Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fracturing and Fragmenting the Church of God

Extract from B. Ward Powers (2008), First Corinthians: an exegetical and explanatory commentary, Wipf and Stock. Comments on Dissension in the Church as a theme of the letter introduced in chapter 1 (pp.33-35).

In 1 Cor 1:10-12 Paul speaks, in some considerable concern, about how the Corinthians are plagued with divisions and quarrels. They are dividing themselves into factions clustered around the names of Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), and Christ himself.

Commentators are agreed that the factions were neither started by nor supported by the men whose names they bore. We have no real knowledge now of the basis for these factions, nor do we know what they were differing about. Various conjectures have been made. For example, that the Jewish Christians laid claim to Cephas and probably Apollos, and the Gentiles to Paul. Or those who were (or wanted to be) married pointed to the marital status of Peter, while those who were unmarried elevated Paul and Christ himself as their exemplars (the married status of Apollos is not mentioned in 9:5-6, and remains unknown). Or the differences between the factions may have centered in differences of methods, of preaching, of behavior, or the like, which the Corinthians detected (or thought they detected) between the persons around whose names they gathered themselves. The fact is, we do not know.

But for the Corinthians - and for Paul - the matter was a serious one. Paul has many important issues to raise, requiring careful consideration and extensive change. But before discussing any of these, Paul feels obliged to tackle this issue of their disunity. It is dividing brother from brother in a destructive way (3:17). It must be faced. It must be dealt with. It must be stopped. Paul’s approach is, first, to reiterate the nature of the ­gospel, which is the major factor which unites them all; then, to emphasize that he and Apollos (and the others) are equally inspired and led by the Spirit, and are colaborers, even if their ministries may perhaps differ in some ways (“I planted, Apollos watered”).

Christ is the foundation (3:11): all of us (Paul indicates) are building upon that foundation - and we must be very careful just how we build (3:12-15). As we shall see in subsequent chapters, there are various kinds of differences to be seen at Corinth. In addition to those indicated in this first chapter (whatever in fact they were), there are the different builders of chapter 3; the differences between the “libertarians” and the “ascetics” in the church in regard to their attitude to sex (chapters 6 and 7); between the “knowers” and the “weak” in relation to food offered to idols (chapters 8 to 10); between the “haves” and the “have nots” at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11); between those more obviously gifted by the Spirit and those less so (chapters 12 to 14); and between those with various views concerning the resurrection (chapter 15). Where there were moral or doctrinal errors involved, Paul pointed these out clearly and called for change. But, these apart, Paul did not ask them to become what they were not. His basic approach, which we can see exemplified in 7:20, was, “Stay as you are.”

What he did ask was that there be no disunity, no quarreling, “but that you all be united in the same mind and the same judgement” (1:10).

Some churches of today, in seeking to put into practice the spirit of this teaching of Paul, have adopted as their policy not to make any changes to the status quo unless the whole church (or at least the whole body of the leadership of that church) are unanimously agreed. So till then they will continue to pray and to “wait upon God”.

But there are so many issues which Scripture leaves open for our own determination (e.g. various aspects of how we conduct our worship of God), and so many ways in which we will differ (perfectly legitimately) from one another, that when this approach is followed rigorously it often happens that that church moves very slowly in any matter, or not at all. In some ways, some matters, this may be to the good; but overall it inhibits progress in adapting the eternal gospel to the circumstances of a changing world. Often this means that those people who are most vocal or have the strongest personalities (or who simply get in first to express their views) carry the day, because the less vocal, or the less pushy, or the more reticent, do not want to jeopardize the “unity of the Spirit” by expressing a different opinion.

Some have had, historically, a different approach: when (say) 75% want this and 25% want that, and they cannot agree or accommodate each other’s differences, they split - often acrimoniously. Then in their separate enclaves they can each have their “unanimity” over the issue. And thus perhaps another denomination is created. Then because of our investment (both emotional and financial) in the whole situation, the divisions and the divergences become so totally entrenched that they continue long after the basic causes have been forgotten and the original antagonists have passed from the scene.

Sometimes God blesses them all in this situation, and good may result. It can happen. The most famous example in Scripture is the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41), which resulted in two missionary parties going out, each under an experienced leader. But more often, in modern times, this simply results in bad feelings, a more divided Christian witness to the world, the waste of precious resources through the doubling-up on church infrastructure, and the fact that the one group can no longer benefit from the gifts of ministry which the Lord has given to members of the other group. Oftentimes the fact that a minority dissents over an issue will mean that the whole matter receives more careful consideration. Issues should still be decided by majority, but it will happen with an awareness of how often in history significant progress was made in any given field of endeavor only because a minority - or a single voice - dissented from the accepted outlook or the consensus of the majority or the status quo. It may indeed be that he or she is a voice in the wilderness, but they could be voicing prophetic insights from the Lord. Or not.

Paul’s earnest plea in this section is not a call for uniformity. Or unanimity. We need to distinguish clearly between the danger of the factions forming in our church which was of so much concern to Paul, on the one hand, and on the other, the expressing in valuable robust discussion of differing points of view. Different people espousing differing views and opinions is no justification for fracturing the unity of the body of Christ in a given church.

Ward
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