Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dealing With Disunity pt. 1

After my previous attempt to highlight some of the subjective and self-important tactics used by doctrinal politicians, I was inspired to post a series on disunity from 1 Corinthians. I'll be posting them in the coming weeks, but here's some introduction to what's coming:

The division of the family is one of the most pressing problems in the western world today. A person’s family is the soil from which they grow to impact their environment, and now more than ever that soil is being poisoned with divorce, homosexuality, materialism, child-abuse and general selfish neglect. The fruit formed from that soil is unsurprisingly bitter: a dramatic escalation in violent crime, increasing gender confusion, rampant sexual promiscuity, further divorce, and further societal decay. The bond between fathers and mothers, parents and children is like an atom – you can’t split them apart without causing disastrous, far-reaching consequences.

Of course none of that is to say that someone of tremendous integrity and moral strength can’t come from a dysfunctional family – surely one can. Examples abound. But regardless of whether one can actually survive and overcome or not, what remains indisputable are the personal pains and peculiar challenges which extend from formative years of family life into adult relationships. Hence the raison d’etre of the Dobson brigade and his culture war. Evangelicals realize that not only Christian witness but societal order depends on husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, parents refusing to exasperate their children and children obeying their parents. We, therefore, more than most, know that unless each member of this institution remains vigilant, the family will be divided, nuclear meltdown will be imminent, and the fall out will destroy civilization as we know it.

Yet this commonly shared sense of urgency about "family values" among us is conspicuously absent in regard to that institution which God deems even more fundamental to the preservation of human society: the Church. The Church is the local and worldwide family of God; the household of the redeemed. Jesus said in Mat. 5:14-16 that the it's humankind’s only light and salt, without which the world would be left in darkness with nothing to stem the tide of rot and decay. Pagan conservatism has often observed that if you divide the family and the world is in big trouble. But according to Jesus and Paul, dividing the Church, the very family of God, strikes at the heart of the world's only hope for redemption. It is the alternative to the society created by idolaters -- it's a new creation, a living preview of kingdom life. The ministry of Jesus is largely mediated through this Spirit-filled community which He rules from the right hand of God's throne. It's health and well-being are therefore vital to the plan of God for the world. The connection between the ministry of Jesus and that of the Church is so organically connected that its likened to husband and wife, head and body, vine and branches.

Jesus directly connected the Church’s visible ONENESS and UNITY to its effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel. John 17:20-23 says, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The mission of the Church, therefore, to some degree depends on our visible unity - the same unity demonstrated by Jesus and the Father - unity of purpose, unity of essence, unity of will, and the unity of mutual joy and synergism. The words "depends upon" are intentionally selected, for they confront the casual distinction made by many evangelicals between the Church's visible unity and the effectiveness of its Gospel proclamation (the former being the object of cynical scoffing, the latter being regarded as indespensible).

Surely the Bible speaks triumphantly about the end of the story, and we know that ultimately nothing can thwart God’s work on earth (as bleak or as dismal as the picture may look at any point in history). But we also know that even though the church can’t be stopped, it can be slowed down. It can be rendered temporarily ineffective. Salt can loose its saltiness and light can be put under a bushel. And that’s exactly the problem facing the Church at present, in all its fragmented shame. The throat of our apologetic posturing and bold proclamation is slit by our mirroring of the world's strife, dysfunction and utter lack of peace. The credibility issue isn't just a percieved problem, it's a real one: is the resurrection power of Jesus real, and is He able to give us the Holy Spirit? The dying world in which we live needs to see our oneness, not just to find therapeutic escape from the fragmentation of their own self-destructing societies; they need to see it in order to beleive that a genuine alternative to idolatrous living really does exist. "Jesus saves" may be the truth, but we give them no earthly reason to believe it.

And people have tried to deal with this problem in a lot of different ways. Some well meaning brothers want to join hands without ever debating the real issues which lie behind our division. Unity, in this frame of reference, is everyone’s duty to minimize disagreements in order to avoid dissension. We all have family members like that – they want peace so badly, they’ll sacrifice just about anything to have it (usually it's your mom). And if you do have family members like that, you know that this kind of peace is only superficial – it’s only skin-deep, and it doesn’t last. Before long, the deeply felt differences among that never get talked about begin to float to the surface, and the illusion of unity instantly evaporates. Moreover, while the conversation at the dinner table may not be heated for these folks, it isn't warm, either. The energy which should be spent on teasing, sharing and genuinely relating is spent on suppressing these deeply felt differences, resulting in sterile, lifeless small talk.

