1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Paul did not preach with lofty speech or persuasive words of wisdom. The focus of Paul’s preaching and testimony was not on the words he used, but on the content of the message he proclaimed. He wasn’t trying to craft a good speech or a compelling testimony. He wasn’t engaged in Classical rhetoric. He wasn’t trying to win a debate, or to overpower the opposition. Nor was he trying to use a particular style of language in order to identify with his audience. He wasn’t trying to move his hearers to an emotional or intellectual crisis that would result in new birth or conversion. The focus of his attention was not on his audience. Paul was not customer-centered or consumer-oriented.
Rather, Paul was God-centered and Christ-oriented. His focus was on the Lord, not on the Lord’s people. His eyes were on the cross, not on the pew, nor on the pulpit. His intention was to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
He made a decision before he came to them to speak to them of nothing but Christ crucified. While he was a well-educated man, a Pharisee of Pharisees, a Rabbi of Rabbis, an intellectual of intellectuals, a teacher of teachers, he would speak of nothing but Christ crucified. He would build his case, or champion the cause of Christ on the basis of Scripture alone. He would not call upon the wisdom or literature of the world to bolster his testimony of grace alone through Christ alone on the basis of Scripture alone.
As Christians, as a church, we need to take our cues from Paul, from Scripture, and not from the world. We need to understand terms like faithfulness and success from a biblical perspective, and not apply ideas and/or programs of worldly success to the church.
Unfortunately, however, churches by and large have accepted and followed the ideas and values of the world for many decades. I’m speaking of the Church Growth Movement and its impact on denominations and local churches. The Church Growth Movement is transforming the Christian landscape through the development of large and mega churches. This fact is well documented in current literature and media – and the PCA is not exempt from its influence and impact.
Please understand that I am not against church growth. I do understand evangelism to be a central function of the church. Nor am I against the use of modern marketing and advertising technologies. But I am against using marketing and advertising technologies as the world uses them in the church. I am arguing for a more faithful and Christ-centered use of modern media. There is nothing wrong with modern media in and of itself. There is, however, a problem with using it to promote and encourage the values and aesthetics of sin in the name of Christianity.
Churches and denominations – Christians – need to heed and apply Paul’s wisdom found here in Corinthians to the practice of evangelism, including and especially the use of modern media (marketing and advertising). We must not allow the wisdom of the world to determine the methodologies of the church. Do we do this? I believe that we do, that virtually all churches have been effected by the “success” of modern marketing and advertising practices.
I’m arguing here that such practices belong to what Paul calls the “wisdom of men” (v. 5) and the “wisdom of the world” (1 Colossians 1:20). I’m arguing that it is the current popular understanding of evangelism and the methodologies engaged to reach the lost that have been hijacked by what the business world calls “marketing creep.” Market-think has crept into the church and dominates our outreach efforts.
John Gage, Chief Researcher at Sun Microsystems Inc., warned software developers at the Global Grid Forum in Seattle in June, 2003, “everything we do gets hijacked by marketing.” His observation has application to more than software development. It applies to virtually every aspect of business. Allow me to explain.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” That sound advice has inspired entrepreneurs across the globe to make better products as the primary method of business success. The drive to make better products as the most effective avenue of business success is responsible for the development of modern technology, which has forever changed the way people think and live the world over. American entrepreneurs have led the way for centuries.
At the same time, modern marketing methods have also changed the nature of this formula for business success. How so? By changing the definition of the word “better.” The original understanding of “better” meant that a better mousetrap would catch more mice, or catch them more efficiently, or more humanely, or whatever. “Better” indicated an improvement in product function. The emphasis was on the improvement of the mousetrap (or product) itself.
The new definition of “better” is not about the mousetrap, but about mousetrap sales. It’s about mousetrap (or product) marketing. Business success no longer means building a better mousetrap. It means selling more mousetraps than your competitors, or increasing the profit margin on your mousetraps, which can be accomplished in several ways. Again, this shift is the result of “marketing creep.”
Please be aware that there is nothing wrong with increased sales, nothing wrong with increased production efficiencies, nothing wrong with greater profits or increased revenues. But if there is nothing wrong with these things, then what am I talking about?
