For many years European countries have been fairly antagonistic to anything religious or ‘spiritual’. The powerful Roman Catholic Church has desperately tried to maintain its influence over its followers, but the influences of the Reformation 500 years ago on the Protestant community have long been dead and buried in many churches. Evangelical mission organisations have found it difficult to break through the secularism and materialism that dominates the mindset of many Europeans.
But, secularism hasn’t been able to bring the satisfaction people thought it would, neither has the materialism. Many are left with a sense of emptiness, and a longing for something more. There has now been a turning to what people regard as ‘spiritual’. Not to religion, but to something that people can’t even define for themselves. All they sense is that there is something beyond themselves, and beyond what they can reasonably understand, but it’s a world they want to tap into. The danger, of course, is that the next stage can lead people to outright superstition, and even into occult experiments.
This is not new in the history of some of the European countries. Despite the strong influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in countries like Russia and Ukraine, superstition and the occult go hand-in-hand with their religious beliefs. One example of this is the popularity of ‘babushkas’ who are paid to whisper into the lives of people who are in need of healing. This is done while people continue to maintain that they are Orthodox believers.
The term ‘spiritual’ has become an ‘in’ word in western countries. People who have rejected organised religion, nevertheless pride themselves in being ‘spiritual’. Some have borrowed eastern practices such as ‘meditation’, yoga, and so on. Apart from having some kind of calming, or even uplifting emotional experience, this spirituality is impossible to define. Like drugs, it’s an experience that has to be repeated again and again, because it doesn’t leave any lasting, beneficial, or satisfying effects. Usually it bypasses the mind, because it requires the ‘emptying’ of the mind.
Some people talk about having a spiritual experience when they look at the wonders of nature; or, when they listen to beautiful music; or, when they hear of extraordinary sacrificial actions of others.
The true and the false
When the Bible uses the term ‘spiritual’, it carries an entirely different meaning. It has to do with a relationship with God, who is Spirit. Just in case someone says, ‘But that is what we mean by spiritual. We mean some kind of connection with ‘god’, or whatever you might call this other being.’ The Bible, however, recognises only one God, and he is the Father of Jesus Christ. The whole concept of God as the ultimate being eliminates the possibility of there being more than one God. And, he has not left us to discover him, or to connect to him. He has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and through the Bible that is his message to us who are on earth.
The Bible acknowledges that we exist in a world where Satanic influences do exist; influences that are actively working against the good things God wants to accomplish in the world. Satan counterfeits the genuine work of God, in order to spoil the good, and in order to dishonour God. In contrast to God, Satan is an evil spirit, and people can get caught up with spiritual powers that belong to darkness, and not to light. This is where the danger occurs, unless we get guidance about what is true and what is false.
A wrong understanding of what is ‘spiritual’ existed in the early Church as well. This is particularly obvious in some of Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian Church. So, what exactly was the nature of this problem in Corinth, and what did Paul have to say about it?
Background to the Corinthian Church
Corinth was a seaport in Greece, and like many seaports around the world even today, it was a very prosperous but very immoral city. The Greeks had a word for people who lived a life of debauchery—it was, to live like the Corinthians. Even the religion of Corinth promoted immorality among the very mixed population. The large temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, dominated the city landscape, and 1000 priestesses of the temple, who were sacred prostitutes, emerged on the streets of the city after dark. In some of the pagan rituals the worshippers would work themselves into a frenzy, until they were taken over by demonic powers, babbling away, not knowing what they were saying, undoubtedly cursing everything that was good. Corinthian Christians were familiar with ecstatic experiences in their pagan past.
The population of Corinth has been described as a bad mixture of Roman bourgeois, Greek adventurers who were tainted by Phoenician practices, masses of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, traders, vendors of small goods, and all kinds of agents of vice. Some have compared Corinth in Paul’s time, with some of the inner-city suburbs of our large cities.
When Paul talks about the kind of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God, he says to the Corinthians,
Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.” (1 Cor.6:10-11).
Many in the Corinthian Church came from a very rough background, and their attitudes towards others, their ways of thinking, and their practices still needed to change much more. Not only was this true of the way they lived, but of the way they worshipped. The quality of people’s worship always influences the quality of their lives. The Corinthians had to understand the meaning of what was ‘spiritual’, in a new way.
A gifted but immature Church
At the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul tells them how thankful he was for the changes that had taken place in them since they turned to Christ. He says that they “do not lack any spiritual gift” (1:7), and what’s more, they eagerly waited for Christ’s return. These things sound like good qualities in the life of any Church.
For the last 40-50 years, western Churches of various denominations have emphasised the importance of “gifts”, and the need to use them in the life and ministry of the Church. We have a great regard for people who are ‘gifted’. We love gifted musicians, gifted speakers, gifted administrators, and so on. Some have even said that God shows a Church what ministries it needs to exercise by the kind of gifts that are present among its members. All you need to do is identify the gifts within the congregation and you should have a pretty good idea what kinds of ministries God wants you to be involved in.
