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Author:Pastor Dirk Boersma
  Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
Preached At:Emmanuel American Reformed Church
 Denver, Colorado
Title:The ground rule for the church of Christ:
Text:1 Corinthians 4:6-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Law is Good

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Call to worship Rev4,9-11
Song of praise Ps 18, 15.16
Reading of the law / Confession of sin
Declaration of mercy Ps 28, 6-8
Song of response Ps 17, 2.4.6
Reading from Scripture 1Cor4,1-7
Song before the sermon Ps 19, 3.4
Sermon text 1Cor4,6-7
Song after the sermon Hymn 40
Song after the offering Hymn 63
Suggestions for prayer * pray for the church that it will continue to obey this ground rule
* pray for members that they will read and study the Scriptures with respect for its unity and may grow in insight
* pray for the evangelism work of the church, that the members may learn how they are involved in it and may become (or continue to be) active in it
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ,

I’ve heard people say more than once: ‘There are so many churches. The truth is available in many different forms. I don’t know what is right any more. How would anyone know?’

You can meet others who are very convinced that they are doing the right thing. They say ‘God spoke to me and told me to do this.’ And they go ahead, convinced that this is God’s will.

How do you respond? Will you just say ‘My view is right. The tradition of our church is so old, but these views are just modern misinterpretations.’ You can argue from the age of your tradition or from the number of people who believe the same, but you still haven’t solved the problem. The majority can be wrong. Someone in the past may have made a mistake and begun a tradition that is flawed. How would you find that out? How do you know the truth for sure?

Is it just up in the air: everybody is free to think how they feel like? Whatever is most convincing or best fits your lifestyle is good enough for many people. But... is it true?

How can you decide what’s right and wrong?

In the Bible, God has already addressed this issue. He does not want his church to grope around in the dark, guessing and trying.

Paul teaches us

The ground rule for the church of Christ: do not go beyond what is written.

1. this is the foundation of the church
2. this brings unity.

1. This is the foundation of the church
Our society is full of contracts and other legal documents. Before you install software on your computer you have to click a button and agree with a license agreement that you probably did not read. There are contracts for virtually any agreement between two persons or companies. What are they for?

In case of a disagreement you have a document you can refer to and say: ‘This is what we agreed on. You can read it here, black on white.’

What is written is fixed and secure. You are probably familiar with the expression ‘it is written in stone’. This means that it does not change. A contract that has been drawn up (written) and signed is legal and binding. When a judge decides about a lawsuit, a written contract supersedes anything that has been promised verbally. What is written counts and can be checked by everyone.

When Paul says ‘do not go beyond what is written’ this has a similar meaning. The phrase ‘It is written’ is used very often in the Bible. The few times it shows up in the Old Testament it refers to the law. Most of the time you find it in the New Testament. There it refers back to the Old Testament, which was the only part of the Bible then available. When Jesus and the apostles referred to the Old Testament with these words ‘It is written’, they did this for two purposes: first to announce that something that happened is a fulfillment of a word God had spoken earlier. The things Jesus did had been announced in the books of the prophets and the law, and many of these things are introduced by saying ‘as it is written’.

The other way of using these words is even stronger. Maybe you remember Jesus’ response when satan tempted him in the wilderness. Every time, he said no and argued by saying:

"It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone’; and again ‘It is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

He concluded by saying: "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’"

He responded to all these temptations by quoting the word of God in the Old Testament as the only and ultimate authority for man.

Paul’s affirmation should not surprise us, then. It is in line with Jesus’ teaching: God’s word is authoritative for every human being and for his church. Going beyond it by following other rules, ideas, or principles means that you push it aside and in fact deny its authority.

This rule is the foundation of the church: do not go beyond what is written.

It is quite meaningful that Paul reminds the Corinthians of this ground rule for the church. May you know that Paul had to correct and rebuke that church because they looked down on him while they found themselves pretty savvy and modern. Paul does not defend himself by pulling rank and appealing to his authority as apostle.

His words in v. 6 show that he was subject to the same rule he holds the Corinthians accountable to. There is no special privilege for apostles, elders, or pastors in the church, and the rules for them are no different than for the other members.

According to v. 6 he and Apollos followed this rule when they planted the church in Corinth. This is the foundation of the church: the Word of God, written in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone of the building, the church rests on him and depends on his saving work. Because he is the owner, our Lord, he determines the goals of the church and the way how these goals should be reached. The will of Christ is completely in line with the will of God as expressed in the Old Testament.

This is the foundation Paul and Apollos laid. When they preached the gospel they followed what they had received from Christ and what the Holy Spirit told them. They did not tune in with the then-current Greek thinking, trying to please the Corinthians. They did not put their spin on the gospel and try to stand out and gather a following of their own. There was a striking similarity between Paul’s teaching and approach and Apollos’. They laid the same foundation. They did not go beyond what is written, but preached God’s will and proclaimed what he had revealed.

V. 6 is a summary of vs. 1-5: "I have applied these things to myself and Apollos". He was talking about his own task in the church in the image of a steward. God had entrusted the apostles with his secret things: the gospel of Jesus Christ, his death, and resurrection. They were in charge of making this known. The most important characteristic for a steward, the one thing that counted when the owner would evaluate his work, was that he had to be faithful to the instruction his employer gave him.

The instruction for apostles and also for all preachers who would come later, and for the church of all ages is contained in the Scriptures. The instruction is written down. Everybody can read it and find out what God’s will is for the church. Like stewards we don’t have the freedom to change it and bend it any way we like.

There is no room for our own interpretation which could lead to a different instruction, a different set of goals for the church, depending on the circumstances or following the changing culture.

But are the Scriptures so clear? Isn’t it true that they can be interpreted in many different ways?
Not so fast. First of all, Peter writes in 2Peter1 that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (NASB translation). This can mean that the prophets did not make up their own message. It can also refer to how we should deal with the words they spoke: we cannot interpret it in any way we like. The one who spoke determined the meaning of his words, we do not have the freedom to put our spin on it.

This is why the churches of the Reformation have formulated the following principle in interpreting the entire Bible: we need to compare Scripture with Scripture We are not allowed to pick a verse and isolate it from the rest of the Bible. Bible readers are not ventriloquists who make the text say something else than it does. Not going beyond what is written means that we need to take the whole Bible into account if we want to understand one of its parts. God did not speak as an oracle, in separate sentences. The Bible is a unified whole, inspired by one author, the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we find something unclear we need to compare it to other parts of the Bible that are clearer, in order to find the meaning. We are not allowed to read our own thoughts into the Bible.

If we follow this principle we obey the word of our Lord. He has clearly expressed his will in the Scriptures and wants his church to listen and obey.

The church has received an enormous privilege to be the steward of God’s secrets, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only by obeying and applying the instruction he has given us in his word will we build on this foundation and will we remain the church of Christ.

Given the fact that the instruction for the church was written down, it should surprise us that there are so many different ideas about the church, and that churches follow so many different practices.

We face the temptation to treat the church like a business. We set our goals and find the most practical way to reach them. Find out what works, what gives results, and that’s what we should do.

Christians go to the Bible to determine biblical goals for the church but may still employ any means possible to reach those goals. Even in the means we choose, however, we need to listen to God’s will.

To give you a practical example: since we know that the Holy Spirit convinces sinners and brings them to repentance, we need not try to bring people to repentance by putting pressure on them, like by calling them forward with an altar call. How many people have given in to peer pressure and come forward, only to discover later they needed to do it again because it did not come from their heart?

Neither should we try to convince people with the power of our words, our charisma or convincing presentation.

This does not mean, however, that we can fold our arms and say ‘Well, we leave it all to the Holy Spirit’. No, the Holy Spirit has entrusted his church with God’s secrets, and wants us to make his word heard. So we are involved
2. This brings unity

This ground rule for the church has a visible effect and a practical result when it is obeyed.

Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their pride, visible in their boasting about their favorite leaders and rallying around them in factions. The church fell apart and was internally divided because of this attitude.

How strange that this happened. Paul stresses that both Apollos and he had followed the same principle, this ground rule. There was a striking uniformity in their conduct and teaching. Although Apollos was a Greek, educated in Alexandria and Paul was a Jew from Tarsus , trained by rabbi Gamaliel, they laid the same foundation because they both submitted to the word of God. They never were competitors and never tried to gather their own following.

Given this similarity and unity in their approach it is strange that the Corinthians succeeded in forming opposing groups, one following Paul and the other Apollos. If they had understood what these two men had been doing they would not have split into groups.

The same is true today. How different preachers may be in their personalities, their background, their presentation, the way they interact with people, there is and should be one common feature: their teaching should be the same, following this ground rule, building on the same foundation. It is wrong to follow a preacher and leave the church because of him.

But what was the case? The Corinthians became proud. Instead of accepting God’s truth through the apostles they claimed they had insight. The Greek philosophies had one thing in common: truth comes by thinking about the world and reasoning with common sense. It is something that you reach by your own efforts. And when you have it, you proclaim it as your accomplishment. And you want people to follow you, to admire you. This is how the Corinthians behaved and how they looked at their leaders. Suddenly Apollos looked way more interesting than Paul. And the preachers who came along later were even more impressive.

Pride never unites. In the local church, it creates disagreement and dissension. You begin to promote your own views, you want recognition. You want to be heard and refuse to accept someone else’s view as better. Your ego comes into play. Admitting you are wrong would mean defeat!

Once you leave the foundation of God’s word behind you soon end up with as many opinions as there are people. Nothing is binding anymore, because it just somebody’s opinion. There can be no common direction and goal any more.

However, when we all follow this ground rule we will see ourselves growing into a deeper unity. We will be released from our own petty concerns and favorite ideas. You will no longer be interested in gaining a platform for your views and getting people to rally behind you.

This is also true beyond the local level. If there is one reason why there are so many different churches - a fact that is utterly confusing to non-Christians and young Christians who are looking for direction - this is it: a preacher starts proclaiming his own ideas. People begin following popular views rather than the Bible. The ground rule has been violated. Maybe it is silently abandoned or ignored; maybe it is openly opposed and declared old-fashioned. In both cases the church turns a corner and begins to chart a different course. And then there are as many different teachings and ways of being church as there are opinions and ideas in the world. And the unity goes out the window.

I was reading a sermon this week that was preached in 1944 just after the Secession in the Netherlands had happened. This was the very first sermon prof Schilder preached in one of the churches that had liberated itself from the decisions of Synod. Synod had imposed its own interpretation on the churches and had misused its authority to force it on the local churches. It was with good reason that these verses were the text for the sermon. Do not go beyond what is written. Do not bind people’s consciences with your own ideas, but submit to the Bible. We follow this ground rule in our church order which states that we will accept Synod decisions as binding unless they are proven to be in conflict with the Word of God. Only what is written in the Scriptures should be binding in the church.

This attitude of following your own ideas is essentially pride - which is a sin. Pride is the opposite of humility and submission to God. Pride demands that my ego is stroked, that I get recognition and become important. Pride is the enemy of grace.

This becomes clear in Paul’s other words:

Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

"What do you have that you did not receive?" The church exists by grace alone. We receive everything from Christ without deserving anything. Receiving means acknowledging that you did not produce or create this. You only have it in your hands because someone else gave it to you: Jesus Christ, your Lord, earned it by dying for you on the cross.

What a distorted image a church shows when it begins drawing attention to itself. When people begin boasting in their talents and accomplishments. What kind of church would you have if your pastor was out here to gain a following and trying to be popular?

This principle ‘only the Scriptures’ is tightly connected with the other principle ‘only by grace’. It is striking that in the time of the Reformation both these principles were rediscovered and the church was realigned and put back on the solid foundation of the work of Christ.
We owe our existence to him. He taught us that we are like branches connected to the vine: ‘Without me you can do nothing’.

Although unity will soon disappear when we violate this ground rule, it is not automatically and immediately there when we obey the ground rule. This involves a process of growth. We will find that we think differently about things. We can ignore these differences and act as if we have unity. That is not going to solve anything. Or we can refuse to care about any differences, thinking as modern people: ‘you have your opinion, I have mine, they are both equally valid. Your opinion is not better than mine!’

In that case we have embraced a different principle and we allow divisions in the church. This individualism never leads to unity, obedience to the Scriptures, or glorifying Christ. It only turns the spotlight on ourselves, on our opinions, and gives room for pride.

If we differ on certain issues and we detect disagreements we need to compare our views to the Scriptures. Did we miss anything? When Apollos began to preach he did it with fervor and preached Christ, but he missed an important part of the gospel. He only knew the baptism of John, not the one Jesus had given: the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Two of Paul’s helpers, Priscilla and Aquila invited him to their home and taught him the way of God more adequately.

Let us ask ourselves: how often do we settle for differences and think it does not help to argue? We accept any view as just as valid as the one we think comes from the Scripture. Of course you need to be open to correction yourself and not suppose that you are always rigth. But the standard should be the Scriptures and unity our goal.

When we differ we need to study the Scriptures further and pray that the Holy Spirit grants us insight into his word. Not going beyond the Scriptures also means that we put part of the Scriptures between brackets and declare them less important, optional, as if we don’t need agreement about those things.

Obeying this ground rule gives us work: we need to continue praying and studying the Scriptures, not being proud about our own opinions or indifferent about what others think; building on this foundation we pray for unity and work actively towards it.

Then we can also have hope. We are not left with ten or twenty or hundreds of different opinions, but we find each other on this one foundation: God’s unchanging word. It is written, it tells us his will, outlines our instruction and gives us direction for the future. We can have peace and trust in God, and this energizes us to build the church by submitting to God.

Let us sing it together with the words of Hymn 40:
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Though she is sometimes torn apart by schisms, she looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises and has union with God now.

This is God’s promise for the church that is faithful and does not go beyond what is written, but submits to his will and is thankful for his grace.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Dirk Boersma

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