I’m talking about a shift in the purpose or goal of the business, which effects the purpose of the product produced, the purpose of the mousetrap. The original purpose or goal of the business was to build and produce a better mousetrap. The purpose of the business was product oriented.
The new purpose is to sell more mousetraps or to earn more money through the sale of mousetraps. The new purpose is not focused on the product, but on product sales. The new purpose is focused on sales and profits rather than on the function, design or usage of the mousetrap. It is a shift from being product driven to being financially driven. And again, there is nothing wrong with concern and control of finances. Any business that is not concerned about finances will fail.
The older purpose of the business was other-directed. It was focused on providing a social service, on identifying a need and producing something to meet that need. The new purpose of the business is self-directed. It is focused on company profitability. The new purpose is to make money for the business owners. Again, there is nothing wrong with making money.
But there is a problem associated with the new marketing-driven purpose, and that problem relates to integrity and the decrease in the quality of mousetraps when they are produced for sales as opposed to product function. The new emphasis eventually involves cutting production costs to increase profits, which involves less or cheaper materials and/or less time in production. To compensate for these measures a subtle kind of marketing deceit comes into play.
How does this happen? Rather than using stainless steel, for instance, producers will use iron that is chrome plated. And the marketing department will shift attention away from the disadvantages of such a change by conjuring up some new and improved element of the mousetrap. We are all familiar with this process.
But the point I want to make is the shift in purpose from function to finance, from performance to appearance, from essentials to periphery, from substance to style. Please understand that I am not arguing against profit or against marketing or against efficiency or against financial concern. All I am saying is that when a business shifts its purpose from production to marketing, the likelihood of an inferior product increases.
It doesn’t have to, but it usually does. The concerns of marketing take precedence over the concerns of product quality and performance. There is a shift of concern from what is best for the customer to what is best for the business. It is a shift of priorities from other to self. This shift is evidenced in the wide-spread decrease in customer service that has happened across the board over the last twenty, thirty or fifty years.
So, how does this play out in the church? Worldly wisdom tells us that gospel success means more people in the pews. The emphasis is on the pew rather than on the Lord. Whereas, biblical wisdom tells us that gospel success results from the glorification of God (The chief end or purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, Shorter Catechism Question 1). The purity of the church requires the right people in the pews, people who are covered by the righteousness of Christ. The biblical emphasis is on right belief or right values, on the righteousness of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
The traditional focus of the churches was Christ. The central focus of worship and evangelism was Jesus Christ. Churches and Christians were concerned about serving the needs and desires of Jesus Christ. Whereas the Church Growth Movement is concerned about serving the needs and desires of the people in the pews. Biblically, worship and evangelism are Christ-centered, and are understood to be byproducts of faithfulness. Biblical worship and evangelism are accomplished through faithfulness to Jesus Christ. They are not accomplished through the mechanics of marketing and advertising (human effort).
Again, marketing and advertising do have legitimate functions in the church. However, they are not to be self-centered, they are to be Christ-centered. Biblical marketing and advertising should not be about the church or about the people in the church. Rather, they should be about Jesus Christ – and Him crucified, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians.
Reformed Christians should understand that Christianity is not about us, it is about Jesus Christ. We don’t bring salvation, Christ does. We don’t produce sanctification, Christ does. Salvation is not about what we do or who we are, it’s about Jesus Christ – what He has done and who He is!
The Church Growth Movement and virtually all contemporary Christian marketing and advertising, while it pays lip service to Jesus Christ, is actually focused on the people in the pews. It is primarily concerned with noses and nickels related to particular institutions. It understands the purpose of evangelism to be to get people in the pews – and that focus lobbies against preaching or sharing any biblical truth that has a hard edge, that will make people uncomfortable, or that may be difficult to understand. And, like it or not, biblical truth will make us all uncomfortable. Various aspects of biblical truth are hard to understand – faith is required. All growth is painful at times.
Growing, or stretching our limitations, is often uncomfortable. Christian growth – sanctification – requires thinking outside of the box of our spiritual immaturity. It’s hard. It’s painful. And it will take us where we don’t want to go. The Spirit opposes the flesh. “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5). “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17).
