Friday, August 7, 2009

Unity and Diversity in the Church

The following is sermon #2 from my 1989-1990 series in First Corinthians. Many of the examples reflect my Evangelical identity at the time, but I am editing very little of my original work.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17


Maybe you have heard this little story. It's about a young boy whose mother asked him what he had learned in Sunday school that day. He decisively said, "The disciples had a Honda." Now obviously this was not an answer the mom expected, so she pushed the issue a bit. "The disciples did not have a car, dear," she said to the blossoming scholar. "Oh yes," said the boy, "the Bible says the disciples were all in one Accord!"

That may have been the last time there was unity in the whole church. Before the book of Acts is well under way, the church has divisions of rich with poor, Greek-speaking Jews with Aramaic-speaking Jews, plus all Jews with Gentiles.

Today the church of Jesus Christ is so fragmented we can hardly conceive of it being any other way. We are fragmented by theology and traditions. We are fragmented by nationalism and racism. We are divided by issues. We are divided over personalities.

There are divisions even in a local congregation. There are those who want the service to be informal; others prefer formal. Some people want choruses, while others like gospel songs, and that is in contrast to the ones who desire stately hymnody. Some people like one pastor to the total exclusion of the other. On and on it goes.

The church is divided by issues: women in ministry, capital punishment, the homeless and refugees, abortion, nuclear deterrence, medical technology, public education, homosexuality.... in all these issues and more, we can find parts of the church at large in turmoil over such things throughout society.

Look around a local church on a Sunday morning and you will likely see a few people who are not sure why they are in the same church as so and so sitting over there, with whom they seemingly have nothing in common. One thing is for sure: look around the congregation and you will find no one else whose feelings and perceptions and pilgrimage are exactly like yours. What is it that binds people together in a church?

Some people would say that individual congregations should be built on homogeneity. That is a big word that means everyone is basically alike. There is a Protestant church growth principle which says a church should cater to either rich, middle-class or poor whites, or rich, middle-class or poor blacks, people who have a lot of education or those who do not. Whatever the category, you choose it and build a church around that trait. But how is such a bond different from a country club or a street gang? Isn't the church more than that?

Well, okay, the church should be able to surmount social barriers. What binds the church together, others say, is a common understanding –– a shared conceptual framework. Does that person or church have the same philosophy of Christianity that I do? Do they give the "Christian" answer to social problems or family issues? Do they believe the right thing about the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

This kind of assessment seems to be more on target than a mere evaluation of whether other people "fit" my sociological strata, but when we begin to understand what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, we find that theological similarity is little better than sociological homogeneity. So what is it that binds us together in the church? Paul gives the answer.

First, though, we should consider the ideas of unity and diversity more closely. What does unity mean? One way to answer that is to see what it does not mean. What does diversity mean? Again, one way to understand diversity is to see what it does not mean.

Paul's wish for the Corinthians is that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought (v10). Does this mean everyone in the church is to appear to be a clone of the others? No, one thing unity does not mean is uniformity (and this will be made perfectly clear later when Paul talks about the body). Unity comes out of a fundamental consensus.

In another letter Paul used some of this same language, and it can help us understand how we should be alike. Writing to the Philippians Paul said, make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (2:2). And what was the one spirit and purpose? He told them in the next paragraph, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus (2:5). Our unity comes in Jesus Christ. That is the obvious and simple answer, but what does it mean for us? Again, Paul gives the answer.

If unity does not mean uniformity and we do not have to all be totally alike, that means it is right to expect diversity. We are not all alike. But how is legitimate diversity expressed? Do not expect the contemporary doctrine of multi-culturalism. Our first concern is to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul in his First-Century setting.

So, diversity does not mean divisiveness. The Corinthians were divisive, and Paul makes it clear that is wrong. In fact, in other places Paul puts divisiveness in the same list of sins where he puts things like murder, sexual immorality, drunkenness and idolatry (e.g., Gal 5:19f).

How do we view divisiveness in the church? If we hear someone stirring up dissent, if we know of a movement to promote one particular person (or discredit one particular person) or if there is an issue which creates anger and people taking sides, can we really believe such a thing is just as odious to God as murder or adultery?

Often the excuse for divisiveness is the claim of "standing up for what is right." Did you know our allegiance is not to what is "right?" Our allegiance is not to any concept. Our foundation is not a "system of belief." We do not merely own a "faith" which, if we are intelligent and disciplined, gives us a world view. I'm not saying none of that happens; there is value in those things. It's just that such an understanding is not the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

This was one of the mistakes the Corinthians made. The Greek (or Hellenistic) world was filled with a thirst for knowledge. One of the early heresies in Christianity was called Gnosticism, and it was a perversion of Christian teaching through a mixing of Greek philosophy. The Corinthians were not into heresy, but their motivation and behavior was the same kind of thing that gets people totally away from Jesus and into wrong beliefs.

The Corinthians were falling out with each other over an intellectual isolation of Christianity. Knowledge had become the focus and the person perceived to best take one further into knowledge was the hero.

