What’s going on here?
Last week I mentioned that the church in Corinth was one of the unhealthiest and most dysfunctional churches -- ever. Yet, Paul says that they are enriched by Christ and calls them holy.
There were a group of influential people -- all of whom considered themselves to be spiritually elite because they’d had an intense experience of spiritual enlightenment or knowledge. Their approach to spirituality apparently led to a lot of quarreling -- factions and divisions in the church. So Paul writes:
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. 11 For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. 12 Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.”Note that Paul is not saying that the teachers themselves or their teaching is wrong -- only that using Paul, Apollos, or Peter and their teaching to divide rather than unite is a problem. (And is quite contrary to what they are teaching.) It is not wrong to have some teachers who are influential. We don’t have to homogenize all teaching so that everyone tells the story in exactly the same way.
Rather Paul is talking about the tendency to allow influence to become divisive.
Frankly, I think that he is speaking a bit tongue in cheek here -- using some very positive teachers, to illustrate his point. In addition to himself, he mentions Apollos -- first century intellectual Christian who was based in Alexandria, down south in Egypt -- very heady stuff going on with him -- but very respected in the church.
Paul also mentions Peter, the apostle who was perhaps the one most tuned into the Jewish side of the faith.
And then there were perhaps some self-righteous people who were saying -- "Well, YOU can listen to those guys but WE’RE the purists -- we’re better than all of you because WE just follow Christ.”
Paul is not saying that the message of all of these teachers -- Peter, Apollos, himself -- or their followers is necessarily bad -- but that the church should NOT use them (or anyone else of lesser stature) -- as rallying points to divide. And the Corinthians seem to have plenty of lesser caliber leaders around whom they were rallying and dividing.
So Paul asks, quite rhetorically:
13 Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! 14I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 for now no one can say they were baptized in my name. 16 (Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don’t remember baptizing anyone else.)Baptism is the initiation rite for formal entry into the church -- and new life in Christ. And the irony is that people seemed to be using baptism as a status thing -- the very opposite of the intention.
“Well, I was baptized Billy Graham" or "I was baptized by John Piper" -- implying -- my spirituality is somehow tied to theirs and is thus better than that of others -- that perhaps we take on some of the stature of whoever it was who baptized us.
And Paul is saying -- STOP! You guys are have gone off the deep end! I’m glad I didn’t baptize many of you myself or you might be claiming my authority. You’re missing the whole point.
Verse 17 -- For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power.
When I teach the preaching class I don’t usually do a whole lot of lecturing, but one thing that I usually end up saying at some point is, don’t let your sermon illustrations over-shadow the point you’re trying to make. And this is what Paul is saying, "Look, I’m here to share the good news of Christ -- I don’t want anything I say, or how I say it, to detract from what I’m saying. It’s not about me or any other teacher or system of teaching. It’s about the message!"
And sometimes we who preach find these great video clips or moving stories or power point presentations -- high on coolness and snazz -- so much so that all people can think about is the great video, story or presentation -- and can’t grasp or remember the point of it all.
And this what Paul is saying -- “I didn’t come to you with fancy words or slick presentations to woo and impress you. This isn’t about me -- or anyone else... but Christ himself.” We don’t want to do anything that overshadows the message of Christ.
18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.
In other words, looking at the flow of all of this in chapter 1 so far is -- WE OVERCOME THE NATURAL TENDENCY TOWARD DIVISION ONLY THROUGH OUR COMMON PARTNERSHIP WITH CHRIST. (Key Point)
Remember verse 9 -- the message out of which our text this morning flows -- “God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We overcome the natural tendency toward division only through our common partnership with Christ -- that which is the message of the cross.
So, how to we do this? Practically speaking? How do we live together in Christian harmony?
I want to share 10 general rules of thumb -- wisdom on the matter -- 10 strong suggestions for getting along.
There might be times when we are led to vary from this but generally speaking if we keep these things in mind we’ll get a long way toward maintaining the unity that is ours in Christ -- and we’ll be able to deal better with conflict in general.
