I felt literally divided.
Yes, spiritually the event was transformative. I saw my new calling as the servant of a seminary to now be more of a missionary than before and that excited me. I saw our seminary, with many others, as complimentary movements of God in our generation to raise up a new generation of pastors grounded in the Word of God and with a white-hot passion for missions across the planet. I will never forget the closing ceremony and that processional with all the tribes and tongues of the earth in diverse unity moving through a saintly sea of five thousand believers who were caught up in a worship service that must surely be a reflection of the sublime worship going on in heaven now. I was moved by Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi’s message. I was stunned with the Holy Spirit‘s impact on so many by the testimony of the little Korean lass who told of her heart’s desire to return to North Korea to share Christ. I was not the same when I came home and I hope I will be transformed more and more into this vision of the one and the many. Yet the new Mike Milton I am speaking of now is a Mike Milton who had encountered what was apparently a virus (though we are not sure what it was, really). My body was not the same. I began to get sick. I developed neurological issues that cause a variety of health concerns. I ended up on a brief sabbatical to seek treatment. I was told that while I would recover enough to continue my ministry, I might never fully be the same. I thank God that I am stronger than I was. I do not seek sympathy and am no hero for having it. It is just that I got sick and returned a weaker man. How and when the virus came is a mystery. Maybe in Charlotte or in Amsterdam or in Cape Town—no one knows. But for a season I was weakened and my own personal involvement in God’s mission was slowed. While I am grateful to the Lord for His gracious healing and sustainment in this new Mike Milton’s body, for a while I felt that a virus divided my body from my goals.
There was a virus in Corinth. And that virus threatened that global crossroads city of its day and thereby threatened the redemptive work of Jesus Christ across the world. So Paul writes this letter to discuss the disunity. And his letter was and is the God breathed Word from heaven that gives life to all who will read or hear. And that is good. For we all have a virus. It is either the sin of Adam untouched by the blood of Jesus or it is the residual of that sin still flowing through our minds and hearts and cultures and institutions. The virus is there. And it can shut down ministry, as it was doing in Corinth.
Paul’s diagnosis of the disease and his treatment in Chapter three, verse one through nine, are essential to every believer, but has particular import for those engaged as servant-leaders in God’s mission in the world today. In this passage, God has given us a Spiritual diagnosis and cure for the virus that creates division in the Church. Since all of us suffer in one way or another from that ancient Adamic virus, and since most of us would even have testimonies of the feverish consequences wreaked on our bodies as a result of this dark spot on our souls, we have every reason to pay attention to this passage: for our lives, our souls, and as we gather together in this special place for this special purpose, for the mission of global theological education.
There are two aspects of this passage that need our attention if we would know this heavenly diagnosis and treatment and cure for division.
The first aspect before us in the passage is most plain:
1. Because there is a Virus of Sin—There is a Possibility for Deadly Division that threatens the mission of the Church (vv. 1-4).
Look at the passage. Paul moves, in this extraordinary epistle, from explaining spiritual realities and being able to discern them to now practicing that deep spiritual discernment himself. His first concern is the division that is threatening to undue the mission of this global church. Consumed as this culture was with sexual immorality, politically correct idolatry, and systemic abuse and corruption at every level of society, the Church of Corinth was not only suspect but infected. And the infection was a double dose. Not only were they were infected by the residual of sin in their lives, because of the very nature their condition—but they were also being infected by the viruses of the vile and wicked generation around them.
This is our case as well. We are not only struggling with sin in ourselves, in our churches, in our seminaries, because of the residual deadly virus in our souls, that left over Adamic strain that produces death, but we are subject to the virulent viruses that abound in our culture. The list in Corinth of sexual immorality, idolatry and corruption of powers sounds like our own today, whether in the Majority Christian world or in old Christendom. It is present everywhere for it is the very out working of fallen man.
