I don’t have to tell you that we’re living in divisive times. It seems like every news event that happens sends opposing sides scurrying to their ideological corners to engage in verbal combat. Even a natural disaster like the wild fires in Australia have sparked heated partisan bickering. Look at what happens every time there’s a mass shooting. Newspapers, airwaves and blogs start to explain why it happened. Those attempts usually reveal more about the commentators than about the shooter. One side of the political spectrum immediately blames the other for creating a climate of vitriol that led directly to the violence. As it becomes clearer that the alleged shooter has emotional and mental problems, the other side shoots back by saying that their accusers were once again trying to deny individual responsibility and solve all our problems by social engineering. Explaining the tragedy becomes a contest to see which side can score the best talking points.
That’s what happens when we think of politics and social discourse as a protracted sporting event, with elections being like the Super Bowl where the goal is for one side to emerge victorious over the other. The goal isn’t to work together to arrive at what is true and good and right, but to vanquish the opponent and vindicate ourselves. It’s a zero- sum game. If what you believe is right, then those who disagree have to be wrong. Period. End of discussion.
It’s a pattern that carries over into the church. Just before Christmas I was talking with a friend of mine who is pastor of one our larger Presbyterian churches. He’s had a productive ministry there. The church’s mission and outreach has grown. A year or so ago members of the church, a same sex couple, asked if they could get married in the sanctuary. The session decided it was finally time for the church to confront that issue because there are other LGBTQ people who worship there. My friend led the church through a long and thorough process to come up with a decision that was true to scripture, would be pleasing to Christ, and preserve the peace, unity and purity of the church. But after going through the long process, he was shocked at the vitriol that surfaced when it came time to make a decision. He was disheartened by how mean some church members have been to each other. It was as they forgot all the hard work they’d done on how to discuss controversial issues in the spirit of Christ and reverted to the models of debate they see on cable TV.
Eastminster had your share of divisions and church fights in your history. By God’s grace, this is now a congregation that demonstrates the love and acceptance of Jesus and is focused on serving him faithfully without energy being diverted to quarreling. But it took a long time and lots of effort to bring healing.
If it’s any consolation, this problem isn’t new. It’s why Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The church he had founded was being torn apart by differences. There was conflict over everything from how to worship to sexual morality. But it wasn’t just that there was disagreement. People were impugning each other’s integrity, accusing their opponents of being traitors to the faith.
Church fights can be the most painful of all because the stakes are so high. They deal with things that are at the core of our being. Even if the presenting issues seem trivial – the color of the carpet or the order of worship – they have to do with the way we honor God, and that really matters.
When the Corinthians broke into factions, cast aspersions on one another and spent all their energy fighting, they were at cross-purposes with the very reason God had called them into being. The questions they had were similar to the ones we wrestle with today: Can you really be a Christian if you don’t believe the same way I do? What kind of worship best honors God? What is the proper sexual morality for God’s people? Those are important questions. They shouldn’t be ignored or papered over. Paul wasn’t saying that anything and everything should be accepted without making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong.
Paul had some definite opinions on the controversies that were dividing the Corinthians. But before diving into the controversies, Paul reminded them that what they had in common was much more important than their differences.
He didn’t start by lecturing them on civility. He doesn’t evenhandedly weigh out the opposing arguments and try to find some middle ground. The first thing Paul did was give thanks to God for what bound them together. He says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus for in every way you have been enriched in him… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” He starts with giving thanks.
When we give thanks, we recognize that we are dependent and fallible. Giving thanks is how we acknowledge that we can’t take credit for what we have or what we’ve accomplished. We recognize those places where God is at work among us. When we see God at work, carrying out God’s purposes, it puts our agendas in perspective.
Try this exercise for a few weeks. Every night before you go to bed, set aside a few minutes and think back over your day. Identify those places where you saw God at work in your life and give thanks for them. Maybe it was a kind word that a coworker said to you. Perhaps it was some insight you had into a dilemma that was troubling you. Maybe it was the way the sunset was reflecting off a field of snow. It could have been some strength you discovered deep inside you that helped you get through a difficult moment. Identifying those places where God was present in your life and giving thanks for them puts you in touch with something else that is going on. You realize that you’re not alone and that it’s God who strengthens you and guides you. You don’t have to be defensive about your opinions or your ideologies when you know God is working through you for something that is better than anything you can conceive of.
Martin Luther King Jr. had that perspective. He was able to see beyond any narrow interest to a broader vision of Isaiah. One of his rivals in the struggle for civil rights was Malcolm X. Malcolm ridiculed King’s philosophy of nonviolence and called for armed resistance to white segregation. The way Malcolm saw it, white people had used violence to suppress blacks for centuries, and the only way to meet violence was with violence. Malcolm wanted to vanquish the enemy so his side would win.
King realized that racism is bad for white people too. It poisons the soul of the racist. He saw the struggle as more than just one side triumphing over the other. His dream was for a world where all people live together in justice and peace, not for a world where the oppressed and the oppressor just changed sides. He dreamed of a world that was fundamentally transformed. The dream that he shared in that famous speech on the national mall in August of 1963 was taken right out of the Bible, the prophet Isaiah’s promise of the world where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and all people will live together in peace.
One of the dangers of strong convictions is that they seal us off from other perspectives. The louder and stronger we defend our positions, the less we hear those who think differently. The more we hunker down in our convictions and shut others out, the more likely we are to objectify those who disagree with us. And when we treat people as objects, we’re not showing the light of Christ that saves the world.
King and Paul both had strong convictions, but they were grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we anchor our convictions in a living, ongoing relationship with Christ, in a relationship that is nurtured and sustained by thanksgiving and prayer, then we allow him to use us to bring about his dream for what the world should be. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King wrote to the white pastors who told him to tone it down, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness and thereby rose above his environment.”
And Christ expects the church to rise above our environment of invective and hatred. Paul begins his letter by reminding the Corinthians who they are. They are “the church of God that is in Corinth… those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus…” God is at the center of their being. They hadn’t voluntarily banded together as a service club or a civic organization. They weren’t an affinity group or a life-style enclave. They were called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus. The church can’t set its own agenda that’s fought out among its members. God set the agenda for the church before any of them ever belonged to it. In Isaiah 49:6 God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That’s why the church exists, to give Christ’s light to the nations so God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
In another one of his speeches King said, “We’re all tied together in a garment of destiny.” The church can be a model for our nation. By the way we treat those who differ from us, we can be that light to the nations. We don’t shun controversy or differences, but we deal with them in the spirit of Jesus, giving thanks first of all for the grace we’ve receive through him. Then we lay our differences before him and let him use them like threads to weave that garment of destiny. We may be bound to differ, but we’re bound together in Jesus.