North Pole

True north: finding a reliable path forward

A compass points toward the earth’s magnetic north. However, the true geographic north pole lies several hundreds of miles away.

Kenny, a friend of mine, recently told me about an international trip where his flight passed between the North Pole and magnetic north. At such a place, if someone were to use a compass to locate the geographic north pole it would point in the exact opposite direction! If we can assume the compass would even function.

To accurately use a compass to discover true north, you must also know your latitude. In other words, to navigate the earth requires both good instruments and the knowledge about how to use them well. For the church to reliably chart its path through difficult scenarios requires understanding how to use well the tools God has supplied for his people. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tackled a rough situation by providing some of these reliable tools for the journey.

Paul’s letter arrived at a church floundering in the divisiveness of “‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ or ‘I am with Cephas,’ or ‘I am with Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:11,12). They lacked a clear course forward.

In the opening chapters of this letter, Paul sought to correct this problem by prescribing two over-arching principles. Then he fine tuned this guidance system with three practical instructions. These apostolic principles can guide both today’s disciple and church in many situations.

We can summarize his first two great principles as:

  1. Do not fixate upon the inconsequential, rather
  2. Center upon the significant.

In their particular situation, various church members had become enamored with different personalities. Paul knew that the messenger was inconsequential. He worked hard at helping them to realize they should not exalt humanity nor its wisdom.

He questioned what the wise man and scholar had to offer, since God had made human wisdom foolish (1 Corinthians 1:19-20). In fact, Paul was sent to preach the gospel without using human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1,13)!

Further evidence that the guiding focus for the church should not be various personalities, God often works contrary to human expectation and reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:26,27).  At best, God’s messengers are servants of God who will be held accountable for their ministry (1 Corinthians 3:5-4:1). Thus, people are neither the source nor do they create the standard for determining what is valuable, useless or destructive (1 Corinthians 3:10-17).

Conversely, the church at Corinth needed to rally around what is truly significant.  In just a moment, we’ll consider how Paul attempted to shift their focus toward God. First, however, consider a listing of some additional significant, unifying and guiding truths for the church:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4-6

Returning to 1 Corinthians we hear Paul assert that not only does God’s wisdom triumph over human wisdom, moreover the preaching of Christ crucified unleashes his power to save (1 Corinthians 1:18,21). This wisdom of God was set in place before time began (1 Corinthians 2:7).  Furthermore, not only does God assign the tasks and cause the church to grow (1 Corinthians 3:5,6), he also provides the standard for determining what is valuable, useless or destructive (1 Corinthians 3:12-17).

Paul seems to anticipate our need to fine tune this compass in order that it might point toward true north.  So he concludes this initial short lesson on how to reliably chart a course forward with three specific and practical guidelines.

  1. Regard the messenger as a steward (1 Corinthians 4:1).
  2. Realize our thinking does not determine what is good or bad (1 Corinthians 4:4-5). Perhaps a quick observation is in order. Most people probably understand the prohibition against judging as teaching us that we should not sit in God’s seat to determine what should be condemned. This is true. Equally true is that the command to not judge also prohibits us from sitting in God’s seat to determine what is valuable and approved!
  3. Recognize the danger of speculation; stick with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 4:6). Given the context, Paul’s emphasis might be upon evaluating different ministries.

Whether as disciples or as a congregation, God’s people need to know how to navigate the shoals and dangerous situations confronting us. The compass Paul offers us provides reliable guidance in setting our journey toward true spiritual north.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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