I would not have wanted to serve as pastor of the church in Corinth. What an absolute mess. Sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, the wealthy ignoring the needs of the poor, and chaotic worship services were regular features of this congregation. The pastoral leadership certainly had their hands full.
And yet, this is the same congregation that regularly experienced the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy, was eager to learn more about heaven, and was willing to share in a weekly offering for the Jerusalem church. Despite deep division, there is no talk of a congregational split. Among all of the problems, the Holy Spirit is moving.
The ultimate interpretation of the Corinthian Congregational Profile depends on whether one sees the potential of a bright future for mission and ministry or problems to be avoided at all costs.
Many say similar things about the Church of the Brethren. Some are upset at our inability to finally say how we will relate to gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. Some complain about biblical interpretation, and our famous (or notorious) “two column” paper of 1979. But others happily point to the peace witness we maintain in an increasingly violent world. Several churches in the Great Lakes region of Africa recently chose to join the global Brethren movement because of this very witness.
As real as the problems and possibilities are, I want to raise a different issue that is causing us difficulty. Somewhere along the way, we stopped believing that we need one another.
The Corinthians were at a similar place. When their disagreements on Christian doctrine and ethics were keeping them apart, Paul reminded them that they are “God’s servants, working together” (1 Corinthians 3:9) before they are anything else. This is not to say that there weren’t problems in this congregation—the rest of the letter deals with that. But Paul’s instruction and admonition is based on this fact.
In her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, Christena Cleveland describes many subtle forces that cause us to be drawn to people who are like us while avoiding those who are different. Part of what drives this behavior is that “over the last century, Western moral standards have drifted further away from traditional Christian and biblical standards” (p. 108).
One way we respond to differences of opinion is to identify those people who think, believe, and act like us. If this were as far as things went, there would likely be few problems. But our fallen human nature won’t allow us to stop there. Having identified “our” group, we naturally begin to note those people who are in the “other” group. Those individuals are then held up for correction and ridicule, and are to be avoided at all costs.
None of this is surprising. But the part of Dr. Cleveland’s argument that describes the Brethren so well is her analysis that “one possible sign that you have succumbed to self-esteem and identity-fueled divisions is that you’re unwilling to admit that they have something valuable to teach you” (p. 111). In other words, when we stop believing that we need one another, we have a serious problem.
The entrenchment in our own beliefs and lack of patience for the “other” that has existed among the Brethren for years has only deepened in the months since the presidential election. That is especially worrisome as we approach what may be another contentious Annual Conference. We would do well to remember Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians: We are “God’s servants, working together,” before we are conservative or progressive.
We have not yet realized that, while we do have significant theological differences on substantive matters, any positive mission and ministry will require the contributions, gifts, experiences, and perspectives of each one of us. Like the imaginary “Congregational Profile” of the church in Corinth, we have a decision to make about ourselves: Are our current challenges and opportunities a source for a positive future, or are they (and the Christians they represent) problems to be avoided at all costs? The answer to that question may be more significant than we have yet wanted to admit.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.