For some it was Paul, who planted the Corinthian church. For others it was Apollos who came to Corinth after Paul. Apollos was from Alexandria, a city of great intellectual activity which was known for its own school of thought. Perhaps some of the Corinthians were impressed by Apollos, and felt his style was more conducive to spiritual development (which for them came through the mind).

Paul mentions Cephas (who was Peter), and also the circle who proudly said they followed only Jesus. But the focus of all this was wrong and the spirit was deadly. The unfortunate thing is that such patterns did not end with the Corinthians.

I have seen it in churches and seminaries: people whose focus is on mere knowledge. At first it seems such a noble thing –– to learn all one can about the Bible. Then it becomes so important to declare one's self based on the new knowledge: "I am a Calvinist." "I'm Wesleyan." "I'm Mennonite." "I believe in pre-tribulational premillennialism." And the objective becomes merely proving one's self right and the other person wrong.

Then another person comes along who sees part of the truth; they understand we do not find our identity in another person, even a great Christian teacher, and so they say "We are just Christian." The trouble is their pride –– the way they come across as so superior if they happen to meet a Wesleyan or a Lutheran or whatever. It's still divisive.

In another of his writings Paul says something which applies here as well: "always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth" (2 Tim 3:7). What good is Bible knowledge, what good is theology, what good are great Christian teachers if, in our learning of such, we are not actually changed? What good is it if one has a perfect understanding of Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection, or Calvin's Institutes or the Summa of Aquinas if Jesus Christ is not an increasing part of that one’s life so that the result is becoming more and more like him?

For all the good that great men of faith have done for Christianity, it is still not them whom we follow. Calvin and Luther and Wesley and Menno Simons and Aquinas are not our saviors. And when people join a church shaped by one or more of them, it is still into Jesus Christ we are baptized. Jesus is our identity; we are followers of Jesus Christ.

Today in the greater Christian community we see not only theological teachings shaping the church, but issues as well. One aspect of that could be good –– a recognition that theology is not just academic exercise, but a call to do something. On the other hand, the call to do something is becoming for some the foundation of the gospel. So we have witnessed Liberation Theology, Black Theology, and Feminist Theology. And in that process the centrality of Jesus Christ has gotten buried. Then the question is not who is Jesus and what has he done, but things like: Are you working against capitalist imperialism? Are you for affirmative action? Do you use inclusive language and sometimes call God "Mother?" Paul is clear that truly being the church is not mere knowledge and issues.

What is it then that binds us together in the church? How are we all alike? Paul's answer is in v17 where he gives a negative and a positive insight.

First, our unity and our identity is not based on words of human wisdom. Paul is going to talk a lot about "wisdom." (In fact, he uses the word 44 times in his first ten epistles, and 28 of them occur in 1 Corinthians, and 26 of the 28 occur in chs 1-3!) Paul's concern is with the gospel, and he wants to be more than plain that the gospel is not based on, nor does it depend on, human wisdom. Being intellectually impressive is not what our faith is all about. (Yes, it is impressive when we are given eyes of faith to see, but that is not its power.) High sounding words and deep ponderable thoughts are not the things we use to commend the gospel. Neither are weighty theological tomes or chic theologies built on issues popularized by the spirit of the age. Those things can generate a lot of intensity; they can entice us and make us think we are doing something, when maybe it's all fluff.

So what is the positive that binds us? It's the thing that is so quickly left behind when human wisdom tries to make its contribution. It's the cross of Jesus Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the great leveler. If you and I are part of the church today it's because we came by the way of the cross. One can be a pastor, but he needs the cross just as much as anyone. Paul needed the cross in his life. Apollos needed the cross. John Calvin is not great today because of his Institutes; he is great because he knew his need of the cross, and out of that wrote his thoughts. John Wesley was not great because of his holy living; he is great because the cross of Jesus Christ stirred him to disciplined (“methodical”) holy living.

The cross of Jesus Christ tells of something human wisdom does not want to hear: we are sinful and needy and lost apart from the cross. We are not self sufficient. We are not able to figure out the mysteries of life. We cannot find our own way. We all have that in common.

And for those who, as Paul initially described the Corinthians, are part of God's church, sanctified and called to be holy, we can never forget, with one another, that we all come to God and we all stand before him on the same ground –– the cross of Christ.

That is where we find wisdom. That is where we are reminded that it is not my idea or your idea that matters. That is where we realize we are not here to build our own kingdom. We are here to be united on the one great eternal truth that each one of us needs so badly: that Jesus Christ is our hope, our forgiveness, our life, our wisdom. It is not what I think or what you think. It is how much we are conformed to the character of the Son of God.

There's one fundamental question: Are you in the church because of who Jesus is in your life –– because you know the reality of his cross in your life? That is the identity of the church. That is our unity. And if that is true, there is no other diversity that can overshadow how it is we are here. The cross in my life and yours is the cure for divisiveness.

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