But consider what this infection does in our lives as we look at the text:
The virus stunts our growth
In verse one Paul calls them brothers and sisters— they are not pagans, you see. He says that they are “in Christ” in verse one, yet look: They are “infants in Christ.” They are more characterized as “people of the flesh,” that is the desires of the flesh and its earthly rule over their members, than “spiritual people.” Paul had seen this when he had to give them “milk, not solid food” (v. 2) and even after some time, they remained in that condition and were unable to be fed the deeper truths of God’s Word. We must recognize that unless there is a treatment of the virus within, it will continue to wreak havoc in our very system. Our lives, our churches and our institutions will be unable to cooperate in the partnerships we spoke of yesterday for we will be too childish in our selves to exercise a maturity needed to form alliances for Gospel effectiveness. More than that, selfishness will rein in our stunted condition. We will be what J I Packer called spiritual dwarfs in his book, Quest for Godliness. I know this condition well. I lived it for most of my years growing up. I knew enough of the Gospel to know I was a sinner and needed a Savior and that Jesus Christ was the God-Man to take that sin, but I lived like Hell. I once had a Mormon tell me, after I was witnessing to him, that he would listen to me when my life reflected the Christ I was seeking to proclaim. Until then, he told me, your witness is just an argument that you seem to enjoy. But there is nothing in your life to tell me that you really believe. “Mike,” the young sailor told me in our barracks, “you need help.” When you are reprimanded by a Mormon for your faith in Christ then it is not good. And it was not good! Mike Milton was a sham. I was worse than a Corinthian. But what if I kept going in that condition? What if I went to seminary, served a church, got some head knowledge, and then led a ministry in that unchecked condition? Is that possible? You know that it is. And you know that my condition would have infected others from the pulpit. And you know that global theological education is subject to the viruses that are stunting the growth of our leaders and infecting the same in our students. I am saying that this is a deadly possibility for many seminary leaders and church leaders today. Stunted growth in sanctification, in growth in grace and knowledge of Jesus and His Word is a present, deadly reality. The stunted growth creates a human-centric praxis if not theology, which brings division in the church. Children who are not mature can be quite self-centered. And their self-centeredness creates division on the playground. There is division in the Church and the possibility of division that hinders the work of God because there is a shallowness, a self-centeredness and contentment that refuses to stretch forward in discipleship. In our circles it can manifest itself in denominational or institutional aggrandizement or theological prejudice and isolationism. This can and most certainly will bring deadly division. Yet the virus has other effects.
The virus strangles our perspective.
When a virus enters a system, for instance, a neurological system, it can, as doctors tells me, begin to systematically rewire the most delicate parts of the whole, creating neurological anarchy. This may not be true for me physically, but I have known spiritual anarchy! I have known the Corinthian viral effect of going from spiritual immaturity to spiritual pride! This is what happened to these people and it is what can happen to us. The virus, unhindered by the means of grace, brings about a pride that seeks to elevate personal experience over corporate unity and health. Thus, the famous Corinthian parties arose: the “Paul party,” and the “Apollos party,” and the “Cephas party,” and finally, the party which sought to trump them all, “the Christ party!” Now who wants to try to compete with that party, huh? Ah, the filthy stupidity of it all! “Are you not merely human?” Paul surmises in 3:4. Why did he say that? For he had just talked about spiritual realities being discerned by spiritual beings. The souls of the Corinthians were not only stunted in spiritual growth but were being strangled in spiritual perspective. And yet we know that there are churches and seminaries and institutions that are not unlike this. There are seminary presidents and parish ministers and deans and professors and some of us today whose souls may be fighting this deadly virus. Professional jealousy and ungodly competition and unfair assessment of others and judgmental attitudes towards those who should be “esteemed as higher than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3) can and does hinder the God-given mission of global theological education as a preeminent part of our Lord’s redemptive purposes in the world. And the rest of 1 Corinthians chronicles the devastating consequences of this virus if it is not attacked by a strong response. But thank God there is a response and Paul shows it to us in verses 5-9!
2. Because there is a Remedy—There is a Power for Divine Deliverance that energizes the Mission of the Church (vv. 5-9)!
Paul’s tone in the text is still testy, but he is an apostolic endocrinologist who is moving from diagnosis of the infected hormonal system at Corinth to the patient physician bringing the remedy. And that remedy is as divinely powerful and effective for us today as it was for these spiritual infants then.
