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Friday, September 09, 2011

Foundation Laying and [un]Envisioned Outcomes

We all understand the importance of a solid foundation. Engineers tell us that the Tower of Pisa, which took nearly 2 centuries to complete, was flawed from the start. 

The foundation laid was simply not adequate to support the load, and the structure began to tilt as early as five years later when the second story was being added.

Due to a constant state of war, the tower stood unfinished for many years. When construction resumed after nearly a century of inactivity, the decision was made to deal with the "un-envisioned outcome" by compensating for the tilt rather than by starting over with a proper foundation.

As a result, the walls on each tier of the upper floors were built taller on the near side and shorter on the far side, giving the tower a slightly curved shape at the top.

Modern engineering methods have helped a great deal to shore up the base and correct some of the tilt, but the Tower of Pisa will always be, in spite of its magnificent splendor, the poster child for the importance of choosing a foundation suitable for the envisioned structure.

Though common sense would dictate that the proper foundation be chosen only after the what and where of the structure is fully known, the exact opposite is actually true in the overall scheme of things in God's Kingdom.

It's not the structure that determines the proper foundation in God's economy, but rather the foundation that determines the proper structure.

Paul makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that there can be no other foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christthe chief cornerstone in whom the whole “building” is joined together. In God's economy, the foundation has already been determined and set in place - it's a done deal! 

However, there are two very important elements that we, as the people of God, need to keep in mind:
1) It's up to us to make the deliberate choice to build on THIS particular foundation rather than on one of the many alternatives or derivatives.
2) It's up to us to build on this foundation in a manner that is appropriate for, consistent with, and honoring to the intent of the original design - to choose our "building materials" carefully.
In other words, there is a big difference between Christ being "the" foundation, and Christ being "our" foundation. Jesus may be the foundation, but it doesn't necessarily mean that our foundation is one and the same. We could just as easily have chosen to lay our foundation on one of the many alternatives.

Furthermore, though Christ is indeed "the" foundation, it doesn't necessarily mean that "our" church or ministry is built on that foundation. In fact, the "tilt" that is so obvious in many of our churches today, may very well be the result of a foundation that was laid on one of the many derivatives (which, of course, is simply not capable of supporting, sustaining, and producing the "envisioned outcome").

Several years ago, some colleagues and I did an extensive study of 1 Corinthians together. Most of us were ministering in Asia and the Middle East at the time, so we made it a point to meet each year to study and discuss the issues we were facing on the field as practitioners of the Gospel. Our intent was to go back to the Scriptures with fresh eyes to gain insight, answers, and perspective on the realities we encountered in the rocky soil nations.

One of the many nuggets that stood out to me in my personal study of 1 Corinthians that year was an imaginary conversation that Paul had with his supervisor which I fondly referred to as: “If Paul had a Supervisor.”

Not sure why that was on my mind, but I imagined Paul getting a visit on the field from his American supervisor and, after a little small talk, being asked the dreaded question: “So, tell me Paul, how’s it going in Corinth?”

I imagined Paul, with that sharp, quick wit of his, answering without hesitation that he "laid the foundation as an expert builder" and that the Gospel had now been planted in Corinth.

However, knowing that most American supervisors are somewhat skeptical by nature and would undoubtedly find Paul's answer a bit too vague, it was not hard to imagine the supervisor probing further in order to find out what was really going on in Corinth.

As the supervisor pressed for more details, I can see Paul taking a deep breath and saying, “Well, to be honest, there are factions in Corinth. Some people say they belong to Apollos; others to Peter; still others to me….”

Wanting to be a source of encouragement, the supervisor smiles warmly, places his hand on Paul’s shoulder, and calmly assures him that the factions will disappear over time if he keeps pointing the Corinthian believers to Christ. “But tell me, Paul,” the supervisor continues, “what else is going on in Corinth?”

“Well, to be honest, there are lawsuits between the believers….,” Paul replies.

Looking for a reaction, Paul notices a raised eyebrow on his supervisor’s face. But, before he has a chance to respond, Paul quickly tells him about all that he’s doing to deal with the issue, and an understanding expression slowly emerges, erasing any sign of concern. "Anything else I should know?" the supervisor asks cautiously.

Though at this point I can’t quite imagine Paul gazing down at his feet like a sheepish schoolboy being scolded by his teacher, Paul nonetheless dumps the truck and begins to tell all; revealing every bit of carnal behavior going on amongst the Corinthian believers.

Slowly but surely the tension on the supervisor’s face grows as he listens to Paul outline a whole host of disturbing issues - idolatry, immorality, indulgence, abuse of spiritual gifts, disrespect for leadership, selfishness, bad theology, you name it - they had it!

By this time, I’m imagining the supervisor not only being in a state of shock, but having some real doubts about Paul himself. Not just because Paul had an absolute mess on his hands, mind you, but because Paul had the audacity to claim at the beginning of their conversation that a "foundation" had been laid in Corinth.

Chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm perhaps, but the seasoned supervisor is probably thinking that this Paul guy is seriously out of touch with reality. At this point, the supervisor may even be thinking that he made a terrible mistake by sending Paul to Corinth in the first place.

In fact, if Paul had an American supervisor, it’s quite doubtful that Paul’s claim would even be taken seriously. A foundation laid? Already? In Corinth? In light of this absolute mess? Not likely, bub!

