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How Did The Apostle Paul Handle Church Issues?

by Glen Tattersall

It is indeed a privilege to be part of God's family - the church. To be a member is to be counted as one of the saved. It is to have fellowship with those of like faith and mind. Fellowship within the church gives us a taste of the fellowship which will exist in heaven. Unfortunately the peace and harmony of the church is disturbed by various issues which arise. There have been over recent years the issues of marriage and divorce, social drinking, instrumental music, anti-ism and the crossroads movement, amongst others. Correctly handling the issues which inevitably will come our way is vital to the church. If we handle them badly the church is left weakened and divided. If we handle them well the church is able to be built up and strengthened.

The apostle Paul is one of the most influential and zealous of the apostles of which we read. In his day he had to handle an array of issues, in fact, much of his writings were taken up in dealing with just these. As issues come our way we need to take note of how this inspired apostle dealt with issues and to emulate his example. Paul handled issues by firstly understanding the difference between issues and non-issues. That is, the difference between matters of faith and matters of liberty.

Questions with regards to matters of faith are the only basis of valid issues. The importance to keep to the faith is seen in statements such as John 14:15; 2 John 9,10 and Jude 3. Wherever the Lord has spoken we are not to vary under any circumstances, otherwise we do not truly love the Lord or walk in the truth. Christians are to be united on these things as Paul pleaded with his brethren in 1 Corinthians 1:10.

Therefore if someone comes to us and begins to say that baptism is not an essential element in salvation, then we rightly can take issue with them, for God has spoken on this. Similarly, if one says any form of worship is acceptable as long as it is sincere, or that women can be accepted into leadership roles or standards should be lowered to accept the immoral into our fellowship, then again we can (and indeed are obliged) to take issue with them.

However God has also left some things to our individual judgment and these are matters of liberty and should be respected as such. We may well have strong feelings and views on certain topics or practices. It is natural that we want our views to be endorsed and followed by others, but we err greatly when we try to force these upon others when we can find no sustainable Biblical authorisation for such.

Jesus took to task the Pharisees because they had certain practices of which they felt strongly and wanted to force upon others. Today we have brethren who contend we should all use just one cup for the Lord's Supper; there are others who push for King James English to be used in prayers; others object to multi part singing of songs; whilst yet others would disallow eating in the church building.

Now if someone wants to use KJ English in prayers, that's fine. If someone wants to go home rather than participate in a church luncheon, that's fine too. But they have no right to push their views on others and create an 'issue' out of a matter where God has allowed liberty!

The apostle Paul understood the difference. In the first century there where questions with regards to food, drink and the observance of days. In Romans 14:1-7, 10-12, he made it quite clear that in these matters freedom was allowed and we should not judge one another. Paul did not allow matters of liberty to become divisive issues in the church and neither should we.

The author agrees with a quote from Lindell Mitchell, who in speaking of the devastating effects of carnal warfare then went on to say: “Most readily agree with these sentiments regarding carnal conflict. But spiritual war is viewed differently. Sadly, some are eager to make a name for themselves as great warriors for truth. They are so intent on establishing themselves as heroes of the faith, that they engage in devastating battles unnecessarily. . . Paul did not relish controversy. He was not spoiling for a fight. He had no desire to make a name for himself. Paul understood that the war with wickedness would be lost if brethren became belligerent, embroiling the church in silly squabbles over stupid questions.” (Firm Foundation “Senseless Strife” - Mar 1997).

Secondly, the apostle Paul handled issues by understanding the need to resolve issues on the side of truth. The value of the truth can be seen by what Jesus said in John 8:31,32 “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The truth sets us free from sin, from religious error and from superstition. Through following the truth we are born again (1 Peter 1:23) and not only do we save ourselves but we also save those to whom we teach this truth (1 Tim. 4:16).

Truth is knowable and we can find the resolution to issues if we give diligent study to God's word (2 Timothy 2:15). Therefore if someone questions whether baptism is essential, we go and study God's word and find there commands pointing to its necessity. If someone claims that the Lord's Supper can be had on a Thursday or only once a year, then by study we can show through example that it was had every first day of the week. If another questions the use of the church treasury in buying a building, then through study we can show by necessary inference that the church is authorised to spend money to have a place to assemble (Hebrews 10:25).

Issues arise not by the teaching of God's word but when error is taught. Where people want to vary what God has spoken then issues will always arise. These are not matters of liberty but subjects of the utmost seriousness.

