Title: United by the cross
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Date: Jan 23, 2011
Author: Meghan Florian
Originally I’d planned to preach on our gospel text today, but after Tom’s comment last week I couldn’t help but take the bait and look more closely at 1 Corinthians 1. As Tom put it last week, in verses 10-18 the “gloves come off” for Paul. The formalities of greetings and giving thanks are through, and he gets right to the point. His appeal is a little bit uncomfortable, truth be told. He writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
While most people don’t like the idea of riffs in the church, and many know first hand the lasting scars division leaves on a church body — no matter how and why that division comes about — it’s hard not to look around at the church today and think unity is impossible. I’ve been to enough churches where I was definitely not of the same mind as the leadership to think that there’s a time and a place to differ.
I’ve also been in a lot of churches where, though the practices differed from what I was used to, God’s work was evident in their unique take on Christian traditions. There are some practices and theological positions that I’ve come to see as “deal breakers,” and others that seem to have more to do with personal preference than anything else.
When I look around at the church as a whole, divisions abound — it’s a wonder that we can even continue to talk about “the church” as one thing — and I have to wonder what Paul would think, standing on this end of church history, looking back on two thousand years of debate and violence, division and reform. He’d probably have a few choice words for us, too.
Given that we don’t know what he would say to us, what we have are his specific words to this particular church. He’d heard from Chloe’s people that the men and women of Corinth are quarreling. What about, though? It’s not about the wording of the communion liturgy, or how often we celebrate it. Neither is it about whether women ought to be preaching, or if contemporary praise songs are allowable, or any of the kinds of things that Christians seem to fight about most. This is not to say they weren’t fighting about things like that, too — such debates seem to be one of the constants of church history.
Paul’s focus, though, is on a question of belonging. “What I mean,” he says, “is that each of you says,
‘I belong to Paul,’ or
‘I belong to Apollos,’ or
‘I belong to Cephas,’ or
‘I belong to Christ.”
The people seem to have put a little too much faith in their human leaders. The source of their division isn’t whether such and such church practice is coherent with their lives as followers of Christ, but actually over who they’re following in the first place.
“Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks, “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The unwritten “NO!” screams from the page, and I imagine some exasperation in Paul’s voice as he thanks God that he didn’t baptize more of them. It’s absurd. Who knew they’d be so swayed by human leaders? Paul even begins with himself, so no one can say that he’s merely criticizing the status of the other leaders.
As I read this passage and think about division in terms of who we choose to follow — Paul, Apollos, and Cephas being long gone — I can’t help but think of a contemporary use of the word “follow.” On Twitter, one of many popular social media sites, a person can choose to follow any number of people — friends, businesses, food trucks, and yes — pastors. On any given person’s Twitter page, if you click on the appropriate link you can see a list of everyone that person follows, and everyone who follows her. The idea seems to be that knowing who someone follows tells you something about her.
So, I did a little research, social media being hip amongst young evangelical types who tend to have loud voices, large audiences, and a tendency to stir up controversy. I looked up the Twitter feeds for two popular emergent pastors, Rob Bell, and Mark Driscoll. Bell has 48,481 followers, and Driscoll has 98,315. It’s a shame to see the difference in the numbers, really, since Bell actually has some decent things to say from time to time, but then, part of the lesson seems to be that having a lot of followers doesn’t make you the messiah.
I know you’re wondering what these charismatic leaders tweet about. Bell’s most recent post reads: “Revenge doesn’t work.” He must have been working on a sermon, I guess. Driscoll’s last post reads: “#D8nite with my gal pal,” date spelled with a number 8 and night spelled n-i-t-e.
Well, it was a Friday night, however I’m not sure when it became normal to refer to ones spouse as ones gal pal. Despite the large number of followers, there wasn’t a whole lot of theology going on here, though I did scroll down and find a video clip from a sermon titled, “With Jesus, division is inevitable.” Apparently Driscoll hasn’t read 1 Corinthians lately.
It feels a little silly to talk so much about Twitter, but the reality of the matter is that people really do follow these men, and not just on the internet, so it matters whether they’re following Christ, or just making their own disciples. The disagreements at Corinth weren’t about trivial things, and Paul seems concerned about whether those who claimed to be of Christ were instead leading their own factions, and perhaps whether the people were encouraging that by claiming to be “of Paul,” or “of Apollos” instead of “of Christ.”
Evangelicals aren’t the only example of the power held by present day church leaders, though. Last spring I read a piece about the debate over women bishops in the Church of England which raised a lot of questions about authority, hierarchy, and essentially who decides what is or isn’t coherent with Christ’s teachings. It broke my heart to read about women trying to follow God’s call and being told no, not because Archbishop Rowan Williams doesn’t think they should be bishops, but because he doesn’t want the church to split.
Who would want to be remembered as the archbishop under whom the Church of England divided? Listening to a message like Paul’s, one can understand where Williams is coming from. The problem is, everyone in the Church of England is not of the same mind about this. Now, obviously I am neither Anglican nor do I have any plans of being a priest or bishop, but as a Christian I feel entitled to have an opinion about this. Honestly, I wanted to get in a shouting match with Williams after reading this piece. I can try to understand where he is coming from as a leader, and yet…and yet….
When, I wanted to ask him, does the desire to avoid division hinder the proclamation of the gospel? What is unity if it comes at the expense of truth?
It’s foolishness for me to want to argue with the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Mark Driscoll for that matter — but then, “the message about the cross is foolishness.” In the last section of 1 Corinthians 1, which is one of the texts for next week, Paul talks about God choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong, and I wonder sometimes if Rowan Williams feels shame in the face of these well educated, hard working Anglican women, who are faithfully serving the church while certain positions in its hierarchy remain closed to them. The weak, shaming the strong. And, why, I wonder, haven’t they left? I probably would have.
All of this is a round about way of getting at the discomfort I mentioned initially. Does Paul’s talk of unity, and his warning against division, leave a place for real disagreement? Obviously in choosing the example of women in the Anglican church, which I have some strong feelings about, I’m giving you a pretty big hint that I think yes, in fact, it does.
Given that churches shouldn’t split over every trivial difference, and that Paul clearly warns against division, what about significant theological disagreements? It requires a lot of courage, and patience on all sides, to speak our minds, listen to others, and reach a consensus. It also requires a lot of humility and grace. We don’t have an archbishop to tell us who can and can’t preach, what songs we should sing, when to change or when to stay the same.
I for one am glad, but not because this somehow makes things easier — on the contrary, it seems a good deal more difficult to coexist in unity when we might not be of the same mind. When a church splits, you stick with the side you agree with. What happens when the congregation down the street is simply allowed to decide how they want to do things differently?
If truth is as slippery as church history shows it to be, I think this is how it must be. Not agreeing simply to avoid division, but actually working hard to find a way of being church together with all of those differences. Paul’s warning doesn’t mean that we should avoid conflicting opinions, so much as it means we must sort out those conflicting opinions carefully, together, “not with eloquent wisdom,” in Paul’s words, but with the cross of Christ at the center.