This message was preached and recorded at Truett Seminary’s chapel service on January 29, 2019.
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
I was recently thinking back, in light of the sadness of his death earlier this month, on Lamin Sanneh’s visit to Truett in 2009 to deliver the Parchman Lectures. He spoke then as he often did about and as he’d also famously written about the power of the gospel throughout history to bring so many different kinds of people together in so many different cultures and parts of the world to worship the same God. There’s simply not been any other religious movement quite like it.
I was taking a class on religious pluralism with Paul Sands that same semester, and Sanneh visited our class to talk about precisely this unparalleled capacity of Christianity over the centuries to somehow incarnate and inculturate itself, in a genuine indigenous fashion, in such a wide variety of social, linguistic and even religious contexts. (Now, it didn’t always spread this way. Sometimes it was caught up in colonialism and other sinful, distorted versions of Christendom’s exploitative and militant conquest — but not necessarily, and at its best, it wasn’t! And in this respect, the gospel has functioned as incomprehensibly unifying force.
In the passage you heard read a moment ago, Paul speaks to this and insists that the Corinthians be unified perfectly, in mind and thought. I read this this last week in the daily office, and I find it to be one of the most at once compelling and perplexing expectations placed upon the church, so that’s what I’m reflecting on this morning.
It’s compelling because, who could deny the attractiveness and allure of what Sanneh emphasizes in his work? — How Christianity through the power of the Holy Spirit unlike any other movement, unites without diminishing difference. It’s a beautiful thing, church unity, even intended by God to be a reflection of the unity and in diversity of the Trinity itself! That we in with all our differences might be one in Christ.
But unity for Christians is also perplexing because despite the power that the gospel potentially gives us to be unified, we are in so many ways anything but. I think I first noticed this even if at a very superficial level at a very young age, hearing I don’t know how many bad jokes from the pulpit promising to dismiss us in time to beat the Methodists to Luby’s.
Of course, I don’t think denominational diversity and difference is all bad. And not every difference is a division. I myself am something of a denominational mutt in this regard, and yet I wouldn’t say that I feel very divided about it.
I belong to a Baptist church, and I grew up in a Baptist church, but in between, I attended Bible churches; I received my own sense of calling into vocational ministry in a charismatic community church. I served as a youth pastor in a Methodist congregation, and later taught at a Catholic University before finally getting ordained among the Anglicans. Just don’t tell them that neither of my kids have been baptized yet!
And my story isn’t all that unique – at least insofar as it represents the broader phenomenon we’re seeing of more and more Christians in North America drawing on each other’s respective streams and traditions, emphasizing what we have in common, worrying a little less about what makes us different.
Of course, it’s only appropriate if not inevitable that we do this in a post-Christendom age in which, for those of us committed to the gospel, we can hardly afford to trouble ourselves with non-essential differences.
At the same time that there can be good in our diversity, though, we also know the dark side – that much of it is not mere diversity or difference, but indeed, actual division and the result of ugly and even violent conflicts and war in our past.
And so far I’ve really only been referring to one kind of diversitydivision, one kind of difference, namely, denominational, which is actually a fairly narrow category. We know that if we really want to talk about division in the church, we’re going to have to be ready to talk about race, class, age, gender, and so on.
Now, historically, human beings have most effectively been unified by clan and common enemy. And sociologically speaking, this is still very much the case. So in many ways we should expect people to be most unified precisely around what they are divided about and around who and what they oppose.
You can scarcely find a better example of this than in our own government right now and the U.S. political climate in general. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,social-psychologist Jonathan Haidt says it this way, and I think he describes the nature of human reasoning pretty well in this:
“[W]hen a group of people make something sacred, the memberslose the ability to think clearly about it…Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second…We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play…[Our political and religious] reason[ings] are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog…You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments…” though I’m sure we’ll die trying!
It would be nice if Christians were an exception to this. But I think we all know that we are not. I would still suggest, though, that Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1, is that it is the power of the cross and the Lordship of Christ that enables this unity in thought and mind that he is calling for, and that when gospel and lordship of Jesus Christ is what ultimately brings us together, no division should be able to remain.
Now, the church in Corinth appears to be facing this same universal and timeless human problem, or disease we might even call it. And Paul diagnoses the disease, calling it schisma.
Schisma is not a mere disagreement about something. Schisma is relational division felt deeplyin the culture and between significant segments of a collective, of a community. In the context of human relationship, schisma between people leaves an open wound, that without proper treatment, can infect the whole body and become a hardened, ugly and disabling feature.
The schisma that Paul is addressing in Corinth, however – and this is important – does not appear to be doctrinal in nature. If it were, it is likely that Paul would have said so or given some indication of this, for he doesn’t hesitate to do so elsewhere. And that Paul speaks well of Apollos, for instance, only a few chapters later, wouldn’t make sense if Paul thought Apollos was a false teacher.