Yet, Paul had more problems to resolve in the life of the Corinthian Church than he had in any other Church that we are aware of. Why? In the third chapter of his first letter he tells us.
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. (3:1-2).
People in the Corinthian Church were converted. The changes that had taken place in their lives were obvious in many areas, including the way they talked, in their behaviour, and in their knowledge of God. (1:5). But, they still had a long way to go. Now, this is true of every Christian. We all need to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God. Ongoing growth should characterise every genuine believer in Christ. We should all move from spiritual infancy, through spiritual adolescence, towards spiritual maturity.
There are some changes that are essential and urgent, and need to be understood from the beginning of our Christian life if we are to move forward in our life as believers. Giftedness is no guarantee of being ‘spiritually mature’. It is no guarantee that people’s understanding of life has changed the way it should, or that they are prepared to use their gifts for the glory to God, rather than for their personal advancement.
God has given all of us different gifts so that we can enjoy life and make the most of it. I can relax and listen to some music beautifully played, and realise that this person is extraordinarily gifted. What is my natural response to this? Do I automatically praise God for giving such a gift to this person; or, do I tell myself how wonderful this person is? I think most of us would think of the person, rather than God.
In this lies the difference between spiritual gifts and the way natural gifts are usually used. Spiritual gifts have been given to the Church, primarily, and only secondarily to individuals. They are to be used for God’s glory, for the building up of God’s people to spiritual maturity, and to help them be more effective witnesses for Christ in the world. Sin always changes the focus from God-centredness to man-centredness. And this problem can easily invade the life of the Christian Church. It happens when we put people on a pedestal that belongs to God alone.
Let me give you an example. Some people complain about the modern songs that seem to have dispossessed hymns in worship services. They don’t like the loud bands that accompany this kind of music. Many young people, however, love this new experience in the life of the churches they have viewed in the past as ‘staid’. To be part of these bands is the ambition of many young people. For them, these performances are ‘great’. They are obviously moved by the beat and the loudness. Yet, I have heard some of the same songs played by other bands in a much more restrained, and worshipful way, so that focus has been, not on the performance, but on the message of the songs. The one has drawn attention to itself, while the other, to God. Giftedness in music is no guarantee of spiritual maturity of those who lead.
In the case of the Corinthians their giftedness did not lead them to spiritual maturity; instead, it led them to personal pride.
When Paul comes to the twelfth chapter of this letter, he is about to correct their understanding of spiritual gifts, particularly the use of ‘tongues’, which the Corinthians seemed to think was the ultimate expression of spirituality. Before he goes on to speak about gifts generally, he lays the foundation for their understanding of all spiritual gifts.
Most of Bibles begin this chapter with “Now about spiritual gifts”. In fact, the Greek text is not quite as clear as that. When Paul refers to spiritual gifts, he usually uses the Greek word, ‘charismata’. In this case, however, he uses the word ‘pneumatikōn’, which can mean spiritual gifts or a spiritual person. I think Paul does it deliberately. Before he sets out to talk about the importance of spiritual gifts, and how they are to be understood and used, he wants to emphasise the character of the person who alone will use these gifts in the right way. It is a spiritual person.
The question arises, ‘What is a spiritual person?’ Not as the world talks about ‘spirituality’, but as the Bible interprets it. It is this that had to be resolved in the Corinthian Church.
Whatever the array of gifts the Corinthians may have had, they seemed to place a particular stress on those that were more extraordinary, such as the gift of tongues. We, on the other hand, might put our stress on music. Someone might ask, but how can music be associated with ‘spiritual experiences’? I know of young people who have served as what is called these days, ‘praise leaders’, saying, when I sing some these songs, I just want to burst out in tongues.’ They feel that it would be the ultimate spiritual experience. Paul begins his discussion of the whole issue of spirituality by reminding them that before they were converted, they had similar experiences in their pagan religious worship.
You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. (12:2).
The word ‘influenced’ or ‘carried away’, suggests moments of ecstasy experienced in heathen rituals, where they were possessed by supernatural powers. Although their idols were mute, unable to hear or to respond to the worshippers, the worshippers themselves were carried away by influences beyond their control in noisy pagan ceremonies. In other words, they surrendered themselves to evil spirits who took control of them, and led them into ecstatic, emotional experiences, where minds played no part. That was their background, and some of them were inclined to seek this kind of experience even after their conversion. Just because they were converted did not guarantee that they no longer had the desire to experiment with the supernatural again. It is possible that some of them, under the influence of the supernatural, were actually cursing Christ, not aware of what they were doing. That is why Paul says to them,
“no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed” (12:3).
But then he goes on to the central issue of what he wants to say to them.
“No-one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit.” (12:3).