Go to the church page of any newspaper and you can see what I mean. The ads are church-centered rather than Christ-centered. The basic message is “come visit our church,” rather than extolling the excellencies of Jesus Christ. By and large the messages preached are about what Christ can do for you, rather than biblical exposition or extolling the excellencies of Jesus Christ.
As we go through our exegesis of First Corinthians I want you to look for Paul’s invitation to visit the church at Corinth. You won’t find it, but it is important that you see that it is not there. Why not? Because this is not an evangelism-centered book.1 It is a sanctification-centered book. The focus is on the maturity of Christians. And then as now, the focus on maturity will not immediately increase local church membership, it will likely decrease it. Please understand that I am not suggesting that churches initiate programs in order to decrease their memberships. Rather, I am simply pointing to what Paul did, and his concern for Christian maturity and growth in grace.
There is an antithesis between Christian maturity and worldly wisdom. That means that they are mutually exclusive. They are opposed to one another. What serves to increase Christian maturity undermines worldly wisdom, and what serves to increase worldly wisdom undermines Christian maturity. And it is this antithesis that Paul highlights in these chapters of First Corinthians. It is precisely because of this antithesis that Paul has “decided to know nothing among you (the Corinthians), except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (v. 2). Paul was not ignorant of Greek literature and philosophy. Rather, he didn’t want them to undermine the gospel by bringing in non-biblical ideas, even when those ideas might seem to the Greeks to support the gospel. He knew that they would not, that they would dilute and undermine it.
But he was not opposed to wisdom, “among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (v. 6). Rather, Paul imparted the “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (v. 7). Repeatedly, Paul says that God’s wisdom is not available to the ungodly. The Westminster Confession teaches that “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God (is) necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (WC I, vi). Paul taught that “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (vs. 11-13).
There is a gulf between the Godless and the Godly that can only be bridged by Jesus Christ. It cannot be bridged by human wisdom or human effort. Christians can understand the Godless because we were once Godless ourselves, but the Godless cannot understand Christianity unless and until they themselves are born again or become regenerate. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14).
There is an important application of this concept related to church marketing and advertising that virtually no contemporary church marketer uses. Most contemporary church marketing programs are aimed at the Godless. What I mean is that they use the language and aesthetics of the Godless in order to appeal to the values or aesthetics of the Godless. They try to make Christianity appear to be hip or cool or in or popular. They try to make it appear to be worldly by copying the latest marketing fads and techniques in order to make Christianity more appealing to the worldly minded. But Paul clearly teaches that the truth of Christianity cannot be known to the Godless. It can only be discerned by the Godly.
In contrast, the biblical use of marketing and advertising will not clothe Christianity in worldly garb, hoping to make it appeal to the worldly mind, but will show the truth of Christianity from a purely biblical perspective. Biblical Christianity does not need to appeal to the Godless or look like the world. It doesn’t have to pretend to be cool or hip or in or popular. Such practice is not authentic Christianity. The purpose of evangelism is not to make Christianity look like the world. Rather, it is to make the world Christian. Godless people need to understand that they are not Christian, and that they cannot bring their Godlessness into the church – not even in the name of Christianity.
There is a difference between the savable who are lost and the unsavable who are lost. We don’t know exactly who is savable and who isn’t, but God does. The Spirit of Christ speaks to the Spirit of Christ. The values of Christ resonate with the savable lost and draw them into the fold. The beauty of Christ reaches out to His lost sheep to guide them home.
We obscure the values and the beauty of Christ when we use worldly (Godless) aesthetics and values in our outreach. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we try to appeal to heathen forms of popularity to communicate the gospel. Such efforts obscure the truth of the gospel and disturb the purity and peace of the church. The whole world needs to see the antithesis between Christianity and the world in order to perceive the necessity of conversion. To blur the antithesis between the world and Christianity is to blur the necessity of the new birth and conversion.
The church will grow in faith and in numbers when it is seen as a viable option to the ways of the world. It will grow by differentiating itself from the world, not by trying to integrate itself into the world, or by trying to grow on a foundation of worldliness. This is an important application of Paul’s central message of chapter two.
1 For a discussion of Paul’s evangelism method see, Acts of Christ: Kingdom Advancement, by Phillip A. Ross