The effects of holding to or teaching falsely are seen in passages such as Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9, Galatians 1:6-9, and 1 John 2:3,4. From them we learn that rejection, condemnation and cursing are the consequences of following error. We are also found to be liars when we claim we are disciples of the Lord.

Paul, in his day, contended for the truth without wavering or compromise. And there were a large number of issues (or potential issues) with which he had to deal. For example, there were questions and false teaching with regards to circumcision, the resurrection, immorality (1 Cor. 5), food offered to idols, treatment of the weaker brother, the Jew-Gentile relationship, improper use of the Lord's Supper, misuse of spiritual gifts, women's role in the church, partyism, litigation, marriage, Judaism, philosophy, laziness, etc.

In his stand there were times when he had sharp contention with the false teachers. There were times when his own brethren sought to undermine his authority and credibility, and there times when he had to stand alone.

Why did Paul so stand? Because he knew that for the spiritual unity of the church to continue, it necessitated the truth being preached. He also knew that the salvation of souls was at stake. For these reasons he did not back away or soft peddle on genuine issues. We also need to stand for the truth. The spiritual welfare of the church and souls continue to be at stake.

In the process we may end up being called troublers (cf. 1 Kings 18:17,18), and we may also end up being ridiculed. At a lectureship the author attended, a speaker ridiculed a brother who returned from the mission field to help save a church from false teaching. The statement was made that the church will get along just fine without any of us. Whilst it is true that the church universally will never die, congregations can and have ceased to be faithful because of false teaching. A look at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation confirms this possibility.

There is a mind-set amongst many brethren that disputes are to be avoided at all cost. As a result there are congregations which never hear teaching on marriage and divorce, the distinctiveness of the church, obedience, alcohol, modesty, church discipline, and the like. Lessons are more based on 'felt needs' and the warning of 2 Timothy 4:3,4 continues to hold true.

The result of such thinking will see congregations of the Lord's church slide into denominationalism and souls will be lost. The apostle Paul knew the stakes and stood courageously and so must we. Finally Paul handled church issues by acting in love. As we survey through the New Testament we learn time and again that love is an essential quality for discipleship (cf. John 13:34,35). Peter's list of the 'Christian virtues' lists love as the crowning quality (2 Peter 1:5-11), and John tells us that we must love as God loves us (1 John 4:11). Christian love then is doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Now in dealing with issues and correcting error there are right ways and wrong ways. For example in training a child; sometimes it is a case of just showing them what is right, other times it may require a spanking and a showing again what is right and so on. If every time a child does something wrong we beat them, then this is not discipline in love.

Unfortunately some deal with issues very poorly. Some brethren are very attacking . Whilst they say they are acting in love, their speech and conduct does not seem to reflect this. On the other hand some are so soft and wishy washy, error is never corrected, its seriousness is not shown, and it spreads.

We need to have a mixture of patience and firmness. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26 we read: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”

For those who are ignorant of what the scriptures teach, then we need to show them what the scriptures do in fact say. For the 'slow of hearing' then firmness is needed. Paul scolded the Corinthians for division, for tolerating immorality, and for abusing the Lord's Supper; then in each case he retaught the will of God. However for the rebellious it is appropriate to publicly rebuke, name and withdraw fellowship. This was the method of Paul with regards to Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:18-20.

In everything we are to act in a spirit of humility. One of the greatest issues Paul was to confront was that of circumcision. In Acts 15:1,2 we read he had a sharp dispute with the Judaisers. Nevertheless as we read the account we find that he did not make an inflexible stand boasting he was an Apostle and then turn around and withdraw fellowship with the false teachers. Rather he took the matter to trusted brethren and consulted with them. The result of his humble attitude was that truth was upheld and the matter was resolved peacefully.

We need also to have the humility to consult faithful brethren. They may counsel us that we are in fact pursuing a matter of indifference or they may encourage us to keep standing for the truth, no matter what the opposition.

Issues have always been with the church and it will always be, so long as people are not content to abide in God's word. There are some issues which are troubling the church today which threaten the very basis of the church. Brethren are contending that the church is not exclusive, some are saying that God's truth is not really knowable on various topics, whilst others are contending that there is no pattern for acceptable worship. These brethren are quite content for the church to be regarded as just another denomination.

We are effective servants of God and follow in the steps of Paul, when we do not let ourselves become bogged down in foolish disputes over matters of liberty. We do God's will when we stand uncompromisingly strong when the truth is challenged - because souls depend on it! And we are true disciples of the Lord when all that we do is with a spirit of Christian love and humility.

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