In recognizing the pitfalls of naive ecumensim, some have opted for a different solution to the problem – it’s called the doctrine of separation. If you disagree with a family member with sufficient conviction, you simply extend the offer come around to your way of thinking one last time before packng your bags to leave. Some even go so far as to advocate SECOND-DEGREE separation: that is, if you happen to agree with me, but you also choose to associate with those who don’t, we can’t fellowship together. We’ve all dealt with family members like this too – they respond to disagreements by fighting, getting indignant, and then storming off. When the holidays roll around, the real family politics begin, because if you seem like you’re too sympathetic to someone on one side, the other side will cut you off.

Both of these extremes exist in our worldwide Church family. But the only reason they exist in the Church is because these extremes also exist in our hearts. And that’s why division isn’t just a modern problem for the Church. It’s a sin problem, as old as mankind. Only 23 years after Jesus prayed His prayer in John 17, Paul was forced to write the letter of 1 Corinthians to deal with the disunity that was ripping their church apart. Nearly every other problem in the Corinthian church that Paul addressed in this letter (tolerating gross sin in ch. 5, taking each other to court in ch. 6, hurting weaker brothers in ch. 8-10, disorder in communion in ch. 11, their lack of love in using spiritual gifts in 12-14 etc) had its roots in the problem of disunity, Paul's subject of choice in the first four chapters.

The Corinthians couldn’t manage to worship and minister together as one family, in one accord. So, immediately after his greeting in 4-9, Paul gives 3 resources that wil help the Corinthians sort this mess out. Verses 10-17 introduce Paul's polemic against it by giving an exhortation, a description and an important implication about disunity. The exhortation exemplifies how to approach the problem and identifies a provisional solution, the description illustrates the sorts of attitudes and activities that lead to factions, and the implication exposes just how foolish divisiveness really is. I'll spend some time examining these points in my next few posts: but, just for posterity, here's 1 Co. 1:10-17:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all
agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in
the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning
you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I
mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,”
and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not
crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank
God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one
would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household
of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For
Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness
of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.


Stephen said...

It is a very important issue you are addressing; thank you for having the courage to do so. I hadn't realized how unity and proclaiming the gospel are linked in Jesus' prayer. Thank you for sharing that. I also enjoyed the artwork in your post. I'm looking forward to the others.

Tommy said...

A big AMEN from Pamplona, Spain. A couple thoughts on the topic: it seems to me that the ecclesiology (or lack thereof) of much of the evangelical tradition (i.e. the church's purpose is primarily to service individuals' relationship with God) has left many brethren just scratching their heads when someone starts harping on unity. Its importance is confined to the margins at best.

Ephesians seems to me a great source for addressing the importance of unity among God's people. There the church's unity is the means of God's victory over "the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies" (e.g. 3:10), which continue to hold sway outside of Christ.

A question I've thought a lot about and am eager for discussion on (before I get pommeled at ETS on it): On the (rather questionable) assumption that the early church did maintain some semblance of unity, what held it together? As you've suggested, it doesn't seem to have been doctrinal uniformity on the entire range of issues addressed in the Bible. Flattening out the Scripture to demand absolute concord on "God's Word" (which usually refers only to a certain interpretation of verses emphasized by a particular, polemically defined Christian tradition) as a condition of unity does not seem the path to a united church, whether in the 1st century or today. Perhaps what held the early church together is the standard we must flock to for tackling the disunity of the church today...

TheBlueRaja said...


I hope I don't disappoint! Thanks so much for your kind (as usual) comments!


I'm right there, bro. Too bad it's only ideologically and not GEOGRAPHICALLY! I hope you enjoy ETS!

olympiada said...

Wow soylent green, inspired post! Have you been to my blog? I think you will find it reflecting the very issues you are talking about. I come from a dysfunctional family, I was abused, I am ending an abusive marriage, I am divorcing my husband, I am a Christian, I have been cut off by a member of my own church, I am ecumenical, on and on and on and on. And I am starting off on reading the first epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians in order to understand the gift of celibacy as written about in the book The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evodokimov.
You blow my mind Soylent Green with your post!

TheBlueRaja said...

You're too kind, Olympiada.

I'm sorry to hear about your circumstances, but would be interested in hearing more; what were the circumstances of your encounter with Jesus Christ? What has He been doing in your life since then? What sort of Christian tradition are you serving and worshipping in?

