The church in Corinth that we read about today likely numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds. It was probably about our size – maybe smaller. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the disagreements were about the same kind of stuff local churches get their “knickers in a knot” over today: who has control over meal plans and distribution, whether or not everyone was being fairly treated, how the poor and the rich were present together in worship, distribution of funds and food. When a church is small, the power of relationship can often bridge any conflict that arises. You might disagree heartily with Jane, but you and Jane have known each other for years, your kids went to Sunday School and played ball together, and you’re not going to let a spat over carpet versus tile in the meeting room ruin your friendship. On the other hand, you might have had a personality conflict with Brad for years – you just rub each other the wrong way – and so when conflict arises you’re much more ready to turn your back on him because it will mean one less thorn in your side. That’s church life for you. We try to be better, and do better, but we don’t always succeed.
Relationship can be a double-edged sword -especially if there’s triangulation going on. A group in the church in Corinth has called on Paul for intervention, perhaps hoping that he’ll take their side against another faction. Instead, he reminds them that there shouldn’t be sides at all! He calls on them to be in unity with one another, and not to let their differences break them apart.
There are always disagreements in churches – anyone who’s spent any time actually involved in a congregation will know that. Mostly they’re the kind of conflicts I mentioned. But sometimes they’re more significant. They’re about what we perceive as right and wrong, what we believe about God and about Jesus, and what a faithful life really looks like. Some of these debates we’ve seen writ large on the national and international stage in the last few years and even decades.
Some might think I’m picking on the U.S. but the reality is that American religious squabbles occupy our media much more than Canadian ones. So when we want to talk about religious differences, that’s where we go – recognizing that some of those debates are also reflected in our own area and our own country. Just as an example, the voices of those who consider homosexuality a sin are very vocal in the American media, while those of us who affirm the diversity of gender identity and orientation rarely get heard above the shouting. Those who challenge policy that gives preferential treatment to the rich don’t get noticed much, while those who rake in millions as megachurch pastors and televangelists are very visible. Even here in the Westshore we have two Anglican churches in Metchosin: one that is fully inclusive and one that takes what they would consider a Biblical viewpoint on the interpretation of Scripture, in particular as it relates to the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBTQ2S+ people in the life of the church – i.e.. No way, no how. That’s in Metchosin – population 4700.
The differences I named are significant. They matter. The United Methodist church in the States is facing a split right now over these very issues, from which it may never recover. Other denominations are on a similar path. So with Paul’s words to the church in Corinth in our minds, how do we face such differences?
One commentator talks about the need for the Corinthians to reject “Party Spirit”. It’s a funny phrase especially given that we’re not allowed to party in this time of COVID19. (JR Daniel Kirk on workingpreacher.org) But what Kirk means by that is – folk have forgotten about their unity in Jesus. They have allied themselves with a particular leader who claims or has been given a particular set of knowledge and power, and they’ve adopted an “us” vs “them” mentality, rather than focusing on their common allegiance to Jesus. This is really tempting for us, too. I see it all the time on Facebook: we are so flabbergasted by how any Christian could believe what THOSE people (fill in the blank as to who that is) believe and are doing that we start treating them as if somehow they’re not like us – they don’t belong to Jesus, they have not been claimed by his values or by the good news about him.
I have huge admiration for those who reach out across those divides to meet each other, human to human, Christian to Christian, and try to stay in relationship with one another. In some ways that is harder for us than reaching out to someone of another faith – for when we are in relationship with a fellow Christian who thinks and believes quite differently from us it can make us question our own understandings and allow for the possibility that they may know something we don’t!
I read an article last week written by a woman who had been raised in a conservative Christian family. She had watched over the years as her family had been drawn into the Moral Majority movement, the right-wing narrative of a white Christian America.
