Editor’s Note: The history of missions is replete with examples of God using his Word to call his followers to engage in his redemptive work around the world by praying, giving, going, and sending. The aim of this article series (part one here) is to help Bible students, teachers, and readers recognize the theme of global missions throughout Scripture. In this installment, Zane Pratt, vice president of training for the International Mission Board and associate professor of missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, examines principles pertaining to global missions from the book of 1 Corinthians.
To understand how Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians fits into his missionary method, we first need to understand the central role of the local church in the missionary strategy of the New Testament. Wherever Paul or the other first-century missionaries preached the gospel, they left behind local churches. They were not content with evangelism alone, or even with evangelism and individual discipleship. The New Testament has no concept of Christian believers who are not connected with local churches. In other words, the New Testament has a church-centered missiology.
Starting a Church Is Not Enough
Furthermore, the apostles cared deeply about the health of the churches they planted. They did not simply start new churches and then walk away. They weren’t even content to tell these new churches to study the Bible that they had (which was the Old Testament), with the confidence that they would figure out everything they needed to know and do.
“The New Testament has no concept of Christian believers who are not connected with local churches. In other words, the New Testament has a church-centered missiology.”
Churches are made up of redeemed sinners who bring a lot of baggage (both personal sin and cultural conditioning) into the church with them. Sin affects every area of life—the mind, the affections, the will, and every type of personal relationship. For this reason, new churches need careful attention. They need ongoing teaching about the big picture of the Bible, the great doctrinal themes of the Bible, and the implications of biblical doctrine for the way they live. The letters of the New Testament represent the watchful care and authoritative teaching needed by new churches on the mission field.
Church Health Guards against Church Failure
This is where 1 Corinthians comes in. The church in Corinth had serious issues that needed addressing. These included a divisive spirit, personal immorality, lawsuits between believers over civil disputes, entanglement in pagan worship, abuse of Christian freedom, poor observance of the Lord’s Supper, obsession with the more dramatic spiritual gifts, and bad theology surrounding the resurrection of the body. Paul, as a responsible missionary, cared about the health of this church. He wrote this letter because he was keeping up with what was happening there, and he wrote it to address issues that could easily destroy the church.
1 Corinthians: A Missionary Letter
Anyone who reads 1 Corinthians realizes quickly this letter is about church health. However, not everyone stops to realize that it was written in a missionary context. It is clear from the example of the apostles that they understood the mission of the church to be sharing the gospel and planting churches where Christ was not yet known. Those new churches were expected to be healthy churches that glorified God and continued the work of the Great Commission.
A number of timeless lessons about missions stand out from the book of 1 Corinthians. While not an exhaustive list, here are sixteen points we can glean and apply that correspond with the sixteen chapters of the book.
- God cares deeply about church unity. When we plant churches, we need to make sure they are unified around Christ, not divided around different church leaders (1 Cor. 1:10–13).
- When we engage in sharing the gospel and planting churches, we need to make sure that our evangelistic appeal is based on the power of God and not on our cleverness or rhetorical skill (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
- The foundation of the church is the gospel, and God takes his church so seriously that we are required to exercise great care in how we build on that foundation (1 Cor. 3:10–17).
- The measure of success in missions and ministry is faithfulness to God (1 Cor. 4:1–5).
- Sexual purity matters, even among young believers from an immoral culture (1 Cor. 5).
- Church discipline is a necessary part of healthy church life (1 Cor. 5).
- New churches should be taught that Christians should not file lawsuits against each other “to settle a dispute between the brothers” (1 Cor 6:5, ESV), but should resolve civil differences in the context of the church (1 Cor. 6:1–8). Note: This passage does not teach that it is inappropriate to report criminal behavior to police. Romans 13:1-7 is clear that “governing authorities…have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1, ESV) to protect and uphold what is good. Civil government “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:4, ESV)
- Family life is an essential component of basic discipleship. New Christians should be taught the biblical perspective on marriage and singleness (1 Cor. 7).
- New Christians need to understand the proper use of Christian freedom, which is freedom to serve one another and advance the gospel (1 Cor. 8:1–10:33).
- When we share the gospel and plant churches, it is right for us to give up personal freedoms and adapt to the culture where we serve—but only adapt within the bounds of Scripture (1 Cor. 9:1–23).
- No believer (including missionaries) should actively participate in non-Christian worship (1 Cor. 10:14–22).
- The Lord’s Supper is an essential part of healthy church life, and it must be done in a manner that shows love and respect for the entire body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:17–34).
- Spiritual gifts are given to all believers so they can serve one another and build each other up in love (1 Cor. 12:1–13:13).
- God has given us clear instructions on how he is to be worshiped. New churches should be taught to worship God decently and in order, in a manner that follows his Word, glorifies him, and edifies his people (1 Cor. 14).
- Doctrine matters. A young church can be thrown into confusion by failing to hold on to sound theology. In this letter in particular, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is shown to be essential to church health (1 Cor. 15).
- It is good and appropriate for churches—even new churches like Corinth on the mission field—to contribute financially to the needs of believers in other parts of the world (1 Cor. 16:1–4).
In a very real sense, the entire New Testament is a missionary book because all of it was written in the context of the missionary expansion of the early church. First Corinthians was no exception. It is a book written about issues in a young church precisely because it is a book that fits into the missionary strategy of the apostle Paul.
Zane Pratt serves as the vice president of training for the International Mission Board.