January 20, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Corinthians 1:17-18
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel—and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
If we place Christ at the center, everything else will fall into place.
Beginning with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, a little over two weeks ago, we have left behind Christmastide and entered the season after Epiphany. In this season we hear about and look for signs of Christ’s manifestation of glory in the world—especially to the Gentiles. (If you want to read more of my thoughts about the Feast of the Epiphany itself, you can do so here and here.)
I imagine that somewhere, somehow in your life you may have heard the phrase “the foolishness of the cross.” The idea that something about the Gospel message of salvation is, at least according to worldly wisdom, crazy or incomprehensible appears frequently in the New Testament and is a favorite theme of Paul’s.
Here he introduces it just after a passage where he describes the fights taking place in the Corinthian church and makes the point that Christians ought not to fight over the opinions of different leaders but keep their eyes on Christ. His declaration that he did not come among the Corinthians to baptize in his own name or preach using the tricks of Greek rhetoric leads him to make a broader theological statement about what the message of the cross is and is not (some of which belongs to next week’s lectionary reading, if you happen to go look this up):
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . .For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:18, 20, 22-25).
As someone with advanced degrees and much time spent in academia, I’ve always found this passage both beautiful and disconcerting. Sometimes in my youth it was used by leaders around me to imply that Christ would not want people to seek higher education or study theology, or to express the view that Christians should avoid seeking deeper meaning, or doubting things and asking questions, or wanting the Christian faith to make logical sense.
As I begin to approach what Mark Roberts calls the “third third” of my life, I have spent enough time as a Christian and as a pastor that I feel confident in saying that those leaders had not grasped the whole story. God created all of us with minds to understand his created world and to seek after him, and has called us to use our minds as we labor in our vocations, whatever those may be. But this does not mean we do not need to grapple with this passage.
The “wisdom of the world” does not mean—as I feared in my youth—any secular wisdom. We need not stay in a bubble where we read only Christian books and listen to only Christian music and only talk to Christians. If we place the passage back into the context of Paul’s disclaiming of pagan rhetorical tricks, we can see that he is cautioning against secular wisdom for its own sake. Christ crucified has to be at the center.
If we place Christ at the center—not Paul or Cephas or Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12) or signs or knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:22)—everything else will fall into place. Christ crucified may sound crazy, or incomprehensible, or foolish, if you’re looking at it from a perspective that misunderstands the beautiful humility of the cross. But it isn’t irrational. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom—not in place of it. It doesn’t destroy the journey we took to faith. It completes it.
What were you taught about the relationship between Christ and human wisdom?
What are you seeking?
A lovely song by Michael Card that invites us to enter into the foolishness (and the divine wisdom) of the cross is “God’s Own Fool.” Listen to it and think about where Christ is calling you. (Lyrics are here.)
Christ, may I always put you first. Amen.
Banner image by Laura Allen on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Status in Church and at Work: Friends in Low Places (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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