But even if they weren’t divided over doctrine as such, that they were divided is still theologically significant. For doesn’t it means that, for some of the Corinthians, something, had become as important or more so than the gospel itself? Were not some groups claiming higher status than others, because of who they were following? Vying for greater privilege, maybe, and power and influence in the community?
Now, all that Paul mentions about the schism is that it has something to do with factions formed around certain leaders, whether because of who had baptized them, eloquent speech, or something else, and regardless of whether the leaders intended to form factions. Some say, “I follow,” or “I am of” Apollos, Cephas (no evidence Peter had ever been to Corinth), Paul or just even “Christ.” Those who say “We are of Christ” are especially difficult to identify, positively or negatively, but regardless, Paul objects to any grounds for the existence of such factions, however many there were.
Whatever the problem was exactly, the division in Corinth for Paul is arguably only a presenting symptom of a bigger problem– the Corinthians do not understand, or they seem to have forgotten, that the cross of Christ undid their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another! The lesson is not that our differences are really no big deal, but that the reconciling love and power of the cross is greater than even our biggest differences.
Paul echoes this same sentiment in chapter 12:
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
A few verses later:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Now,we this is a place we have to be very careful, though, that appeals to the unity, even in the name of Christ, not blind us to or make excuses for unjust relationships of power among us. I think of those of white folks who want to say to our black brothers and sisters, “we’re with you, let’s be unified, let’s work together” – but we don’t want to give anything up or make a change. We want racial reconciliation to be easy, and we think it should be, because we don’t really believe we have any responsibility. We don’t see our own complicity in it. It’s easy to say “let’s unite!” when you’re not the one who has been disenfranchised.
But Paul is not naive about this. While he doesn’t directly address the subject of racism, he does show a particular concern for members of the body who have been mistreated or overlooked by those in power, and how they are meant to be incorporated in the Church – the poor, the elderly, the widows – anyone of lower social status:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Paradoxically, the unity available to us through the gospel doesn’t come by treating everybody the same. No, it actually means looking out for the vulnerable. Taking care to include and empower those members among us whom the world tends to judge as insignificant. Showing them special honor. Making theirsuffering our suffering. Not in a patronizing way, but through practicing solidarity.
Isn’t this what the gospel says? Doesn’t God say that to us? Your suffering is my suffering. Our sin, Christ becomes that sin for our sake – and even for the sake of unity?
This unity is deep and costly. It is grounded in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Schisma cuts deep, so the healing of it has to go deeper. Only the cross of Christ does this. Why? Because in Christ, God identifies with. God enters into solidarity with. God takes on. Our sinful condition. He takes it on, absorbs it, and then takes it away. Some of the greatest division is caused by betrayal, deceit and infidelity, and yet this is the very thing Christ experiences and enters into.
I recently joined the board for a non-profit organization called Open Table. Some of you may have heard of it. Their model of ministry is to get 8-10 people or so committed for a full year of supporting a person facing some kind of hardship – oftentimes it’s homelessness – partnering with them and building a relationship with them as each table member helps to address one area of need in the person’s life.
Obviously, the person receiving help from the table benefits significantly, but story after story that I hear is primarily about the transformative and unifying community experience of the 8 other table members as they grow closer in relationship with each other and the individual they’re serving. By caring for the weak and vulnerable in their midst, the gospel goes to work and unites them.
Again, some have tried to think about unity apart from Christ. Unity around a political platform or even an entire political philosophy. Others have attempted to establish this kind unity through other commonalities: race or ethnicity. Unity around nationality or social class. Unity around a certain, narrow theological school or sect.
Of course, there can indeed be unity around certain important and even ordained causes. The fight against racism or sexism in this country comes to mind. And there’s no reason why the church can’t get behind this! In fact, the church must get behind these efforts, and such causes can even be unifying, but only when we engage on Christ’s terms. Which is to say, in cruciformity, and founded on the basis of our trust in God’s redemption mercy and forgiveness.
Here I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the three young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963, in which hedescribes the potential power released by their death to unify!
History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.
To say it another way, the treatment for the disease of schisma is the cross of Christ. The cure for schisma is for Christians is to strive for unity that is gospel-shaped, which means surrendering, as Christ did, all ambition for worldly status, power or privilege. And exchanging this ambition for love of the weak and the vulnerable.
In fact, Paul seems to think that the marks of status, such as eloquent, impressive and attractive speech or worship services (we might say today), may actually have the effect of emptying the cross of its power.
And finally, not only does the cross deeply heal and unify us in this way – it also sends us out. For as Paul says, Christ did not send me to baptize (nothing wrong with baptism, of course), but to preach the gospel.
To preach the gospel, moreover, isn’t to ignore the problems of the world. It rather means being sent more fully into them, unleashing the power of the cross to heal, because the gospel is the only cure for the disease of schisma.
At the risk of conflating John and Paul, let me close by reading Jesus’s own prayer in John 17 for unity among his followers and for those who would come to believe in their message:
20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.