The Bishop of Chichester on how St Paul addressed the disputes of the Corinthians and how we should treat those who disagree with us
It has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. I do not agree. The first casualty of war is charity. When relationships break down between people, families or nations it is inevitable that misrepresentation follows – not always deliberately or maliciously, but always because even the same facts seen from antagonistic positions look quite different. So, it is the breakdown of relations, the antagonism, in short the failure of love, that endangers truth rather than the other way round.
A divided community
When St Paul addressed the fractious Corinthians, he did not speculate much on the causes of their divisions, but was more interested in their remedy. The precise nature of the groups who confronted each other is unclear, though it seems that it was more to do with cult of personality, the leaders each faction liked to follow, than doctrinal disagreement. This seems to be borne out by another issue that defaced the Church in Corinth, the shameful abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
Paul is unambiguous in his condemnation of the introduction into church life of the social divisions that characterized the outside world.Even though disagreements about doctrine may not have been the cause of the problems in Corinth, both the groups who lined up behind particular names and those who divided the Eucharistic assembly along social lines were in doctrinal error, no matter how correct their formal beliefs might have been.
‘The word of the cross’
And so, Paul’s appeal for unity was not political or practical, nor even in the narrow sense moral, but theological. It all centres on what he calls ‘the word of the cross’, the message about Jesus Christ crucified which is such a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles. This is his gospel and it determines his own ministry. It can be seen in the humble origins from which most of his hearers came and it shaped the Lord’s Supper, a liturgical celebration that stands all social hierarchy on its head.
Through the cross of Christ, Paul insists, we have been brought into a completely new pattern of relationships determined solely by our relationship with him, and marked by his cross. It is this that enables Paul to write, ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same way of thinking and the same judgment.’ The church at Corinth was not for Paul a members’ club where loyalties and opinions could be negotiated, but the Body of Christ.
Does this answer all the dilemmas that face the Church or even the issues facing us today? Of course not. But it does determine how we must handle our differences in understanding the demands of the Gospel in changing circumstances.
We shall be judged not by the purity of our opinions, but by the love by which we live. Despite the issues that threaten to divide us, the faith of the Church is not based on the personal opinions of individual Christians or party groups, but on Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
Honest and loving debate, a desire not to win a victory over someone else but to discern the will of God both in this Synod and in the Church as a whole, could in fact be a means to draws us together and make us more united provided (and it is a very big ‘provided’) we seek and long for each other’s flourishing.
I hope, my brothers and sisters, that this may be the spirit and the attitude with which everyone will approach both today and whatever lies ahead. I don’t know whether you regularly pray for those you know or suspect differ from you. I don’t know whether you intentionally think the best of them, respecting their sincerity and the seriousness of their views.
But because whether you do or not, this is always a good thing to do, I would like before the intercessions to do something we shall repeat just before the vote: keep a period of silence in which to pray for each other, particularly those from whom we differ. And then, when the vote has been taken and the result declared, I do not want any applause or cheering, whichever way it goes, but above all a respectful yearning for the flourishing of those, and there are bound to be some, who will be grieving.
This address was originally given at the Chichester Diocesan Synod ND
The Society meets in Wakefield Cathedral’