Paul doesn’t waste time calling out the problem in the city of Corinth so many years ago: “there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11). When I look at your church, Paul says, it looks more like an ultimate fighting tournament than a spiritual family or faith community. The “body of Christ” is falling apart, the “people of God” are engaged in civil war; the conduct of “the saints” makes them look far more like the sinners they had been; the “pillar and foundation of the truth” has become a hypocritical house of cards; and the “bride of Christ” has become like a lady of the night. When Paul opens his letter to them, without missing a beat, he moves from thanking God for their identity—“those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus,” enriched in Christ in every way, not lacking any spiritual gift and fully expecting to be blameless on the day of Christ—to the painful reality—this community is falling apart in factions and fights.
There’s nothing uglier than a family feud. I still remember one Thanksgiving, fifteen to sixteen years ago now, when my brother and I stood in the yard in front our house yelling at each other at the top of our lungs. I’m ashamed of how I acted, appalled at how shallow the reasons for the fight were, and how public our display of disharmony was. Just one foolish example of how ugly family fights can be. But I’d also say, there’s nothing uglier than church fights, nothing more repulsive to the world we are called to serve than a divided and contentious church. I recall one day, many years ago, a friend of mine who was seeking God came to a church gathering. It happened to be on the same day that one member pulled another aside a church leader to speak her mind. She decided to have this conversation, not later in private, but right there in the crowd, before the notes of the final song had stopped echoing in the sanctuary (ah, the irony of that word, the way we look sometimes, the sanctuary; perhaps it’s better than many of our churches have watered down the idea, calling it an auditorium). She pulls the leader aside and unloads her issues and solutions for all the church’s ills, right there in eyesight and earshot of everyone. Of course, it’s no surprise that my friend seeking God sought him in a different place. Reactionary of him? Perhaps. Short-sighted of him? Maybe. Not the full picture of that church’s character? Of course. But still, I hear the words of the Apostle who says, you are “called to be his holy people,” and I understand why he grieves and implores God’s church to put down the knives, gloves and incendiary words and live into that ideal a bit more. There’s nothing uglier than a contentious church.
So Paul pleads and urges with them to unite, not on issues, people, or personalities, but on the person and mission of Jesus Christ: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul’s language here is quite visual. He uses the word ‘schisms’ (here, ‘divisions’) in verse 10. It’s a word we see Jesus use elsewhere as an image of clothing: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.” Schisms. The same word is used in classic Greek literature to describe a ship that is splintered into pieces by the turbulent sea. Schisms. Paul says, that’s what happens when you try to base a spiritual community on anything other than cross of Jesus Christ. Like brand new slacks that get caught on a fence and torn apart, like a once mighty oceanliner splintered in a raging sea, it is a tragic thing for the body of Christ to be dismembered by human divisions and petty fights.
It seems so simple and I know ages of church fights testify how difficult the ideal is to reach. But I am confident that God is working in his broken, flawed church, to bring about his purpose in creation: to bring all things together again in Jesus Christ. So, let us take up Paul’s charge to let God start with us. Let us begin reflecting among ourselves and our world the very harmony, unity, and coming-together that God will do for all things when Jesus returns.