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1 Corinthians 3:1-9

February 10, 2014

Jealousy and quarreling. It happens everywhere: at home, in the workplace, in our social circles, in politics, amongst and within ethnic and racial groups … and in church. It’s embarrassing and extremely painful when it happens in the church because, for many of us, the church is meant to be the ideal community. The church is meant to be a place of mutual help and love and encouragement and forgiveness and healing and the worship of God. It’s meant to be a slice, and a foretaste, of the kingdom of God. So it is disillusioning when members of the same congregation, or the same Body of Christ, won’t talk to each other, or put each other down, or feel superior to each other, or bicker in ways that display a lack of mutual respect, or divide into cliques.

Right now my own denomination is in the midst of a quarrel. Mostly it is a quarrel conducted respectfully, but the feelings are so strong and the issues of such importance that it threatens to divide us. The quarrel is over the legitimacy of gay relationships and the full acceptance of gays in the church. My own hope is that each congregation will be respected as it makes its own discernment in its own ministry context, and that we will be open to learning from each other and committed to fostering faithful, healing relationships.

But I am also tempted by another option: let’s divide. Let’s organize ourselves into two different denominations: one made up of congregations that accept gay relationships, and one made up of congregations that reject gay relationships. Each group can then put its energy into its own understanding of Christian ministry and the meaning of the Bible rather than spending precious energy on endless debate or trying to cast out those who disagree.

This is not a “silly disagreement” that we will look back at in the future and shake our heads in wonderment at our own small-mindedness. It is a disagreement that gets at some of the most fundamental questions of how to be faithful to God. It will forever shape how we read the Bible. Whether we want it to be or not, this issue is a major battle in defining the essence of the Christian faith.

And yet, “can’t we all just get along?” I think that’s what the vast majority of Christians would like to do. As crucial as this issue is, let’s not divide over it. Let’s recognize the face of Christ in each other. Let’s recognize that we all have some blindness to God’s truth, and we don’t know where our blindspots are. In humbleness, let us put love above all else, and respect each other as we all seek to do God’s will as best we know how.

On some issues–such as meat offered to idols–Paul was utterly opposed to Christians dividing into opposing factions. On other issues–such as whether men need to be circumcised to be members of the church–Paul took a stand and would not recognize the opposition’s position, even if that meant division. Was Paul right to be inclusive on some contentious issues and condemnatory on others? How does one decide when the issue falls into one category or the other? Or should Paul have always sought to be inclusive? Maybe those who thought circumcision was essential had a good point; maybe the church could have held together both kinds of congregations. On the other hand, if a group has no identifying markers, it is no longer a group. Do we need groups? Do we need the church? I still believe in the mission of the church.

In this particular passage, Paul is upset that the Corinthian congregation is divided by–among other things–whether they prefer Paul’s leadership or Apollos’s leadership. This is probably more than simply an issue of style; it probably was about substance. Paul and Apollos likely interpreted the gospel in significantly different ways. Nonetheless, Paul will not divide himself from Apollos, and rejects the notion that the church should identify with one leader or the other. Both he and Apollos have legitimate ministries, but the church is not built on their individual ministries; it is built on God. Whenever we are tempted to divide into factions, let us remember that our loyalty is to God alone. We are still infants in the faith if we are defining faith by factions. God is our identity. And God is far more inclusive than we dare imagine.

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