“Are you saved?” was the question I received at a bus stop from a man who was handing out Bible tracts. It seemed like a matter that demanded so many prerequisites that it was at once bewildering and at the same time confrontational. It reminded of a problem in Corinth that Paul had to address. Imagine with me if you went to church and someone came up and asked you point blank, “Do you have the gift of the Spirit?” I assume most people would be a bit put off by the suggestion, some might be offended, others might respond in a defensive manner or even in a confrontational tone. How would we answer such a query? Providing Proof-texts that give support for the way we live our lives? A spiritual gift? Yet, for the Corinthians, because of pride, the gifts of the Spirit became a means for quenching the Spirit who gave the gifts.
Church, Community, and the Presence of the Holy Spirit
Because of the diversity of the demographic makeup (the characteristics of human populations such as socio-economics, age, race, gender, vocations, etc.) of churches, even within the same city, the way the Spirit leads, equips, and oversees the preaching of the gospel and nurture of the church may look different. We rarely hear of any quantification or qualification of how the Spirit leads in every church (i. e. no one is keeping tabs on how many members have the gift of languages, hospitality, preaching, teaching, etc.). Such a project would seem inauspiciously prideful. Yet Corinth, one of the first Gentile Christian communities Paul established (1 Cor 4:15), fell into this practice, and it created conflict and difficulties unseen that Paul had to address.
Associated with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18), the Corinthians had powerful religious experiences and the power of the Spirit was evident among the people. However, in some way, the acquisition of the gifts of the Spirit became a source of pride among the people creating disunity/fighting, selfishness, immorality, and problems with authority among other things. Suspicious attitudes tend to eviscerate a sense of community and shared mission, and Paul had to address the issue of spiritual elitism (2:6-3:4) by declaring that knowledge puffs up (8:1) and (at least in Corinth) led to disagreements and disunity. This spiritual pride about spiritual gifts even affected how the church related to the “world” in matters of discipline, eating, sex, and how the community should worship together (e.g. Lord’s Supper and the expression of spiritual gifts). There were several areas where the Spirit was quenched that find parallels in today’s church and Paul’s counsel still hold true. Three areas stand out: speech, society, and leadership.
1 Corinthians 1–4: Grace, Speech, and Knowledge in the Church
In seminaries that train for ministry, there is a class that mainly deals with preaching called homiletics (the art of preaching). This is a helpful introduction to learning to follow the logic of biblical texts and communicate biblical truth. To get a little sense of the importance of rhetoric in Greco-Roman society, imagine homiletics on steroids. Preaching in and of itself is part of the gospel mission, but coupled with pride in an environment that puts a high premium on “communicating” it’s easy to see how people in the church started becoming “followers” of their favorite “preacher” like their pagan neighbors did of their favorite rhetoricians. How did Paul confront this quenching of the Spirit? He reminded the church of three crucial aspects of the gospel. First, attachments should not be based in rhetorical eloquence for it empties the cross of its magnetic power (1:17). While we can appreciate sound biblical messages, we need to be careful that we do not put the gift in place of the Giver. Second, Jewish Christians sought signs, and Greek Christians sought wisdom, but Christ is the Power and Wisdom of God (1:24). Signs and wisdom reflect God’s gracious revelation to man, but they are not God. Last and most important, lofty speech and wisdom carry no power, but Christ proclaimed as crucified demonstrates the power of God, not to the spiritually elite, but to those being saved.
1 Corinthians 5–6: The Church, Boundaries, and Society
It has been said that one of the greatest stumbling blocks to unbelievers becoming Christians is, well, Christians. Things were so bad in Corinth, Paul had to admonish the church, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). Spiritual pride is often expressed in a pluralistic society in areas where boundaries collapse (5:1-3). At some point, we’ve probably all heard someone say, “that’s not an area I’m weak in” or “I don’t struggle with that.” We are less guarded and unaware of the stumbling-block we place before someone else who may have a sensitized conscious to a specific boundary of moral life. Paul’s counsel was as foreign to the Corinthians as the Amish practice of shunning is to the modern secular mind. He said do not associate with those in the church whose misunderstanding of “liberty” blurred the lines of God’s holiness. The Greco-Roman emphasis on table-fellowship and communal life make Paul’s counsel even more profound. With all the emphasis on acceptance, affirmation, and community Paul may seem arrogant, but it may be that the more we collapse boundaries the further we quench the Spirit’s influence for witnessing.
2 Corinthians 1–7: The Church and Godly Leadership
The letter of 2 Corinthians deals with a crucial issue in Paul’s day and ours: leadership. He deals with different aspects of it: godly leadership (1–7); fellowship and leadership (8–9); and ungodly leadership (10–13). The world’s model of leadership is of a powerful, smart Type A personality. However, Paul explores leadership in relationship to the glory of God and human weakness. Through the first seven chapters, Paul explains his ministry to the Corinthians. Through vulnerability and openness that Paul shares with them using, broadly speaking, his personal ethos (personal character being a way to persuade or argue a point). Basically, what Paul asserts to the Corinthians is that through weakness comes joy, through weakness comes strength. Consider his language: “changed from glory to glory” (3:18); “we preach not ourselves” (4:3–6); “treasure in earthen vessels” (4:7–15); “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (4:16–18). Everyone is a leader in some regard, so these descriptions apply to everyone, but they also apply especially to what we should expect from those God has appointed to serve His church in varied capacities (Eph. 4). Lowering the standard for leadership (cf. chaps. 10–13) frustrates the mission of God because it depreciates the value of what it means to serve God. We may not often think of quenching the Spirit of God in our words, blurred boundaries, and attitudes about godly leadership, yet when we consider how our lives have been changed by the leading and indwelling of God’s Spirit, we would do well to consider if we are captured by the Spirit or quenching the Spirit.
Click the link to read the Sabbath School Lesson for this week, “Grieving and Resisting the Spirit.”
 For a general introduction to rhetoric in the New Testament and Greco-Roman culture see Ben Witherington III. What’s in the Word: Rethinking the Socio-Rhetorical Character of the New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009).