Friday, 1 August 2014

When Christians fall out

My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ”. 1 Corinthians 1:11-12.

A church I know has been going through a very painful phase. I always think of it as happy and united, a good place to be. But something bad has happened, right out of nowhere, and the result is that feelings have got heated and relationships bruised. It is not, by all accounts, a happy fellowship to be part of at the moment.

How sad this is. It isn’t, of course, uncommon, because churches are made up of sinful men and women - saved by Christ, yes, but still far from perfect. And wherever sinful men and women come together there is scope for trouble.

Paul is obviously concerned about the factions that are threatening to split the Corinth church. He loves these people deeply, in spite of their many flaws, and is grieved to hear bad news. But of course he wasn’t perfect either, and I can’t help wondering if he himself may have handled the situation less than perfectly.

First, his appeal to the church members - “Agree with one another! Don’t be divided!” - is fine so far as it goes. But of course tensions in relationships can’t just be eased by command. No doubt if Paul were in Corinth himself he would have some wise advice to pass on to his fellow-Christians; but the fact is that he isn’t. We can only hope that his plea had the effect of forcing them to face the issues and then work out a practical strategy.

Second, I can’t help smiling a little grimly when he tells us that his information has come from “some from Chloe’s household”. I suspect that there might have been one or two less than friendly glances cast in Chloe’s direction as the letter was read out in the church meeting: “So Chloe’s lot have been opening their big mouths, have they...?”

Whatever, the situation in Corinth has the effect of challenging us when things aren’t going right church-wise. Various principles arise which are as valid today as they were then.

First, divisions in Christ’s church are serious, and need to be taken as such; they can’t be brushed under the carpet. Those involved need to get together in a humble and prayerful spirit and seek unity. Everyone needs to be willing to say, if appropriate, “All right, I’m sorry, I acted badly”, or “I shouldn’t have said that.” There’s a wonderful verse in Proverbs telling us that “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (15:1). Yes! A sincere “Sorry” can be massively healing.

Second, there is generally no question of a clear-cut distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. In the situation I mentioned at the beginning I am sure that there are good, solid, gracious, Christlike people on both sides. This is why factions and cliques are so tragic. The temptation to demonise the people you disagree with must be stoutly resisted. They are your brother, your sister.

Third, divisions are not just painful for those in the church, but also tragically damaging in the effect they have on outsiders. Later in this letter Paul speaks of people outside the church shaking their heads in dismay at some of the shenanigans they hear about. What kind of witness is that?

Fourth, divisions are usually tied up with personalities. In the case of Corinth, people were lining up behind either Apollos, Cephas (that’s Peter) or even himself. I’m not sure what to make of the people who were saying “I follow Christ”: were they the truly spiritual element in the church? - or were they just sanctimonious and self-righteous? Whatever, surely their basic claim is right, and we should never forget it: only Jesus matters.

Fifth, divisions, however unfortunate, must not be allowed to plunge us into despair. Churches can, and do, come through them! - often stronger and purer as a result. One day we will all be part of a perfect and totally united church - no factions or cliques in heaven! - so we must make it our business to aim for exactly that while still here on earth.

As Paul puts it elsewhere: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Amen to that!

Father God, thank you for the word of Jesus, “Blessed are the peace-makers”. Help me to be a peace-maker, never a trouble-maker. And please draw near in healing today to every church that is riven by disagreements and factions. Amen.

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