Of course anyone can simply mouth the words, ‘Jesus is Lord’. But, no-one can call him, ‘Lord’, meaningfully, unless they have had a life-changing experience of Christ. Some people say that the only proof of a person’s conversion we can ask of him or her, is their confession that Jesus is Lord. What they forget is the context in which the early believers were called on to make this statement.
‘Jesus is Lord’
In the early Church, to call Jesus Christ, Lord, meant that from that point of time you could not call anyone else ‘lord’, not even the Emperor who demanded this of you. And if you were not prepared to acknowledge the Emperor as ‘lord’, you were in danger of losing your job, your livelihood, your friends, and possibly even your life. The Christians knew that Jesus Christ had to be pre-eminent, and this could not be compromised. The early believers knew the price they had to pay in acknowledging Jesus as Lord. While these words can easily be mouthed by us today, the price paid in living out this truth, at work, at school, at university, in the office, on the factory floor, and so on, can be pretty high. It’s not the words, but what they stand for, that is significant. This confession is a public acknowledgement that we are not our own any longer; we belong to the One this world despises.
How does God rule in our lives?
Yes, we have been given the Holy Spirit as God’s gift of grace to help us. He is not in us to help us achieve our personal ambitions. He is in us to help us live the kind of life that is glorifying to God. He is in us to help us work out the kind of obedience to God that Christ displayed to the Father. Yes, he is there to comfort, strengthen, lead, and encourage us, but only while we are doing his will. His main task is to lead us and help us to be conformed to the image of Christ, and to teach us what it means to be a truly spiritual person with whom God can have fellowship, and to whom he can communicate.
Our relationship with God isn’t meant to be a purely mystical one where the Spirit communicates to us directly. That kind of ‘communication’ is too susceptible to giving us only what we want for ourselves. Perhaps, that is why many church-going people spend little or no time reading and studying the Bible. They feel that they have the Spirit of God, and that’s all they need. What these people forget is that God, who is Spirit, communicates through his Word. He has given us the Bible as a revelation of himself. It tells us what his will is for this world that has rebelled against him. It tells us that people are on the way to a Christless eternity unless they repent and turn back to God through his Son Jesus Christ. It tells us how to live in this kind of antagonistic world. It tells us about our eternal inheritance in Christ. So, how can anyone who claims to be a Christian, not make every effort to understand what God wants us to understand. It makes no sense.
Jesus Christ exercises his lordship in our lives by the Holy Spirit, who in turn, uses the Word of God to show us how that lordship is to be worked out in our daily lives. For Christians living in today’s ever-changing world, constantly facing the temptation to be like everyone else around us, influenced by the entertainment world, we can easily bring the world’s values and practices into the life of the Church. We see this in the way some of the so-called ‘worship’ services are conducted. Even while we claim ‘Jesus is Lord’, our perspectives and practices show the extent to which we have allowed the world to show us how we should do things.
When some of the Corinthian believers surrendered themselves to ecstatic experiences in their worship services, they probably weren’t even aware of the essential difference between their pagan forms of worship and what was required of them in their Christian meetings. Just as they had to learn the difference from what Paul had to say to them, so we need to learn from the Word of God, the difference between how the world conducts itself, and what God requires of us who have been called out of the values and practices of a godless society. It is in these things that Christ’s lordship has to be acknowledged and worked out. Once this priority is sorted out in our lives, we will have a better idea why we have been given our gifts, and how we are to do God’s work, God’s way.
Worship in spirit and with mind
When Jesus told the Samaritan woman that God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:24), he did not suggest that the mind has to go into neutral gear when we worship God. Coming back to Paul and his letter to the Corinthians, he went on to say,
If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. (1 Cor. 14:14-15).
This is what the Corinthians failed to understand. While they were in their ecstatic state, they had no idea what was going on, or what they were in fact saying. Paul tells the Corinthians to stop thinking like children, and start thinking like adults. (14:20). What did he mean by that? When people think only of what they can get out of an experience, and not of the benefits they are to bring to others, they are still at the infant stage. They are childishly introverted. Paul had already told them that he could not address them as spiritually mature believers (1 Cor. 3:1). Our understanding of what God is like, and how he works is processed through our minds as we allow the Holy Spirit to interpret God’s Word to us. It is this understanding that needs to work in cooperation with our spirit. If we are not to fall into the trap of an unbiblical spirituality, or, even worse, into an occult experience, our minds have to be engaged. Paul says,
The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (14:32).
Spiritual maturity comes increasingly when Jesus Christ’s lordship is acknowledged and accepted in our lives. This has to do with our obedience to the Word of God as it impacts on every area of our lives. Only then, will we know gifts he has given us, and how to use them in harmony with his will. Not only does the gift have to be used towards the God-given goal, but it has to be used in the right spirit. It has to help others into a deeper relationship with God, and not for personal aggrandisement.