March 2016

Factions to Families: Lessons from 1 Corinthians

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” So the song goes. And yet congregations are communities, and where communities exist, conflict is never too far away. There is nothing new about this. From the Church’s earliest days, there were tensions and rivalries and clashes over any number of issues.

Just ask the Apostle Paul. Throughout his letters, and throughout the account of his mission in Acts, we see a leader who constantly found himself embroiled in conflict management. Nowhere do we see this more than in his first epistle to the Christians in Corinth. If we take on the role of scriptural detectives, we just might discover in that letter some helpful principles for us in our own congregational disputes.

1) Keep coming back to Christ. From the start of 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks about rival factions: “Some say, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?’” How easy it would have been for Paul to succumb to ego and ally himself with those who “belonged” to him, while belittling the other leaders. Instead, he chose the harder road and called on all the people to keep their focus on Christ…and not Christ glorified, but rather Christ crucified: humbled, sacrificing for others. The more everyone focused on Christ, the less time or energy they would have for petty party politics. 

2) Clarify roles and relationships. Rather than speak ill of his potential rivals, Paul affirmed the various leaders and their complementary roles: “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” In this way, he not only stepped out of the win-lose paradigm that accompanies petty rivalries, but he also modeled a genuine graciousness. At the same time, he remained clear about his own position vis-à-vis the congregation: “Though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. I became your father through the gospel.”

3) Act like adults: As Paul dealt with one issue after another, he continually challenged the Corinthian Christians to put aside childish behaviors and act like grown ups! “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Immature siblings bicker and fight constantly, always demanding their own way, while adult siblings can differ vehemently about any number of things, but ultimately remember that what binds them together is far more important than what divides them.

4) Focus on responsibilities rather than rights: The church members to whom Paul wrote made much ado about their rights and what they expected. Paul reminded them “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” As long as they acted according to their presumed needs, desires, and rights, they would fail to acknowledge their responsibilities to one another. It is the age-old cry, “Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?” Paul admitted that they, and he even more, might indeed be “free with respect to all,” but then reminded them of the many ways in which he instead disciplined himself and found ways to put others before himself, all for the sake of the gospel.

5) Honor the differences. While there were some who were quick to disregard those whose gifts, or backgrounds, or life situations were different from their own, Paul used one of his most memorable analogies to show how everyone had something to contribute to the larger whole. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” He showed them the absurdity of an eye disregarding the usefulness of a hand. A body works best when its members work together, each utilizing their complementary gifts for the good of the whole. “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

6) Consider the newcomers in your midst.
Intentional welcome of the outsider directly counters insider battles. Paul noted that by becoming more conscious of the outsider in their midst, they could let go of their preoccupation with themselves. In a wonderfully subversive discussion of spiritual gifts in worship, Paul avoided debating the claims of church members to be spiritual because they had been gifted with ecstatic tongues, and instead challenged them to speak and preach with the newcomer in mind. “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

7) Above all, love! Although the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians has become associated primarily with weddings, the fact is that his magnificent treatise on love was, and remains today, a message about how to coexist in Christian community. The words, while familiar, remain as challenging as ever. What would our congregations look like if we all started each day by asking ourselves, “Am I patient, am I kind, or am I envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude? Do I insist on my own way? Am I irritable or resentful?” Such honest self-examination can lead each of us into a richer and fuller life and help create not simply a Christian, but a truly Christ-like, community.

The Christian community in Corinth chose to ignore Paul’s words, and divisions and conflict continued, as evident in 2 Corinthians and even later in the epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. We, however, can choose to listen and take seriously the challenge. Yes, perhaps the world will know that we are Christians by our love, but only if we dare to let Paul’s words become our own.

Try This
In this article, the author identifies seven helpful principles for us in our own congregational disputes. Thinking about your own congregation, in which of these areas do you feel you are modeling, or close to modeling the behaviors recommended by Paul to the Corinthians. Which areas do you find challenging? How might you apply Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to your leadership team and/or congregation?

C. K. Robertson, PhD, is an Episcopal priest and Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Beyond the Episcopal Church, a Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, Distinguished Visiting Professor at General Theological Seminary, and author of many books and articles, including Barnabas vs. Paul (Abingdon) and Hazardous Saints (Church Publishing).


Don't miss an issue of Vestry Papers! Sign up for your free subscription here.

This article is part of the March 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict