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Church: The Message of 1 Corinthians

The purpose of the church is to manifest to the world the character of God.

From the editor

In this sermon, Mark Dever offers a bird's eye view of one of Paul's longer letters, helping the audience hang their hats on a few critical ideas concerning the church. What's especially helpful is that with every ecclesial idea expressed, Dever offers a Christological foundation, with an eye toward grace.


One idea that was prominent in the New Testament and the history of Christianity in our own country, but which is almost invisible today, is the idea of the church. I'm not suggesting that churches in modern America are about to close down. The proportion of church members in our country has remained fairly consistent throughout most of the century, and many individual churches are bursting at the seams with hundreds and even thousands involved. With their multiple services, institutions continue to provide all the care you need from cradle to grave. In that sense, the church as an institution is doing well in our country. In the historic sense, however, churches in modern America have nearly vanished. Among the assets of individualism, churches can be nothing more than the expressions of the passing interests of their congregants. Their programs are determined by internal polls. Their services are determined by what they perceive those outside their number want. Their budget reflects nothing more than the aggregate desires of the members. Amidst all the apparent prosperity, what is missing is the truly corporate element of the church conceiving of itself as the church.

Let me ask you a question that might help get to the nub of the matter: What's the use of the church? The biblical answer to that question deals not with what the church does for you but with what it does for God. When we begin to understand this, we turn the corner from a compromised, self-centered involvement in the church to the God-centered, communal life that God calls and uses for his own purposes. Once you understand this, the Christian life becomes a lot more than a simple, sustained moral effort to cultivate a list of private virtues and avoid a list of private vices. You begin to understand the church as the manifestation of the living God in his world—that we're called into that manifestation in the way that we live with and respond to one another. When we take part in this manifestation, things begin to change.

In order to help you see this, we need to turn to the letter of 1 Corinthians. First Corinthians is more than just it's disparate parts, whether they're famous or obscure, clear or confusing. The point of Paul's letter, and the one we very much need to hear today, is to teach the Corinthians what a church is supposed to be like and why it's supposed to be that way.

The church is to be holy.

First, let's examine what the church is to be like. We clearly see from reading through this letter that we are to be holy. Paul greets the church in Corinth as those called to be holy—that's how he defines them. An inevitable part of holiness is to possess a certain kind of strangeness. So it was in the Old and New Testaments, so it is for us today. Holiness is strangeness to the world. We are strange, because we have been set apart and made special by God.

Because the church is holy, she must be pure. First Corinthians 5 is one of the classic statements on the purity of the church. The disciplinary actions taken in this chapter are all about holiness. A man in the church had married his stepmother, which was scandalous. In 5:5 Paul says, "Hand this man over to Satan so that the sinful nature, the flesh, may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." Paul is concerned about the church's tolerance. So in 5:6 Paul warns them, "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?" Paul is saying: Sin spreads, so you must be very careful about leaving sin present in the church. That carries with it consequences!

Paul doesn't yell at the man who is caught in adultery; he yells at the church for having tolerated the sin. The church's toleration of sin relinquished the very nature of a church. They were supposed to place the man outside of the church in order that he might be saved. It was as if the body's immune system was failing. Far worse than a church in which someone commits adultery is a church that says nothing about people committing adultery. One is an individual error and may happen to affect others who know about it; the other is an entire body of believers failing in the mission of the church.

If you can't say what the church is not, then you can't say what it is. This is Paul's concern—that the gospel will be entirely subverted by the spreading contagion of sin. So in 5:7, Paul tells the church to "get rid" of a few things. I know these words might seem harsh, but I'm just quoting the Bible! Paul says, "Get rid of the old yeast, that you may be a new batch without yeast, as you really are." And why does he say that? It's not because God has finally decided to condemn the wicked man. Paul says what he says so that the man's soul might be saved—that he might see the seriousness of his sin. All the while, God preserves his witness in the purity of the church.

God has always wanted his people to be holy. Paul is not saying that the church consigns people to hell—we're never to do that! The whole process of discipline is meant to be a warning to people; it's actually meant to help them avert condemnation by awakening them to their dire condition. The church practices discipline to bring an unrepentant person to repentance.

The church is to be marked by holiness. It's our trademark, so to speak. When someone thinks of the church, they are to think, This is a holy community. We cannot allow others to see a bunch of self-righteous, prudish people, but rather a community whose conduct holds out hope of a better, more humane, more God-honoring way of living than the world offers.

The church is to be united.

One of the main reasons we're asked to discipline those who are committed to their sins more than they are to Christ is because the church is to be united. When you read 1 Corinthians, it's apparent that the church was having a problem with unity. This isn't too surprising, because once you begin to tolerate sin, you begin to have a problem with unity.

Let me be clear: I don't mean to say that any of us here are sinless. We all sin! The crucial issue is this: when confronted with those sins, do we want to repent? The church in Corinth was tolerating people who knew they were sinning and did nothing but encourage division. Some people in the church in Corinth were truly Christians. They wanted to be holy and bring praise and glory and honor to God with their lives. But there were others who wanted other things. The two groups were separating from each other. Because of the increasing level of division, Paul speaks sternly in 3:3: "You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?"

Apparently, some of the Christians in Corinth had taken each other to secular courts to settle matters. In his letter Paul takes a dim view of church members who sue one another in secular courts. He says: Look, don't you have judges among yourselves? You're going to judge the world one day with Christ. Can't you come up with somebody who can sort out these little differences among you?

Paul goes on to write: "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" Pauls says: There's an option—choose to lay down your rights.

Don't get me wrong: lawyers perform a vital function. Through lawyers we're able to preserve certain rights in our society that we all benefit from in life. Having said that, Christians need to be careful not to imbibe the litigious, self-concerned nature of our culture around us and baptize it into the church. Paul says we've already been defeated when we do this. Unity is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of the church.

When churches divide for carnal reasons, we start focusing on other things: we become the church of modern music; the church of "such-and-such" pastor; the church of the homeschoolers; the church of the Democrats; the church of the blue carpet—rather than the church of Christ. Any one of these unities is different than the unity we find in Jesus Christ. Friends, there will never be a church that's unaffected by the culture around it and by who is in it. For some strange reason, God doesn't intend it to. But all churches that are truly Christian are to reflect the unity of Christ by the way they are united with each other.

The church is to be a loving people.

Practically speaking, how can the church ever be united? The answer is that we are united in love. This is the third characteristic of the church that Paul lays out in his letter to the Corinthians: the church is to be holy; the church is to be united; the church is to be loving.

Paul writes: "We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Paul doesn't mean that you need to be ignorant in order to be loving. He's also not saying that if you are knowledgeable you will therefore be loving. Knowledge is not the same thing as love. In fact, Paul argues that love should determine the Christian's use of various freedoms—like whether or not to get married or whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols (which was a big problem in their culture). Christians should do what is loving toward others, and not just what they're free to do.

If you have any experience in the church, I'm sure you understand that only love will enable us to have the kind of unity that is to mark the body of Christ. Nothing else will do it. We can never so perfectly attune our vision and our desires that there will be no disagreements. So what shall we do? Love one another. God's character is best seen when two conflicting parties who disagree on something work together, placing the other person above themselves.

This discussion about the church and seeking one another's good is what makes 1 Corinthians 13 so powerful. I'm glad you've enjoyed it on Hallmark cards and at weddings; they're beautiful words. But they really take on power when you insert them back into the context that God first had them in. Love is the dynamic fuel of the church. Love will motivate, continue, and contribute to all the other things God wants to see in his church. Paul shows us how love excels various gifts and virtuous actions. At the very heart of our holiness and our unity, is love and concern for each other.

Notice that Paul is calling for more than just loving actions. Sometimes we evangelicals like to say, "Love is what you do; love is action; love is not just a feeling." That idea helps balance out what our culture tends to think. Having said that, though, love is actually something more than just what you do. Love has to do with the disposition of your heart to others and to God. Paul speaks of actions that all of us would say are wonderful, loving actions, yet he says they can be done without love. If they're done without love, they're worthless. I don't want to suggest that love is mere sentiment, because I don't believe it for a moment. But love is also not mere action. According to the Bible, love is a disposition of the heart for God and others, which then shows itself in our actions.

The church is to reflect the character of God.

Why is the church supposed to be a people of holiness, unity, and a loving nature? Paul stresses these characteristics because the character of the church is supposed to reflect the character of God. We are to be holy, united, and loving because God is all of these things. In Corinthians 11:1 Paul writes: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." We are holy not simply so we can have a morally healthy society, but to reflect God's holiness. We're not to focus on life being about us; we focus on life being about God. As God is loving, we are loving. If we are going to be his, we will have to be strange to the world and familiar to him. That's what it means to be his.

Christ has become our holiness. He has made us holy because he has bought us and dwells within us. We must maintain this holiness as a part of our task of reflecting him. We are to be holy because God is holy.

We must also be united because God is one. We have been brought together as one people around one foundation, Jesus Christ. As long as we are united in love and allegiance to him, we will be united with each other. In 1 Corinthians 10:17, Paul writes: "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." That's the nature of our unity. We are the one body of Christ, because we each have his Spirit.

Because of reports he had heard about the various divisions and factions in the church, Paul offers a theology of unity in the first chapter of his letter. He asks, "Is Christ divided?" Paul understood the church to be the body of Christ. To Paul's eye, division in the church makes about as much sense as Christ himself being divided. Paul's very first day as a Christian helped him see this truth. He was on the Damascus Road, going to persecute Christians, when he was knocked off his horse. Jesus appeared to him and said, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Paul knew from the earliest day of his Christian life that to persecute the church was to persecute Christ. As Paul points out, to divide the church is to divide Christ. Our disunity is a lie about God's nature—one that we tell to each other and to the world. In 12:27 Paul writes: "You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." We're united because God is one.

Finally, we are to be a loving people, because God is a loving God. We are supposed to have a love for God at the center of our heart, and that love is but a response to his tremendous love for us. God has taken the initiative and loved us to the point of redeeming us. Paul chides the Corinthians for not acting so lovingly toward each other. If I have treated you unlovingly, it means that I have sinned against Christ. If I have treated you unlovingly, it means that I have treated Christ unlovingly. If you've been disinterested in what someone else is going through, I may hear you say you love God, but do you love others?

We all have human limits to our time and energies, but Paul is saying something about the character of the church and Christianity. The church is supposed to manifest the character of God to the world. That's what makes her useful! If you want to help in manifesting the character of God to the world, then you have to realize that your relationship with God will be at the core of how you relate to others within the church. People can tell a lot about a person's relationship with God just by watching what they do and how they relate to others.

Friends, if you have built your Christian life around what you can get out of it in this life, you have missed the whole thing. If we as a church have encouraged you to do that, I am sorry. The Christian life is never about me or about you or about each other. It's about God.


Are we doing what we do for the sake of the gospel? Are our public meetings to the glory of God? It is our destiny to reflect God. If we cultivate a sub-Christian holiness that tolerates sin, we're deceiving people about what God is like. If we cultivate a sub-Christian unity that ignores real divisions and unites around smaller, secondary things, we're confusing people about what God is really like. If we cultivate a sub-Christian love that is nothing more than mere sentiment and family feeling, we deceive the world about what God is like. All of these things lie about God. They misrepresent his character. True holiness will include discipline. True unity will be built around Christ, and the diversity of the church will give witness to the fact that he is what unites us. True love will go deeper than sentiment. This is how God's glory will be displayed in the church, whether that church is in Corinth or on Capitol Hill. We display God's glory by living a life of holiness and unity and love for him. This is what the church is devoted to. Are you?

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.

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Sermon Outline:


We must turn the corner from a compromised, self-centered involvement in the church to the God-centered, communal life that God calls and uses for his own purposes.

I. The church is to be holy.

II. The church is to be united.

III. The church is to be a loving people.

IV. The church is to reflect the character of God.


We display God's glory by living a life of holiness, unity, and love for him.