What Will Destroy a Congregation

Andy Sochor

 

If we were to think of potential threats to our local churches, a number of things could be added to the list. Paul made a list like this near the end of his second letter to the church in Corinth. Notice what the apostle wrote:

For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

 

When Paul wrote his first letter to these brethren, there were many problems he needed to address. When we read through the second letter, it is clear that they had made significant improvements. Even so, there were still issues that threatened the health of that congregation.

In the passage above, Paul described some things that would destroy a congregation. It would be helpful for all of us to consider these, even if we are not currently experiencing these problems in our church. If these problems ever do arise, we want to identify them and address them as quickly as possible.

As Paul described the things that would destroy a congregation, we can break them down into three main categories – destroying unity, destroying purity, and refusing help. Let us consider each of these.

Destroying Unity

Paul mentioned eight things that would destroy the unity of a congregation:

  • Strife– This refers to unnecessary contentions and debates among brethren. Paul addressed this at the beginning of his first letter to Corinth when he spoke of the “quarrels” that reportedly existed among them (1 Corinthians 1:11).
  • Jealousy– This Greek word can also be used in a positive sense. Earlier, Paul commended these brethren for their “zeal” (2 Corinthians 9:2), which is the same Greek word. But when this is misdirected, it is destructive. Rather than defending God and His perfect ways, they were defending their own desires and ambitions.
  • Angry tempers– Another translation uses the phrase “fits of rage” (NIV). The word refers to anger that boils up quickly. We have seen people (and may have done so ourselves at times) lose their temper and “fly off the handle.” When we do this, we are not acting reasonably because we have lost our self-control.
  • Disputes– The English Standard Version uses the word “hostility.” This is about partisanship and dividing from one another into our preferred groups. These brethren created factions within the congregation (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:19), drawing the lines upon which they would eventually be divided.
  • Slanders– This means we are speaking evil of others. This is one of the sins we must put aside when we obey the gospel (1 Peter 2:1).
  • Gossip– The wise man warned about the words of a “whisperer” and that “contention quiets down” when that individual is dealt with appropriately (Proverbs 26:20). Spreading gossip, no matter how much truth it contains, will tear apart a congregation.
  • Arrogance– Paul warned the brethren in Rome “not to think more highly of [themselves] than [they] ought to think” (Romans 12:3). Immediately after this, he talked about how they were “individually members one of another” in the local church (Romans 12:5). The implication is that arrogance threatens this unity because one starts to believe that he does not need his brethren, or that they are unimportant.
  • Disturbances– A couple of translations use the term “disorder” here (NIV, ESV). This is about confusion, which is not from God (1 Corinthians 14:33).

 

Why is destroying unity such a problem? First of all, Jesus’ prayer was for the unity of His people: “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). We also gain strength and encouragement from one another, which is only possible when we are united together. Paul told the brethren in Ephesus that “the proper working of each individual part” – each member of the church – “causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).

However, when we are not united with our brethren but instead are cut off from one another, we are more vulnerable. Peter described the devil as “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When a lion hunts its prey, the animals that are alone and without protection from the herd are the easier targets. The same is true for us, which is why being united together with a community of believers is so important. Therefore, we must be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Otherwise, the congregation will slowly be destroyed, making it easier for the devil to take us down one at a time.

Destroying Purity

Paul then mentioned three things that would destroy the purity of a congregation:

  • Impurity– This refers to moral uncleanness in general. It is the opposite of what God called us to be. Paul told the brethren in Thessalonica, “For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:7).
  • Immorality– This is “sexual sin” (NIV) or “fornication” (KJV). Paul addressed this problem in the first letter to these brethren (1 Corinthians 5:1). They were to “flee” from it (1 Corinthians 6:18).
  • Sensuality– The King James Version uses the term “lasciviousness.” When we hear this, we should think of the idea of shamelessness, where one no longer “[knows] how to blush” (Jeremiah 6:15) despite their shameful and sinful behavior.

 

Why is destroying purity such a problem? Jesus wants His church to be free from sin. His plan is to “present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

Paul warned these brethren in his first letter that when sin is accepted, it can quickly spread like leaven through the congregation. When the Corinthians were welcoming an unrepentant fornicator, Paul wrote, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). By continuing to accept this man, they were opening the door for other sins to be introduced among them.

As we noticed in the previous point on the importance of unity, we are to accept one another. Yet this does not mean we welcome sin. Paul told brethren “not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). Within the local church, we are to encourage one another to do good (Hebrews 10:24-25) and help turn back those who fall into sin (Galatians 6:1). But if sin is tolerated and accepted, it will spread its corrupting influence through the whole congregation.

Refusing Help

In reality, every congregation will have problems from time to time. There is no “perfect church” because each one is made up of fallible human beings. While division and immorality will destroy a church, refusing to accept help when facing trouble will do this, too.

Paul tried to help these brethren (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:23-24; 7:2-3). Yet some were trying to turn the brethren against Paul. They wanted to be “regarded…as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:12-13) and were accusing Paul of deceiving them (2 Corinthians 12:15-16). Yet Paul, as an apostle, was speaking for Christ. He told them in the first letter, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Corinthians 14:37). In the second letter, he reminded them of the authority he had from Christ (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10) and of the fact that he was “a true apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:11-12). Therefore, they were to listen to his words, not the false teaching of his accusers.

When we need help (correction, guidance, encouragement, etc.), the ultimate source of this is the word of God.

  • The “word of His grace…is able to build [us]up” (Acts 20:32).
  • All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable” because it equips us “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • It is the basis for the unity that we must be “diligent to preserve” (Ephesians 4:3-6).
  • We can “keep [our]way pure” and avoid sin “by keeping it according to [God’s] word” (Psalm 119:9).

 

This means we need to be open to the teaching of God’s word. Like the brethren in Thessalonica, we need to accept it “not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Yet we must not blindly accept any teaching presented to us. Otherwise, we would be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Instead, we need to test what we are taught, verify that it is true, and then accept it (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22; Acts 17:11).

Conclusion

A congregation cannot survive if it is not united. A congregation cannot continue in the Lord’s favor if it does not remain pure. And a congregation has no hope if they ignore the teachings of God’s word. Therefore, let us strive to maintain “the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3), keep ourselves and our congregations free from sin, and welcome help that comes from or is in harmony with the word of God.

 

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