“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
In the opening three verses of the most famous chapter on love, Paul, inspired by God argues that love is the essential ingredient in the ministry of the Church as an institution and in the ministry of each and every Believer. In so doing, Paul outlines three common mistakes often made in the ministry of the Church:
- The Cult of Personality
- The Cult of Spirituality
- The Cult of Generosity
Let us consider each of these mistaken ministries.
The Cult of Personality
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1
In the ancient world, oratory (public speaking) was a major attraction and a much sought after skill. At the time Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written it was still quite popular and remained so for centuries after. In fact, oratory was such an important aspect of public life that it was studied and written about by Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. By Paul’s time, oratory was “…an important form of entertainment, with famous orators or declaimers gaining great wealth and prestige for their skills.”
Inevitably, the culture of oration started seeping into the church. Indeed, in earlier chapters of this epistle, Paul had to settle an argument that had sprung up in the Corinthian church, because some had declared themselves followers of Apollos, ostensibly because of his “eloquence” (Acts 18:24). People who were accustomed to great oratory in the marketplace were drawn to it in the Church after they were converted. Though Paul settled the matter by pointing out that the Corinthians were to lift up Christ rather than mere men like himself and Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5-11; 4:5-6), it was clear that the appeal of oratory could become a problem.
Oratory is in essence just communication. And a skillful orator is a skillful communicator. Moreover, there are several ways to communicate. Some people are good at making the complex seem simple. Others are good at empathizing, connecting emotionally, with their audience. Others are good at inspirational/motivational speech. Whatever the method of communication, it centers on the skills of the person: it is driven by personality. Even in Paul’s day, people were caught up in the craft of the individual and would pay good money to hear them communicate/speak.
The effect this had on the Church from then persists to the present day. Many, many Believers choose to attend churches where there is a “good preacher”, by this they mean the pastor is a good orator. In many cases, this reason supersedes doctrine. Many people soak up the heresies of many a “good preacher” just because he/she “says it so well”. They feel “inspired” by the preaching, even if the preaching in doctrinally wrong.
This phenomenon extends to the area of music. Music is a powerful communication tool; it imprints data onto the brain almost imperceptibly. And it connects emotionally in ways yet to be fully understood. Skillful musicians use the allure of music both inside and outside of the church to draw people in. Therefore, music has become a powerful magnet that pulls people to church so that they can ‘get lost in the feeling’: there is a celebration of a communication medium, rather than the message being communicated; just as it was with oratory of old.
Indeed, sophist orators were known to “…charge fees, to ‘make the weaker argument the stronger’.” In other words, the oratory—i.e., the communicator and the mechanics of communication—was more important than the content.
To be clear, skillful preaching and skillful music playing are not of themselves bad things. Scripture instructs us to both play music skillfully as well as to teach skillfully. A problem only arises when the craft supersedes the content, which is the point Paul was making in the first verse of our text: 1 Corinthians 13:1. If God’s love isn’t being channeled through the preacher/musician while he/she speaks then it is pointless.
The point of preaching is not the preacher.
The point of Christian music is not the musician.
The point of both preaching and Christian music is God. The focus in the Kingdom of God is never on a personality; rather, it is always God. And God wants people to know how much He loves them. And the only way for people to know God’s love is for us, believers, to love them.
Therefore, no matter how well a preacher preaches or a musician plays, if the love of God isn’t pouring through his life to those around him, all his preaching/performing is useless.
The Cult of Spirituality
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:2
In all people groups everywhere, from the beginning of creation till now, individuals have sought to set themselves apart to gain an advantage over others using the currency, the values, of the group. If a tribe valued strength, then men would seek to be the strongest to gain an advantage; if a tribe valued courage, men would vie to be the most courageous; if a tribe valued children, the most valued women would be the ones that are most fertile; and so on.
We see this in modern society as well: In academia, research output is the currency, so scientists gain prestige by the number of publications they author. Everywhere money is esteemed and so the wealthiest tend to be the most honored/revered. Teens in schools are probably the best examples of this behavior. Some try to gain prestige through sports, some through “cool” (i.e., social intelligence) some through grades (academic intelligence) and so on.
This phenomenon was also seen in the Bible. As invaders of a land of giants, the Israelites favored Saul because of his height. Leah, unwanted by her husband Jacob, tried to win his favor through childbearing; she was more fertile than her sister Rachel.
This also was the problem being addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:2 (above). Since churches are concerned with the spiritual development of its members, it is natural for spirituality to become the currency among Believers. Accordingly, like all people groups elsewhere, church members would then seek to gain an advantage, to gain prestige, by accumulating the currency of spirituality. The most spiritual would then be the most respected/honored/revered.
Spirituality in churches, as Paul alluded, has two branches that persist even today: we might call them doctrinal branch (“…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge…”) and the charismatic branch (“…though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains…”).
The doctrinal branch focuses on Scriptural knowledge and understanding, while the charismatic branch focuses on works/application of great faith through the employment of spiritual gifts (i.e., the miraculous manifestations of The Holy Spirit). These two branches exist today and churches tend to be dominated by one or the other and there are battles between both camps from time to time.
Paul points out that without charity, without Godly love, both are useless. Spirituality gains favor with man, but not particularly with God. Spirituality, whether by doctrinal knowledge or faith, is not an end in itself. Rather the purpose of spirituality is to facilitate the flow of God’s love from one individual to another.
