Imagine yourself with a copy of the New Testament in one hand and a red pen in the other. Your task is to read through the epistles, using your red pen to mark every passage of correction, rebuke, or excoriation. Which would be the “reddest” epistle? Romans and Galatians would have a few red marks where people sought to impose the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians. Second Thessalonians would have a big red mark in chapter 3 next to the idle brethren. Those mentioned in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus who sought to quarrel about nonsense unrelated to the Gospel would be downright scarlet. But the reddest of all epistles must be First Corinthians.
As I read the opening chapters, the pages are already starting to bleed red ink as I underline verses about division in the church and allegiance to men over Christ. It is so bad that Paul must ask, “Is Christ divided?” (1:13). I’m putting giant red asterisks in the margins of chapter 5 as I read about the church tolerating a man who had taken his father’s wife. Not even pagans tolerated this level of sexual immorality (5:1). I’m horrified as I learn of brethren suing each other and visiting prostitutes in chapter 6. I’m heartbroken as I learn of brethren being deserted by unbelieving spouses in chapter 7. Paul’s rebukes about proper observance of the Lord’s Supper (ch 11), misuses of spiritual gifts in the assembly (chs 12-14), and those who said “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12) all go down in red. I’m going to need a new pen.
Corinth was a problem-laden church, and Paul raked these error-ridden brethren over the coals in this red epistle. Yet for all of the problems I am astounded to come across a passage like this in the very same letter: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus…who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:4, 8). Paul was still thankful for these brethren and hopeful about their redemption. Even more astoundingly, the sequel (a far less red letter) tells of godly sorrow and repentance on the part of these brethren, causing Paul to, “rejoice still more” (2 Cor 7:7).
What does our red ink experiment teach us? First, it teaches us that churches have always had problems. The epistles, the historical account of Acts, and Jesus’ evaluation of 7 churches in Asia reveals that almost all of them had something wrong. Yet no inspired writer ever recommended shuttering the doors the moment there was trouble. Some trouble in a church does not mean that its lampstand will immediately be snatched away.
Second, it teaches us to temper our pessimism. Even when Paul came with the red ink, he also came with commendations of what faith did exist and optimism about future growth. When Jesus upbraided the church in Sardis, he still took note of the few “who have not soiled their garments” (Rev 3:4). Does your local church have some red? Sure it does. But I am certain there is also faith, godliness, and spiritual growth there! Does the faith get as much of your focus as the red? Do the good works being done get as much press as the neglect? With God’s guidance and grace, we can even erase the red like Corinth did.