Normally, the reaction of this imaginary supervisor would be completely understandable. A mess of this magnitude is all too often the result of a poor foundation laid, and it's only reasonable to doubt Paul's claim!

However, in this case, might Paul's bold claim actually have been justified?

Put another way, was Paul completely off his rocker or, in spite of the mess, was he able to see "something" not readily observable to most? If so, what was that “something” that led him to believe that the Gospel had been planted, and a "proper" foundation laid, despite the mess in Corinth?

For now, I'll leave it to you to wrestle with the particulars of that "something," but the inescapable truth of Paul's letter to the Corinthians is that "the mess" did not invalidate the foundation that he laid in Corinth.

In fact, just listen to what Paul tells the Corinthian believers at the start of his letter:
"Every time I think of you - and I think of you often - I thank God for your lives.... The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think - you don't need a thing, you've got it all.... And not only that, but God Himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of His Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that!"
If you didn't know any better, and this is all you knew or heard about these people, you would probably find it hard to believe that a mess, particularly a mess of this magnitude, even existed!

Paul's view of foundation laying is either so skewed it lacks credibility, or we have much to learn. Yes, he laid the foundation in Christ, but when you peel back the layers in his thinking, what do we learn about Paul's perspective?

For one thing, there appears to be a strong correlation between the foundation laid and the outcome envisioned. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but to nonetheless state the obvious:
If the envisioned outcome is living by grace, you don't build a foundation based on rule keeping.
If the envisioned outcome is genuine character transformation, you don't build a foundation based on wearing masks.
If the envisioned outcome is meaningful body life, you don't build a foundation based on programs and meetings.
If the envisioned outcome is dependency on Christ, you don't build a foundation based on institutional dependency.
If the envisioned outcome is the advance of the Gospel, you don't build a foundation based on limited contact with the world.  
Furthermore, whatever that "something" was that led Paul to believe that a proper foundation had been laid in Corinth, we can be certain that it was NOT their moral behavior; nor was it even their grasp of sound doctrine; and it most definitely was NOT a well run organization with highly trained leaders, who were leading well-funded, high-quality programs that were well-attended by scores of people in the community.

That's not to diminish the importance of these things, but they were clearly not the source of Paul's confidence. They were also not what Paul had in mind when he said that he laid the foundation as an expert builder!

The outcome we envision is personal growth, yet the "tilt" reveals a lack of personal growth; the outcome we envision is meaningful body life, yet the tilt reveals a lack of meaningful body life; the outcome we envision is fruitful evangelism, yet the tilt reveals a lack of fruitful evangelism; the outcome we envision is transformed lives, yet the tilt reveals lives that are not yet transformed.

All too often when we see the tilt, our entire focus centers on redoubling our efforts to "compensate" for the tilt, rather than on stopping to consider whether, like the Tower of Pisa, there may be a flaw in the foundation laid.

Do we need to pray more - yes! Do we need to do more evangelism - yes! Do we need to be more committed - yes! Do we need to trust more - yes! Do we need revival - yes!

However, to just keep "compensating" for the tilt, without ever considering whether the foundation itself may be flawed in the first place seems a bit misplaced, don't you think? No matter how much we "compensate" for the tilt, the fact remains that the foundation is incapable of supporting, sustaining, and producing the outcome we envision no matter how much more serious we get about prayer, evangelism, holiness, etc.

The question we need to consider then is this: Is the foundation laid capable of supporting the envisioned outcome? What does the evidence suggest? What do the Scriptures say? What was that "something" that Paul saw in the Corinthian believers? What criteria do we use to assess whether the foundation is laid properly? What exactly is the envisioned outcome? How do we go about "re-establishing" a proper foundation? Will doing "more of the same" get us where we want to go? What changes might we need to make in our perspective on foundation laying?

Paul said that he laid the foundation as an expert builder and "the mess" in Corinth did not, in his mind, invalidate the foundation he laid. Perhaps the tilt we see in our churches today is no different! Perhaps it is different! But how would we know if we never even consider the possibility that "our" foundation may have actually been laid on one of the many "derivatives" rather than on Christ Himself?

What outcome do we envision? Is the foundation we are laying capable of supporting, sustaining, and producing the envisioned outcome? What important changes do we need to make in the foundation that we, as the people of God, are laying, in order to share Paul's confidence in the certainty of the envisioned outcome despite the mess?

1 comment:

  1. Sorry Bill, but discussing this further, is going to require at least another read and some time of reflection. Initial stab at this is, surely if the Spirit enabled Paul to say he laid a sound foundation; he did. Likewise, for Him to permit Paul to say things were a mess is also a factual, but sad report. Hence: foundation, good, check (why do I feel like an American Supervisor with a MBA now?! Lol), quality assurance checks, well, check...checks are being made and the outcome is not good. However, effectiveness, again, check, but this time we add a new element not found in any economy but God's, Grace...Amazing! Sanctification is a formula written by the Almighty and Grace is the great variable written into it. I can by no means take credit for what another Brother has written, so I will simply make reference to my flimsy Grace equation to his scriptural one at the following link:
    Another thought provoking Blog from my Brother Bill who I'm certain does not live (or THINK) like the typical American Christian; a man I'm glad Grace brought my way. God IS blessing you Bill and will continue to do the thought of David Essex (Rock on!) Blog on! Brother Bill