And yes, this is about harmony in the church -- but these guidelines can also be applied to marriage and office and school.
Now, at the end I’m going to ask you to add your own rules of thumb for maintaining harmony. Or perhaps to have you accentuate the one or two that you think are most important. So keep that in mind as we move along here. I’m intentionally keeping my explanations fairly brief because I want you to have a chance to elaborate.
1. Acknowledge that conflict is a positive thing.
When there is conflict it means that there is some kind of motion -- something is happening. New ideas are in play. People are having to think in new ways. And that creates tension. The tension itself is not bad. We only get into trouble when we respond to tension or conflict in an unhealthy way -- blowing up over it -- dividing over it -- or denying it’s existence.
And the only way that we are going to be able to tap into the conflict for growth is if we openly recognize it and talk about it.
2. Focus on the core -- the good news, the power of the cross -- to borrow Paul’s words in verse 17. The gospel is what unites us -- not the fact that we all see eye to eye on politics or all lifestyle issues -- or even the logistical issues of church life.
If it is the cross that unites us -- then it is only through the cross that we are of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For it is Christ who has captured our minds -- our thoughts and our purpose.
3. Graciously grant freedom in non-core issues.
If our primary attention rests on Jesus -- what he is about -- what he is doing -- then a lot of the other things which potentially divide us don’t end up really affecting us in the same way.
In the 17th century German Lutheran theologian Peter Mei-der-lin (also known as Rupertus Mel-den-ius) said:
in non-essentials, freedom;
in all things, love.”
This slogan became the rallying point for the Moravian Church, which gave birth to the renewal movement out of which the Covenant Church emerged. That is, it has been firmly imprinted in our DNA as a cluster of churches.
We are not always good at it -- but we believe it to be true and try to practice it. That is, we want to keep the focus on the essential -- on Christ and what is clear about him -- while allowing freedom in areas that are less clear.
For example, we’re adamant that Christ is going to return. But we’re not so dogmatic about how, when, or in what order events will happen. And since the church is not constituted on agreement over whether it is premillenial, amillennial, or postmillenial -- we refuse to divide over those issues. They are not essential. And if you don’t know what those terms mean -- don’t worry about it. Just recognize that because because our unity is found in the clear center we are not going to divide over the issues that are a bit more fuzzy on the periphery.
Of course, the issues that cause division are often quite mundane -- the colors of the carpet -- or whether there should be carpet at all. The music -- the instruments -- some unenlightened people believe that a ukulele is not an appropriate worship instrument...
We just have to decide ahead of time that we’re not going to go to war over those kinds of things. They are areas of freedom -- non-essential.
4. Don’t feed the trolls.
Who can tell me what a troll is?
On the internet -- in a forum -- or you see it in the comments section below a newsstory -- a troll is someone who makes provocative comments with the primary purpose of stirring up controversy -- getting everyone mad at each other.
If you respond to their outrageous comments you are reinforcing their behavior -- validating their purpose.
So if someone comes along and claims that he has indisputable evidence that Barak Obama is the son of Martians -- the best response is to ignore. Don’t feed the troll because there is no way that you’re going to have a fruitful discussion about that issue. And frankly, they probably don’t want fruitful discussion. They are really more interested in seeing if they can stir things up -- if they have the power to make you jump.
That happens in churches -- and offices and schools and homeowners associations... If you want to keep from dividing the house don’t give trolls the satisfaction of a response when they say outrageous things.
5. Practice the language of kindness and respect.
Notice in the text that Paul address the Corinthians -- even those with whom he seriously disagrees -- as siblings in Christ. 1:10 -- “I appeal to you dear brothers and sisters...”
I refuse to dis those with whom I disagree -- even those who are nasty. One thing that the internet has taught us is that snark is cheap and easy -- but that it doesn’t accomplish anything. If, however, we maintain a tone of respect we rise above it -- because instead of demonizing someone (even someone who deserves it) we are humanizing them. We are recognizing that they are made in the image of God.
And usually, if we are dissing someone it rises out of our emotional frustration and exasperation rather than out of our heart for the person.