What is the power for deliverance? And can the deliverance also bring a renewed vision for the Church and its mission? I believe the text says it can.
Divided Believers may be delivered from division through a model of servanthood among the leadership (vv. 5-9).
Paul said that he was nothing and Apollos was nothing, They were simply, in verse 9, fellow workers. The fact that one had come to Christ through Paul and another through Apollos was a result, in verse 5, of God’s sovereign choice, not Paul’s choice or for that matter the believer’s choice. God did this and He alone deserves glory and honor. In this, Paul demonstrates the servanthood that the Corinthians needed. This is the servanthood spirit we need as we lead our seminaries and our churches and in particular as we prepare the next generation of pastors and missionaries. We live in a day of cults. I have seen it in India as well as in Indiana, in Cardiff as well as Cape Town, and it is in in Seoul as well as Singapore: the cult—of the celebrity cleric. It is alive and—bad. Majority Church or Minority Church means nothing when it comes to the ego of a preacher! An inflated sense of super hero preacher and scholar is not tied to any ethnic group or any part of the world. It is a human problem that we as God’s pastors and scholars must put to death! And when that cult is demolished by the Christ-like servant of God who ministers out of a healthy understanding of God’s sovereignty, then the idolatrous tables of self-selling are turned over in the “temple” and not only is the pastor or scholar as free as St. Paul, but the believers and the churches and the institutions we serve are set free as well.
Divided Believers may be Delivered through a Demonstration of Complimentary Ministry (vv. 6-9).
Paul will say that one plants and another waters. Indeed, he tells the divided church in verse 8 that the two are one. In verse 9 they are “fellow workers”—complimentary colleagues ministering with different gifts at different places in the life of the Church to advance the Kingdom of God. Now, this is the centering place for us. I have heard churches argue that they do not need a community of scholars and Bible teachers who focus on preparing pastors. They can do that. I have heard seminaries say that they are more important than the local church. As a long time pastor, I can tell you that does not cause me to want to recommend your seminary to my missions committee! Indeed, the parish ministry is in need of theological education and theological educators are in need of the parish ministry. The pastor and the scholar, the church planter and the senior minister of the downtown, historic congregation, the young, the old, North, South, East, West, all need each other and we all need Christ. And that is the remedy. When we show a complimentary expression of giftedness in our global mission, as seminaries and churches and mission agencies, we model what it is for believers to also come along side each other in their lives. We glorify Christ with our humble service and offering of our diverse gifts for His One Kingdom.
The Gift of Weakness
A lady told me not long ago that her cancer was a gift from the Lord. She said that had she not had the cancer, she would not have known God’s grace in such a new and deep way. She would not know the joy of service in weakness and the blessing of seeing God’s strength. In a similar way, I returned from Cape Town with a weaker body and I see that as a gift. I was in no way weakened like that dear lady with cancer. My limitations and neurological threats usually manifested themselves in nothing more than fatigue. Yet, I too, saw this new reality of weakness as a divine gift. Weaknesses, whether a virus or a cold or a spiritual dark night of the soul, reminds me of my mortality, of the Church’s work going forward with or without me, and that Christ is building His Church, not I. This liberates. This brings a new health. If you are a servant of the Church it brings health to others too.
I also hope it brings a new unity with each of you as you, too, realize that we need each other and we are dependent upon the Lord. I cannot do it alone. I never could. Now I know that in a new way. And I think this is what Paul wanted Corinth to know. This is what God wants us to know. This is the Church that God wants us to be.
Then will divisions be mended as deliverance is found in Jesus Christ, our Reconciler and our Redeemer.In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 James I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).
- “Just Listen” – The Lausanne Movement and Global Theological Education (michaelmilton.org)
- The Mosaic of Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary (michaelmilton.org)
- “Who Shall Separate Us from the Love of Christ?” A Message to Falls Church Anglican (Sunday, May 27, 2012) (michaelmilton.org)
- Remembering the Legacy of D. James Kennedy in My Life and Ministry (michaelmilton.org)
- The President’s Evolution and Our Culture’s Degredation: A Call to Prayer and a Plea for Revival (michaelmilton.org)
- Discerning God’s Call for Your Life (michaelmilton.org)