Again, I'm glad you found something of use in this post, and I do hope you'll be stopping by again!

olympiada said...

Blue Raja. I will answer your questions:
"; what were the circumstances of your encounter with Jesus Christ?"
My first encounter with a 'christian' was with a chinese evangelical christian at my junior college who gave me my first bible in june '96 as well as my ex husband to be, a fallen away black catholic. Now my first encounter with Jesus Christ? Probably through an email correspondence this year with a member of my church. He is the most intelligent Christian I know in the flesh, meaning I have shaken his hand, and when he said Jesus he liberated me to say Jesus. The word Jesus coming from his fingers had a way different meaning than Jesus coming from anyone else's fingers or lips...

"? What has He been doing in your life since then" Since encountering the Jesus of my brother, He has become my husband, as I have had said I have had to end my marriage. But to be honest, Jesus wanted me for Himself. There was a wedding shower at my church and my daughter was present for the bouquet throwing. It fell to the ground and she picked up and brought it to me. I take this to mean Jesus wanted me for Himself...And this leads me to my question:
Are there any instances in the Bible of a woman being taken from one husband and given to a more godly one?

"What sort of Christian tradition are you serving and worshipping in?
I am an Orthodox Christian in the Orthodox Church in America, this is my tradition that I serve in, the choir and a women's quarterly, and worship in.
And you, what is your Christian tradition?
I have subscribed to your blog, so I will be notified of your new posts.

Rose~ said...

Blue Raja,
I am very interested in reading what you will have to say about this. Some I have been close to have purported secondary separation, but have eased up on it a bit in the last few years. I have had mixed feelings about both approaches (separation vs. tolerance). Unity in the church is a wonderful idea, but it seems so impossible (then again, we get nothing resembling spiritual unity in the family of 9 that I came from, so my viewpoint is probably quite skewed). I will be back and read some more. I read the items from your previous post and it gave me a headache! (but it was interesting nonetheless)

Rose~ said...

By the way, what is happening to that poor naked boy in the church pew?!!!

TheBlueRaja said...


When it comes to the discomfort with the extremes and the hopeless feelings about the possibility of unity, I'm right there with you. But I think pursuing unity is like any other area of the Christian life -- you're bound to fail, but you're supposed to keep repenting, believing and following, trusting that you're more Christ-like today than yesterday. I hope the subsequent posts are helpful to you!

The boy in the picture is being disfellowshipped and handed over to Satan's domain, which is outside the fellowship of the Church. It communicates (to me, anyway) the seriousness of excommunication as an act of judgment, and rebukes the glib nature with which we declare people "heretics" or unworthy of our fellowship. It also warns against separating our doctrine of salvation with our doctrine of the church in a way that allows us to say someone is "saved" but somehow still too dangerous to fellowship or associate with. All of the instances of disassociation in the Scriptures are the final attempts of a process of discipline intended to bring a brother's lifestyle back into conformity, after which comes the dreadful consequence of disfellowship.

The kingdom of God's Beloved Son and the domain of darkness aren't just spiritual realities, they're manifested in our communion - those who are allowed into the fellowship are those who are participating in kingdom life. Those who are kicked out and handed over to the world are left in the domain of darkness.

It's a powerful depiction from an aritist I've come to enjoy.

Bobby Grow said...

It seems that the apostle Paul believed that the dis-unity represented at Corinth was driven by a failure to submit to the message of the cross, acutally assuming that it was foolish and weak (given the various wisdom systems they had embraced).

This, from my perspective, and I believe the apostle's, is the source for our unity and the real power available for unity in the church (i.e. submission to the gospel/cross). I believe the dis-unity reflected in the Church today is not necessarily shaped by "denominationalism" or various "interpretive traditions"; rather it is a reflection of our failure, as the Church, to truly submit to the simple message of the gospel--and all of its implications (which might be a problem stemming from various intepretive traditions ;).

Insightful post, Blue. BTW, I am currently in the process of posting my master's thesis on I Cor 1:17-25, over at my sight--I thought this dovetails nicely with what you're discussing here.

Good day . . .

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for your comments, Bobby! I think you're right about the fundamental rejection of the cross as the main issue -- not only in their doctrinal assent, but in their lifestyles of one-upmanship, self-seeking and love of accolades.

I think you're right be saying that it'd be a mistake to reduce the problem to "denominationalism" or various "interpretive traditions", though these are entailments.

Good luck (happy Providence?) on your thesis! I'm glad to have had you stop by!