If with all my great knowledge and/or all my great faith, God’s love does not flow through me to my fellow man then my great knowledge and/or all my great faith has accomplished nothing. Jesus is our example. Jesus did not teach everything to His disciples/followers, rather He sent them the Holy Spirit to indwell their hearts and gradually teach them as much as they needed over time.
The Gospels clearly show that the people were impressed by Jesus’ teaching ability (Matthew 7:28-29), but Jesus repeatedly deflected this attention, even going so far as to use words and concepts that were bound to frustrate those who heard him (John 6); even to the point where many stopped following Him.
Likewise, Jesus manifested the greatest displays of faith through miracles that had ever been seen to that time. Yet, He refused to use that faith to exempt Himself from the greatest work of love: His sacrificial death on The Cross. Imbued with divine knowledge and power, Jesus used both to channel God’s love to us rather than to accumulate prestige to himself.
Brothers and sisters, be careful. There are many who leverage spirituality for personal gain rather than for Godly gain. Do not be taken in. The hallmarks of Believers are love (John 13:34-35) and unity (John 17:21). The world will never be impressed by our knowledge or our faith.
The Word instructs us that it is the love we show and our unity in Christ that will cause the world to believe, nothing else will do. And that is our purpose (Matthew 28:18-20). We are here to teach the Good News of Salvation because God so loved the World that He gave His only Son: God loves and so must we.
The Cult of Generosity
From the outset, man has wrestled God for control of Salvation. When God rejected Cain’s offering, He pointed out to Cain that his offering would have been accepted if he had done well, i.e., if he had offered the right sacrifice (Genesis 4:1-16). Cain could have easily asked or purchased (traded) a lamb from Abel. However, quite bizarrely, Cain decided to kill Abel instead. Why? More curiously, even after killing his brother Cain never took a lamb from Abel’s flock to offer as a sacrifice. Why?
Cain wanted to offer the sacrifice he chose, the sacrifice he thought was sufficient: Cain wanted control of his own salvation. And, from a purely humanistic perspective, Cain’s approach seems fairly reasonable. Here is the argument: If a lamb is worth a certain quantity of crops, why not just offer that same quantity (or even more!) to God. If salvation is a commodity, why does God care whether or not He is paid in sheep or crops?
But, as reasonable as that argument may seem, therein lies the error: Firstly, salvation is not a commodity to be bought; and, secondly, God was not interested in the offering (Micah 6:6-8) He was interested in Cain’s faith and Cain’s obedience. For Cain to have purchased a lamb from Abel, and then offer that lamb with contrition and humility as a sacrifice to God, he would have to believe (have faith) in God’s way rather than his own way. He would have had to accept that there it was important to come to God in the way that God ordained, and that there was no other way.
And that remains a dilemma for mankind, even Believers, till today. The question of who controls salvation is key, because it determines who sets the agenda for our lives. If we have to do what God tells us, then it means God dictates how we must relate to Him. If we can choose our own “offering” then we are the ones who decide how we relate to God.
The commoditization of salvation is endemic is modern society: So many believe that it is possible to please God (and thereby to get into heaven) with an offering of their choice.
“I do good things, I have never hurt anybody, I don’t see why I won’t get into heaven.”
“Are you trying to tell me that God won’t accept all the millions of people all over the world who live good lives every day, just because they aren’t Christians?”
God, however, says there is only one way: through Jesus
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” ~ Acts 4:12
And this is what Paul was warning against in our text: we can’t work our way into heaven through good deeds, through acts of generosity: we are not good enough and that is not an acceptable sacrifice to God. We do not get to choose what pleases God. We do not get to choose what washes away our sin. God has chosen. The only acceptable sacrifice is the Lamb of God: Jesus, The Christ. Our challenge is to accept that sacrifice in faith.
Moreover, if faith in Jesus dwells in a Believer, then Jesus indwells that Believer. The work of faith in a Believer is Jesus working through that Believer. And the work of Jesus on earth, before His return, is to declare, demonstrate and deliver the love of God to every man.
“And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” ~ Romans 5:5
To be clear, generosity, giving, is clearly mandated for each Believer. Indeed, God’s Word devotes many passages to this topic.
“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” ~ 1 John 3:16-17
However, our gifts do not save us and our gifts are not an end in themselves. We are called to give, not for the sake of giving and not as an entryway into God’s kingdom. Rather, we are called to give as a consequence of Jesus’ love pouring through us.
When giving becomes an end in itself, rather than the result of love, we get Church ministries that feed the poor, but do not know the poor; ministries that fill bellies but do not fill souls; ministries that warm the body, without warming the heart. A famous quote from a famous giver says,
“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” ~ Mother Teresa
Hence, let us set forth to accomplish the harder task… while not forgetting the easier. Let Christ work through us to “remove” the “hunger for love”, while also removing the hunger for material things: let us give love as we give bread.
Scripture tells us that we cannot please God without faith:
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” ~ Hebrews 11:6
The message in our text is similarly stark. Here we are told, without LOVE it is impossible to SERVE God. Preaching/Teaching is empty without Godly love, Spirituality is pointless without Godly love and Generosity/Giving is worthless without Godly love.
Moreover, when the three ministries Preaching/Teaching, Spirituality, Generosity/Giving are pursued without love they end up as no more than cults: deceptive deviations from God’s truth and God’s purpose. Therefore, let us take heed and always be guided by Godly love in all our actions, in everything we do.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
~ 1 John 4:7-12