This is what Alex Morris writes in an article in Rolling Stone Magazine for December 2, 2019 “False Idol – Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump”
I was raised a child of the Christian right. I know what they believe because the tenets of their faith are mine too. Growing up, I attended church at least twice a week and went to Bible camp every summer, singing songs about Christian martyrs who stood up to tyrants in the name of God. My brother and sister and I learned catechism and sang in the choir, but we also attended public school and played Little League and did community theater. We read C.S. Lewis but also Beverly Cleary. We listened to Amy Grant and Simon and Garfunkel. We were taught that evolution was a lie, with NPR playing in the background. We knew that women should submit to their husbands, but also that sex within the confines of marriage could be mind-blowingly good and that we should never be ashamed of our bodies. We felt that homosexuality was a sin, but we loved my mom’s Uncle Robert and his handsome boyfriend Ken. We knew that the Republican Party was the party of family values, but we weren’t particularly political. In Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1980s, Christianity was the culture; but for my family, it was much more. We believed in the Bible stories my mother read us over our eggs each morning. They girded our lives. More than anything, they taught us that we were beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and because of that we should respect ourselves and everyone else we encountered. They made us believe that our humanity held a divine spark.
Minus the American references for most of us, this may be how many of you grew up. This is the Christianity that gave birth to many liberating social movements. That belief in the divine spark in each of us led many to work for positive social change, such as the end of slavery and the Civil Rights moment. And like Alex Morris, over the years, you may have encountered a Christianity that allowed a more liberal, less literal reading of Scripture, and thus a more friendly relationship with science and with the increasing cultural and religious diversity in society.
Ms. Morris goes on: I’m not sure exactly when my family got the idea that we were at war with larger American culture. But I know that at some point our lessons about God’s love became peppered with the idea that we were engaged in spiritual warfare, inhabiting a world where dark forces were constantly attempting to sever us from the will of God. The devil was real, and he was at work through “gay” Teletubbies and pagan Smurfs, through Dungeons & Dragons, through the horrors of MTV. At one point, my parents forbade TV altogether, and disconnected the stereo system in my car. We still loved Uncle Robert, but believed that the AIDS he’d contracted was a plague sent by God, just as we believed that abortion was our national sin, for which the country would likewise be held accountable. We awaited the Rapture, when Christians would be spirited away and Jesus would return to deal (violently) with the mess humans had made of things. Over time, and even before the introduction of Fox News, whatever nuance we might have seen in the culture evaporated into a stark polarity.
On leaving home and going to university, Morris encountered a more liberal form of Christianity, and her ideas about what it means to be Christian changed. When her article about Christian fundamentalism’s ties to Trump was about to be published in Rolling Stone, she went to her family to try to see if they could talk about what was happening to Christianity in the U.S. – about this “Party” vs. “Party” mind-set and the deep divide that had developed. She talked with her mom and her aunt for hours, about the topics that divide Christians across the spectrum: environmental concerns and climate change, sexual orientation and gender identity, abortion, the state of Israel, the equal inclusion of other faiths and other cultures at the decision-making table, what constitutes marriage and family, science in the schools, and more. And here is where the conversation ended:
Finally, my aunt puts her hand on my knee. Her eyes are tender and her voice soft and trembling with emotion. “I just want them to know the truth.”
And it’s moments like this that shut the conversation down because I believe her. I believe — with faith and certainty — that this is what motivates her, politically and otherwise. “All we can do is love them,” she’d told me. In her mind, this was not about the history of evangelicalism or the Republican Party or American exceptionalism or Christian nationalism or how we got here. This was about her view of love — a tough love that would offer America salvation.
By the time my family hug each other tightly and say good night, it is well past midnight. The cicadas hum outside like blood rushing to the ears. The darkness is heavy. We go to sleep saying prayers for each other, which is the only thing left we can do.
Sometimes that is all we can do. When trusting in the power of our relationship to hold us together, we reach out, and we try to bridge those party divides, and we discover that some divides cannot be bridged. Yet that does not mean we stop loving each other. That does not mean we stop caring about what happens to each other. That does not mean we cease to want the best for each other, or that we will cease to pray for each other. Next week we’re going to look at one of the most well-known passages from Christian Scripture – Paul’s response to the problem of division in the church.
In the meantime, let us never forget that many of the Christians who baffle us, confuse us, even anger us are, by their own lights, trying to be just as faithful to their understanding of what Christ asks of them as we are to what we believe Christ asks of us. That does not mean we will cease to advocate for our own understandings – but we will do so with mutual care and compassion, not demonizing the other, but seeing in them the face of Christ, hoping that in us they will see the face of Christ as well. May it be so.