When we think of barriers we obviously think of something that either blocks or limits something. Usually, this is the blocking of a pathway we are attempting to do down or a blocking off of a section or a room that someone does not intend for us to go into. A barrier can also be a limitation on someone or something that prevents it from growing or developing past a certain point.
It is vitally important that when it comes to our spiritual growth both as individuals and as a church, that we do not add any barriers to the pathway to spiritual maturity and unity. The Christian life is hard enough with the spiritual warfare that we already have to engage in each and every day with Satan that we don't need to add any barriers of our own to the equation.
The best thing that we can do as individual Christians in the church is to do everything we can to keep the pathway to unity and maturity clear of barriers. Sadly, there are too many times where barriers are erected that should not be there and they consistently have the same error of self.
Self is the biggest barrier to unity and health in the church and it is also the only barrier that is actually preventable. We have no control over what Satan does. Only God has sovereign control over Satan. We also have many other things in life that are out of our control but the one thing we do have full control over is ourselves. If we remain humble and operate in agape love we avoid the promotion of self. If we decide that we must have our way in the operation of the church then we have promoted self to a place where it was never intended to be.
Self takes on a variety of forms in the church. You can see it most clearly in how people react when they don't get their way on a matter. You also see it in power groups and groups that revolve around a certain personality that seeks to wield power and control over others with no biblical basis to do so. Self is a major motivation and essentially the motto of the "church-hopper." These people go from church to church not with a heart for Christ but with a heart for self. They go and attend only to see what is in it for them and the very second something is done that is not in line with their desires they threaten to leave unless the church acquiesces to their demands.
Self manifests itself in the breaking up into factions that happens from time to time. Christians will follow or show allegiance to various leaders or power brokers that most suit their emotional or self-focused needs. What is lost in all of this is a heart for God and a desire to serve Christ and His church. What is also lost is agape love which puts the needs of other Christians above your own.
Self can also manifest itself in a lack of proper worship for God. When we attempt to worship on our terms or when we worship in ways that have repackaged worldly and pagan things and try to pass them off as Christian, we have elevated self over Christ. What happens is individual Christians or churches decide that worshiping God on His own terms is much too hard and requires too much so they fall back into old patterns that would be characteristic of pagans and what we were before we were regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Such is the case in the early church in Corinth for in this church you had people who were taking pagan practices and attempting to utilize them in their worship in the church. Notice what Paul writes at the beginning of chapter 12 in 1 Corinthians.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:1-3 NASB)
These Corinthians believers were engaging in many practices that Paul recognized as being in error and being representative of the previous pagan practices that a lost, unregenerate person would engage in. So, he rightly corrects them and reminds them that when they were lost they were led astray to these idols and were led naturally because they were unregenerate. They were lost, they had a sin nature and could only choose those things consistent with their nature. So, it would be no surprise that they would choose idols and worship after strange gods. However, what Paul is saying is that now in their regenerate, saved state they should know better. They should be refuting and rejecting these pagan practices and idols and seeking after Christ only.
They had sadly become very worldly and fleshly and self-centered. Whether they recognized it or not, whether they were willing to admit it or not, they had promoted self over Christ. They now had a barrier in front of them which prevented them from worshiping and obeying God properly. Instead of engaging and changing the world around them, instead of engaging and changing the culture around them, they had allowed the world and culture in their day to engage and changed them. This barrier of self is very destructive because it is very seductive. It is so natural to our sin nature that self is very hard to overcome. In fact, without the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the flesh and self can't be overcome.
Notice that in verse 3, Paul says that no one who speaks by the Spirit of God would say that "Jesus is accursed." This is a Greek word anathema which means "severe condemnation," or "cursed under condemnation." This largely came out of the understanding within the Jewish community that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Paul is correcting these believers and letting them know that nobody who speaks by the Spirit would say this for we as Christians confess that Christ is God manifest in the flesh and is the perfectly righteous Savior of all those who believe. Paul also notes in contrast that only those who are regenerate and saved can say, "Jesus is Lord," because they are indeed speaking by or in the Holy Spirit.
