“For you may have countless instructors in Christ, but you don’t have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When was the last time you got advice from someone else? I suspect it was fairly recently. Oh, it may have not come directly from a person – we tend to be far too isolated from one another these days for that to happen – but if you engage with any form of media (especially social media) you’ve probably received some advice. We live in a world in which there is no shortage of people waiting to tell us how we should live our lives (including, I suppose, this very blog). Some of the advice is general, some of it is very specific, but it is all looking for an opportunity to be given to us. And for all this advice, how are we doing as a people? Are we healthier, wealthier, and wiser? Maybe what we need is not more advice. Maybe Paul is onto something here in what otherwise seems like a stray observation. Let’s explore this a bit together this morning.
The generations coming of age and otherwise into their own right now were raised in an environment in which everyone was told they were special. These are the generations of the participation trophies and crying rooms for college and university students who can’t handle life. Every single one of us were told many times in our formative years that everyone has a voice and that their voice should be heard. You are a gift to the world just the way you are. You do you. You can be whatever your heart desires.
Well, when you tell multiple generations of children that their voice matters and should be heard, is it any wonder that we live in a world overflowing with advice. Everyone – including me – starts a blog about something. There are thousands of Instagram feeds and YouTube channels dedicated to giving you advice on how you should be living your life in order to get the most out of it. The internet has really been the catalyst for all of this advice-giving. Before, if you wanted people to listen to what you had to say, you had to actually work to find an audience. Now, you just post whatever you want online and let the magic of cyberspace do the work for you. This doesn’t mean that much of that advice gets a very wide hearing. Only a bare minority of what is out there ever goes viral. But it is nonetheless still there, waiting for an audience.
If this is all true generally, it is perhaps doubly true for the Christian faith. Everywhere we look in the church world there are voices waiting to tell us how to do the Christian life better than we are. In many ways, we are merely a mirror of the world around us. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but where we mirror the world in the form our abundant counsel takes, we run the risk of similarly mirroring the world in the way we receive it.
And what way is that? Individually. The Christian self-help industry is just as robust as the secular one. Yet the whole concept of self-help is not one we find reflected in the Scriptures. In fact, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian believers here, we discover that people haven’t changed all that much in nearly 2,000 years of history. While they didn’t have the internet to hasten its spread, the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world was awash in advice and advice-givers. There were traveling teachers who went from town to town, accepting a modest (or exorbitant) fee for offering their wisdom to the citizenry. This happened both outside and inside the church. Like the church in every age – including ours – the church of the first century gradually came to reflect their culture in more ways than perhaps were wise. Just as there were traveling pagan teachers, there were traveling Christian preachers who did the same thing, but with a more limited audience.
Paul knew this. He knew it and while he didn’t necessarily oppose it, he also recognized that as followers of Jesus, we need more than wandering advice-givers to become mature in our faith. He understood something that we need to recognize and implement more intentionally in the church today. What we need is not more advice from the world around us. We don’t need more advice-givers. Those are much cheaper than merely a dime-a-dozen. What we need are people who will actually pour into us in personal terms over an extended period of time. What we need to become are people who will actually pour into others in personal terms over an extended period of time. Indeed, this fits with Jesus’ great commission to His followers. He did not say we should merely preach the Gospel everywhere we go (although we should be doing at least that). He said we are to be making disciples. Compared with making disciples, preaching the Gospel is easy. I suppose that’s why there are so many preachers and so few disciplers in the world.
Because of all the advice swirling around in the air, it is easy for us to begin to develop the thought that growing in wisdom can be a personal affair. Certainly it is presented that way to us. An individual goes on a search for wisdom that may lead him all over the world, and to interact with a whole variety of teachers, but it is ultimately his efforts that lead him down the path of becoming wise. The truth, though, that Paul is pointing to here, is that wisdom is an inherently communal affair. We don’t become wise simply by surrounding ourselves with a cacophony of good advice and picking and choosing which of it we are going to seek to implement. We need to have people in our lives we can observe closely over a period of time and who can actively pour into us from their life’s cup as we go forward together.
In this way, gaining wisdom is never a solo venture. It is something that happens in community. To make a point that may be a bit uncomfortable given where our culture is, we cannot grow in wisdom as followers of Jesus apart from an active, intimate involvement in a local church. You may profess Christ apart from the church, but you won’t grow in your faith. You can read lots of books and even immerse yourself in the Scriptures, but you won’t grow in faith and wisdom without people. On the other side of this, the church must understand this as well and structure themselves accordingly. What we need is not more advice-givers, but more spiritual mothers and fathers who can walk with us as we go. You need to seek that out for your own growth, but you also need to seek to be that for someone else in theirs. This is how the kingdom grows.