If I’m having a discussion where I disagree I try to go out of my way to show respect. I try to say President Bush or President Obama or Governor Brewer. When we speak respectfully it takes the nasty rhetoric down a notch -- and that diffuses division.
So, if #4 is don’t feed the trolls #5 is really don’t be a troll.
6. Accentuate the things we do well in common.
Sometimes we lose perspective and start to think that the only issue is the issue at hand -- the issue over which we are conflicted. We may be on the same page -- doing things in concert 99% of the time but we start to think that everything hinges on the 1% over which we disagree.
If you’re in a meeting and you present a product option and everyone likes most of what you’re saying -- but three people take issue or disagree with one small point in the approach -- the temptation is to pour all your ego energy into defending that minor point -- and to divide the whole house over the 1% in question.
If we accentuate weaknesses we’re missing out on all the good things that God is doing otherwise.
I was talking the other day with a pastor of a church which went through some extreme conflict. They were a newer church -- maybe seven-years-old. And people were getting upset because they didn’t yet have a building and all the churchy programs that they had come to expect.
It caused quite a stir -- and all of the great ministry they were doing with an impoverished village in Africa and with some of the homeless in the community -- and through their small group outreach -- was all ignored. They had incredible strengths from the kingdom of God perspective but a few people had decided to make everything hinge on a lesser area that they saw as a weakness.
7. Honor and tap the strengths of people with whom you do not see eye to eye.
That is, when we are self-confident we can acknowledge and learn from those with whom we disagree -- and that goes a long way toward maintaining harmony.
I’ve become friends with one of the Mormon bishops in town. Now, I think that LDS theology is totally out there and that it does not add up.
But that does not stop me from relating to them as friends -- and appreciating them as people -- their strong emphasis on families, their welfare to work program. their commitment to mission, the way they structure themselves into smaller congregations or wards for growth. There are no Mormon megachurches -- and only 25% of their converts remain active over the years, yet as a movement they continue to multiple. Can we recognize that without embracing or implying that we are embracing, their theology?
I think so -- and the secularized community out there, which is clueless about the difference between a Mormon and a Catholic anyway -- and thinks that at the core all churches are the same... When they see us treating one another with respect -- that diffuses some of their angst over matters of the spirit. It creates openness.
Now, transfer that idea into addressing the divisions within the evangelical churches -- people with whom we have a LOT more in common. It’s less likely that we’ll get riled up and behave poorly toward those whom we have some appreciation for.
8. Grant the best of intentions.
It’s amazing how much division comes out of mind reading. We think we are smart enough to know why people do what they do? Even if we don’t talk with them about it? -- We know?
You assume that they hate you because they ignore you -- when really the cause might be that they are too embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand your language or dialect well enough and don’t want to offend you by getting into a deep conversation with you.
We’re not smart enough to understand everyone’s behavior -- let alone the intentions behind them. And if we are gracious -- assuming the best -- we open channels for communication and hold things together.
9. Go light on the labels.
Moron, idiot, crazy person -- once we stick a label on someone it not only incites them (and others who agree with them) but it gives us permission to think of them as something less than fully human. And once we do that -- then we can divide from them because they are not one of us. Even if a label is accurate it might be best to avoid it.
10. People do annoying and stupid things -- get over it.
You’re annoyed and ready to fight because you take yourself way too seriously. But as Martin Luther put it -- we’re all simultaneously (at the same time) saints and sinners. That means that we all still sin -- even in the church -- why are we so surprised and so offended when that reality surfaces.
Get over it. The world isn’t fully baked yet. Don’t be offended, don’t take it so personally. It’s not about you. Let’s work on things and move forward and THROUGH OUR COMMON PARTNERSHIP WITH CHRIST overcome the natural tendency toward division.
Okay, those are my 10 strong suggestions for getting along. I’m wondering what you might want to add -- maybe you have #11 or #12 -- or maybe you’d like to accentuate or clarify something I’ve suggested. Or maybe you’re stupid enough to challenge something I’ve said... I’d like to hear from you.