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Relevance is irrelevant (Part 4)

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series

"Relevance is Irrelevant"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I believe that the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians ought to guide our thinking concerning the relationship of our efforts to minister the grace of Jesus Christ and so-called cultural relevance. This series has been slowly working through those chapters, seeking to understand the words of Paul, and then apply them to our own ministry practice today.

In part 3, we saw how Paul contrasts worldly and godly wisdom. Worldly wisdom seeks to understand the world apart from God’s revelation. Christ is the wisdom of God, especially in the focal point of his person and work, as seen in his death and resurrection. Paul says in 1:22-23,

The Jews demand signs

and Greeks seek wisdom,

but we preach Christ crucified

a stumbling block to Jews

and folly to Gentiles,

but to those who are called,

both Jews

and Greeks,

Christ

the power of God

and the wisdom of God.

Here is the message no worldling could ever invent. The fancy of natural men is piqued by all sorts of different things (here signs for Jews and wisdom for Greeks), but the revealed message of God concerning the redemption for men through the crucified Christ is the only hope of salvation.

Paul’s main point remains that it is the preaching of the cross that works effectively in bringing men and women to Christ. In mere preaching God wants to bring wretched men and women to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. As I said in part 2, the message of our preaching points to Christ and as such sets him before sinners as the only hope of salvation, and thus in the foolishness of preaching God works to bring men to Christ. Preaching here is the proclamation of the revealed message of God that salvation comes through the crucified Christ.

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Evangelicals and Relevance

Having shown that in mere preaching God brings sinners to himself through Jesus Christ, he now turns to the Corinthians themselves as hard evidence that God’s ways are not man’s ways. This too emphasizes the contrast between worldly wisdom and godly wisdom.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:26-29).

Paul says to the Corinthians, “Look around you. Look at the kinds of people who fill your pews. Not many of you are philosophers or smart, not many of you are doing miracles, and not many of you have ‘blue blood.'” If we were trying to construct our own religion, and we could pick anyone we like to join our cult, we’d want people with prestige, power, and academic brilliance among the people we chose to join our ranks. But God doesn’t work that way. Even in the kinds of people God is working to save, God is showing that he does not work according to man’s vain wisdom. By saving the unexpected, God glorifies himself and his own wisdom above the empty opinions of men.

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Worship that Cannot Be Touched

Frankly, I think it is amusing how worked up Christians get when they find out some celebrity or professional athlete or renowned scholar is a Christian. It’s as if this paragraph was never written. But we look at such phenoms as a kind of bolster for our own faith. We so rarely see the important people of this world confessing Christ that we think that those who are important somehow vindicate our beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is of God’s great condescension and mercy that even saves celebrities, actors, professional athletes, or renowned scholars. Ultimately, this fawning over Christian celebrities betrays our own lack of faith in God. We ought to believe God’s message about Christ simply because it is the message that has come to us from the greatest being in the universe, the Almighty, All-wise God himself. Christianity’s truth has nothing to do with the celebrities who profess Christ. It has everything to do with the God who has revealed himself in Christ.

That said, I am grateful for celebrities who happen to be Christian and I pray that they humbly and faithfully serve the Lord and Master and seek to defray human glory in an age that worships it. Moreover, Paul’s words in vv 26-29 do not mean that God never chooses those who are wise, powerful, or well-born, but that, as a matter of fact, it is not his custom, in order that he might always get the glory.

Unfortunately, American evangelicalism has tried to leverage worldly celebrity culture for evangelism as well. We see churches scheduling big names to draw a crowd and thereby bring men and women to Christ. This practice directly contradicts Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 1. God doesn’t care about worldly celebrity. He wants to glorify his Son. God wants it so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God” (1:29). Woe to us if we regard the celebrity that God deliberately avoids, even if we regard the celebrity in order to save souls! We are not desperate people, for the message of the cross is the power of God (1:18). We do not need to stoop to these tactics. Of course, despite our best efforts to mess up the stewardship God has given to us as his ambassadors in the use of such gimmicks, God still genuinely and graciously saves men and women. But even such genuine fruit does not justify the methods employed.

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Isn't there any room for preference?

God wants to turn worldly wisdom on its head. See the proof again when you gather with your fellow believers this coming Lord’s Day. Your pews will be filled, not with the smart, nor with the miracle workers, nor even with many well-born, but with simple, ordinary sinners, all of whom have experienced the saving power of God through Jesus Christ crucified.

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Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.

6 Responses to Relevance is irrelevant (Part 4)

  1. Excellent stuff. How many "tactics" and gimmicks are tolerable? Because it seems that these things are often judged today on a sliding scale or are only a matter of degree.

  2. I believe that no "tactic" or "gimmick" is tolerable.

    This is where we must be ready to make clear and honest distinctions. For example, I believe there is a difference between being hospitable as a good neighbor and disingenuously doing certain things because we believe it makes Jesus more palatable.

  3. I agree with you Ryan. And my question wasn't because I didn't but because what you are describing is rampant everywhere. I believe that 1 Corinthians debunks it, as you show, and then on through the book. The Corinthians judged their own spirituality by the affects, some the result of ecstasy that was obviously counterfeit religious experience.

    I think the tactics and gimmicks are generally accepted in evangelicalism and then accepted on a sliding scale in fundamentalism.

  4. Great discussion of 1.Cor 2, Ryan. I can agree with most of what you wrote but have a few doubts about the absoluteness of denying 'celebrities' to be used in evangelization. I understand you as saying that adding celebrity to the gospel comes down to using embellishing means to make it more palatable to unbelievers. I wonder whether we need to distinguish more clearly between the means and the message. Regarding the message, we have a clear example in Paul as someone who would not bend to fashions or fads to 'dumb down' the gospel or make it easier to swallow, solely relying on the power of the Holy Spirit. As to the means, if you say that using celebrity to draw crowds debilitates the gospel, that needs more clarification.

    Think about Eric Liddell, for example. He won in the Olympic Games and became at least a Scottish celebrity. Yet, he used his standing to teach people the way of God, and probably had a lot of influence and many were inspired by his dedication to God without compromise. Can we say in any way that his celebrity hampered his ability to get people interested in God?

    Or what about a pastor who becomes famous? Tim Keller has managed to grow a large church in New York by preaching an intelligent gospel that does not avoid the difficult questions many intellectuals have. Now being famous, should he therefore turn down speaking engagements since he would be risking to make the message ineffective since people only come to hear him because he is a best-selling author? Or what about Billy Graham, nearly a household name in the Western world?

    I find it hard to tell an athlete or actor or musician that they should not be allowed to evangelize (or speak in churches – since encouraging churches not to invite them comes down to a prohibition for them to speak) just because they are famous. Aren't we rather looking at how the gospel is actually preached, rather than why people come to hear it? If the preaching is genuine and without the 'special skills' that Paul was taking about, can it not trigger real conversions through the working of God's Spirit, regardless of who is speaking?

    There may be a problem with 'tricking people', especially if it is not clear they will hear about the Bible when they come to hear some celebrity speak, or come to church for a rock concert and are then served a somewhat clumsy 'message' as well. Yet, Christians have genuine concerns for the unsaved and hope that something or someone may make it easier for them to come to church – but if they then hear a Pauline message, why exactly would that not be acceptable? I know there is often only a watered-down message at such events but I'm asking in theory here, i.e. can we not create opportunities to reach those who would otherwise not come to church and then present them with a gospel if the latter is not modified to please the crowd?

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