So, we see that the barrier of self had affected these Corinthian believers in a way that affected their worship and the way they operated towards God but what we also see in the book of Corinthians in chapter 1, is that the barrier of self had affected them in the way they operated towards each other in the church. Look what Paul says beginning in verse 10 of chapter 1.
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10 NASB)
Paul exhorts and encourages the believers in Corinth by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ to agree or "say the same thing" and that there be no divisions among them. The ultimate thing that we are to be in unity over as Christians is in regard to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even if we disagree over other things where disagreement is allowed Scripturally speaking, we are to never disagree or find disunity in regards to who Jesus is and what His authority is in the church based on the fact that He is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).
Paul says that we are to have no "divisions," which is a Greek word that we get our English word schisms from. It means that our unity in Christ is to be so strong that we would never label or define ourselves as a church by any other name or person. Sadly, this is what was happening in the church at Corinth.
For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I of Cephas," and "I of Christ." Has Christ been divided? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13a NASB)
Paul is informed by a person named Chloe that the Corinth believers are quarreling among themselves meaning that there is strife and contention in their midst. The people were dividing themselves into various factions and names like Apollos, Cephas, and even Paul. Paul makes it clear that Christ is not divided. He makes it clear that our unity is in Christ and in Christ alone. It is not in Apollos or Cephas or Paul and to have any allegiance to any of them is to divide Christ.
Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Corinthians 1:13b-17 NASB)
Paul really makes his point about the unity we are to have in Christ by comparing what man has done for the church and what God has done. God in human flesh was crucified for sinners, a man was not. God in human flesh was buried and rose again, man did not. It is on the authority of Christ that we preach the gospel and baptize and we baptize in the name of Jesus Christ. We do not baptize in any other name except the Lord Jesus Christ. We have no business operating as a church in the name of any other person but Jesus Christ.
Paul further reinforces his point by stating that he is glad that he did not baptize any of the people who were dividing over various quarrels and strifes. Paul makes it vitally clear that he was not there to grow a following. He was not in the business of growing a political following which would grant him certain influence or power. He was only in the business of pointing people to Christ. Christ did not send Paul to baptize people into his following but to preach the gospel and baptism is only good and is only proper when it is used to identify the Christian with Savior, Jesus Christ.
To avoid self being promoted in the church we must heed Paul's sharp warning here. Christ is not divided and man has no business taking the place of Christ as the head of the church. This church was plagued by various power groups and those who were coming to have power in the church that was not there's, to begin with. Instead of humbling themselves and giving up their power they used it to grow a following of people that held more allegiance to them then they did to Christ.
The issue of self all comes down to one basic decision. Who has the authority in the church? Self or Christ?
Why do you come to church? Self or Christ?
Do you come with self-serving agendas?
Do you operate to either gain or preserve power in the church that isn't yours, to begin with?
Do you see to have things your way?
When we attempt to have things our way or gain power that is not ours, we are actively promoting self over Christ and over our fellow brethren. The Corinthian believers promoted self and had no use for agape love or the proper use of spiritual gifts. In fact, they only used spiritual gifts for the advancement of themselves. The proper function and use of spiritual gifts only have others in mind. They are to be used in the church for the building up of the body, not self.
Finally, in verse 17, Paul makes it clear that when you promote self in the church, not only are you creating a barrier to having a healthy church but you are also robbing the cross of its true power. Now, this doesn't mean the cross is without power. The blood that was shed on the cross will accomplish all that it was meant to. Not one person will miss out on their eternal life because some church somewhere promoted self over Christ. Man cannot keep God from accomplishing His purposes.
The point that Paul is making is that for the church that promotes self or does not correct those in their midst who are promoting self, that particular church will make the cross void and empty of power in regards to that church's individual influence and power to win the lost to Christ and make disciples. The power of the cross will be rendered ineffective in their operation because they are not operated as a proper New Testament church. God will not bless disobedience.
It is in dying to self that the cross finds its true power in the church. Dying to self and promoting Christ! Dying to self and serving Christ! No matter what, self must die.