
Mediator: How does each of the three relate to that troublesome statement from the pen of Ellen White that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (The Great Controversy, 425)? Both Peter and Paul would see the absence of a mediator as a threat. For Peter, however, the threat can be overcome by perfect obedience. Paul would not know how to interpret such a statement, for he sees Christ as the essential mediator between God and man. Apollos (John) sees the absence of a mediator as a promise, not a threat, a promise of a time when we will know God so well that we will come into his presence without fear.
For me, John’s view of the mediator came as a precious insight while I was a ministerial student at Andrews University. I was asking why I needed a mediator if the Father loved me. So I embarked on a study of the biblical concept of mediation and discovered John 14-17. In particular, John 16:26-27 records Jesus’ statement: “On that day you will ask in my name. I do not [emphasis mine] say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”
The reason for the fundamental difference between Paul and John is that the setting in which each views the mediator is quite different. For John, the Mediator represents the Father to humankind. For Paul, the Mediator is humankind’s representative before the Father. John’s view makes more sense in the setting of a family; Paul’s view makes more sense in the setting of a courtroom. Both concepts are thoroughly biblical, though some will be drawn to one picture more than the other.
Pride: Each of the three traditions is quite capable of reflecting the essence of sin, namely, a wrongful and exclusive pride. The followers of Peter are tempted to claim, “We are the historic Adventists, the only true Adventists.” The followers of Paul are tempted to claim, “We are the only ones who preach the true Gospel.” And the followers of Apollos are tempted to claim, “We are the only ones who really understand the truth about God.” In short, each of the three positions is equally vulnerable to the sinful exaltation of self.
My own insights in this matter have come by a long and circuitous route, and my thinking has been sharpened by the controversy in the church. When Ford declared that there was “no biblical way of proving the investigative judgment,” I was upset with him. The investigative judgment, as I understood it, had become an important part of my theology. So I decided to search out the roots of my understanding of the doctrine. To my amazement, I discovered that my view was based on the later writings of Ellen White, and was not found at all in her earlier works. Ultimately, my research led to the publication of the 6-part Sinai-Golgotha series in the Adventist Review in 1981-82. In short, I traced how Ellen White’s perspective on God shifted from an emphasis on the power of God and external motivation, to an emphasis on the goodness of God, and internal motivation.
In that connection, in the initial version of the study which I presented at the West Coast Religion Teachers Conference at PUC in the Spring of 1980, I gave the distinct impression that Ellen White was moving away from one perspective of the Atonement, a price paid heavenward, toward the other perspective, a message sent earthward. I would now have to say that she was adding the second perspective (Apollos, John), while refining the first (Paul). But right at the end of that presentation, my teaching colleague, Jon Dybdahl, raised a question that set me to thinking.
“What do I say to a student,” he asked, “who says that he has a hard time worshiping a God who insists that human beings stand before the whole universe as a witness to God’s goodness? The student told me that he finds it much easier to worship a God who simply gives us salvation as a gift. What do I say to such a student?”
I sensed that I had come close to something very important to Jon. I asked him if we could talk. We did – for two hours, two precious hours. As we shared, Jon described how the message of Christ’s death on his behalf had transformed his life when he was in mission service in Thailand. I described how I had been blessed at the Seminary by John’s message of the incarnate Mediator.
Just prior to my conversations with Dybdahl I had finished reading a book by Robert Brinsmead (Judged by the Gospel, 1980) in which he had imposed Paul’s courtroom setting on the Gospel of John. So I blurted out, “It’s just not fair to do to John what Brinsmead does to John.” To which Dybdahl responded, “And it’s just not fair to do to Romans what Maxwell does to Romans.” At that point, something like scales fell from both of our eyes, and we realized that I was drawn more to John and he was drawn more to Paul. The perspectives are different, but both are thoroughly biblical. We agreed that we should let John be John, and Paul be Paul. Now we still carry on lively discussions, but don’t have to read each other out of the church. It is a great joy and a relief.
Such an approach requires a more careful reading of both John and Paul, rather than a homogenizing of both. We all have to resist the temptation to claim support for our position from passages that may not share our perspective at all.
Is it not possible that such differences can explain why there were three favorite preachers in Corinth instead of just one? The differences are real. And Paul tells us they are legitimate.
Paul emphasizes the great gulf between God and humanity. That message reaches the hearts of those who have been oppressed by too much of Peter. It reaches those who are just awakening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, those who sense the great chasm between themselves and God. They don’t need a gentle God so much as they need a high and powerful One who stands for all that is holy and good – but who sent Jesus Christ to pay the price for human sin. In Christ such a one can find peace and joy.
But some Adventists, including many who have grown up with good and gentle parents, are very much attracted to Apollos. For them God is gentle and kind. Yes, Paul sows the seed, Apollos waters, but they are particularly blessed by Apollos.
I will not attempt to critique all three positions, but given my own natural home in the Apollos perspective, perhaps I could note what I perceive to be a significant weakness in this position that I call home. To be blunt, our anger often comes up short. God smiles a lot. He even ends up smiling when he shouts. But in the world in which we live, Christians must retain the ability to be angry and get angry. When innocent women are gunned down by an man who hates women – is that not a time for great anger, for being ashamed of this race of beings called human? Apollos has a hard time getting angry enough at sin.
What of the Future?
Can the church learn to live with the differences between Peter, Paul, and Apollos? I hope so. I sense an increasing mood among us to come together, to pray, to share, to help each other in our difficulties and sorrows, to try harder to understand each other. And the variety in Scripture is God’s way of meeting that very need. To sense the differences between Peter, Paul, and Apollos should not tear down the temple of God, but build it up. And our failure to take Scripture seriously places the church at risk. The study of His word is the source of our strength, the measure of our unity. And it is Scripture that also sets the limits for our diversity.
To close this chapter, I will cite a passage from the pen of Ellen White. Generally she is quoted in support of each of the three traditions. And because she wrote so much over such a wide period of time, she can be used to support any of the three perspectives, and even to pit one against the other. But in Counsels to Parents and Teachers, she declares that we need different teachers and the different books in the Bible “because the minds of men differ.” (See lesson #6 in this series for full quote.)
My students and my correspondents have had experiences with the Lord that have enriched me greatly. This world is such a complex place that I am convinced we have only begun to fight when it comes to understanding each other and the needs of those around us. One of the most exciting challenges before us is to learn from Scripture how we can better meet the needs of God’s children. He wants his church to be the place where wounded, hurting people can come together, to find understanding, hope, and courage, and to remind each other that a better world lies ahead. Until that better world comes, may God grant each of us grace to help build the temple of God so that we may all worship within.