In our Epistle reading from 1st Corinthians, St. Paul gives us what is perhaps the least-obeyed command in all of Holy Scripture. “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.” I know, I know – if you have spent any time in church leadership, serving on a Vestry, or at a parish meeting, it is hard not to laugh. With over 200 separate Christian denominations in the U. S. alone, the legacy of Christianity is anything but unity. We Anglicans, once a relatively unified tradition, have suffered our share of painful divisions over the last four decades. If we simply observe the evidence, it looks like division and disagreement are the inherent nature of the Church, and St. Paul’s exhortation the aspirational fantasy of a frustrated church leader. “C’mon, you guys! Won’t you please get it together… please?”
But a close reading shows just how seriously St. Paul takes this command. First, he uses the word “parakaleo”: this is the normal Greek word for exhorting or encouraging, but in Christian usage it is also the name and the function that Jesus, in the Gospel of John, gives to the Holy Spirit. “Parakaleo” becomes “the Paraclete.” In that context, we realize that this word refers to someone who is called alongside to help, an assistant or legal advocate, an expert who can exercise influence court proceedings on our behalf. Imagine a procedural crime drama on television; a witness, “lawyered up,” sits in the police interrogation chamber; and as the witness begins to say something incriminating, his lawyer steps forward and says authoritatively to the client, “Don’t answer that!” That is what St. Paul is doing. He is not merely whining about their lack of unity. He is standing as the expert advocate who normally speaks on the church’s behalf, who has the client’s best interest at heart and knows how to play the game, but who has to take a moment to exhort his own client to avoid causing a problem for himself. Division and disagreement are ways that we Christians sabotage our own mission, and it is a shame that we sometimes need an apostolic exhortation to be “united in the same mind and purpose.” And he is reminding us at the same time that internal cohesion in the Church is one of the works of the Holy Spirit. Paul comes at this not only as an apostle, advocate, and church founder, but with the whole power and authority of the Spirit of God!
But St. Paul goes even further and claims to be speaking in “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is actually a rare occurrence in St. Paul: most of his writing is in his own name and authority as an apostle. In 2nd Corinthians, he defines and defends his apostolic authority at great length. But every now and then, when he really feels that he is speaking not from himself but in the prophetic ministry he has from God, he will claim explicitly to speak in the Holy Name of Jesus. This is one of those times. St. Paul wants us to know that this command is not from Paul the human being but from Jesus, the eternal second person of the Trinity. He has now marshalled two of the three persons of the Godhead to support his command – you can’t get much stronger than that!
And what is it that St. Paul, in the authority of two-thirds of the Godhead (as if the Godhead could be divided), is asking of the Corinthian church? First, he commands that they “speak the same thing.” Most likely this refers to theological doctrine: make sure you are all believing the same ideas about who Jesus is and what God wants of us. The church today fulfills this function through the creeds, though we can question just how effectively we have adhered to them in recent decades. But “speak the same thing,” in Latin, comes out as con-fessio, or our word “confession.” The daily discipline of confessing our sins to God is supposed to breed in Christians a certain humility about our words and actions. Where there is anger and division in the church, look to see whether there is not also a lack of confession, the mental and spiritual discipline of humbling oneself and submitting to the will and authority of God.
Second, he asks that there be no “division” or “dissention.” This does not mean no disagreement, but rather that every member of the community take care that disagreement does not grow into factionalism, or further still to institutional division. St. Paul is putting the responsibility for unity not on the leadership only, but on every single individual Christian to be sure that our inevitable disagreements do not spread, fester, grow, and become larger problems. This means each one of us is responsible to follow Jesus’ own procedure for handling offense (Matthew 18:15-20, which, importantly, ends with talk of the power of agreement; but by no means forget Matthew 5:23-25). And if it comes down to an unresolvable personal problem, we pray daily “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Church leadership cannot do these disciplines of the heart for us; creating a parish culture of reconciliation is and must always be a personal matter for the laity, for which each one is personally responsible to God. If we deal with offense and sin on the personal level, it should never need to spread into factionalism or explode in institutional schism.
Third, St. Paul encourages the Corinthian church to be “united” or “perfectly joined together.” Both these translations belie the most useful force of the term – to be “mended”: perfectly mended. What a contradiction in terms! How can we be perfect if we have been broken and mended? Just this week my son let his basketball hit my nice glass chess set, and the head of one of the pawns broke off. I immediately super-glued the pawn, but because he is made of glass, the crack where the break occurred, and even the glue itself, will be perpetually visible. There will never be any doubt that this chess piece has been mended. This is what St. Paul is asking: not that breaks should not occur, but that, when they occur, we get about the process of mending. A good fix can sometimes be stronger than the original. Jesus’ promise to present the Church spotless and perfect on the last day does not mean that we do not become cracked and spotted with glue along the way, but that He is the Great Physician whose mending will perfect us through our cracks and spots.
Finally, St. Paul asks the church at Corinth to be “in the same mind and the same purpose.” Both these Greek words could mean “mind”, but their connotations are very different. The first connotes a person’s physical brain and its thinking, the tool and process by which decisions are made. The second refers to the results of those mental processes, the judgment that comes out of a person’s thinking. So St. Paul is asking the church to be one in decision-making process and in result. As many brains as may be present in the church, they are all supposed to work together in one process for discerning God’s will and committing to it. American churches are not very good at this: we like democratic decision-making, but we feel little compulsion to commit to a decision if we disagree. We consider protest to be a right and civil disobedience to be a privilege afforded to all church members. But this is importing American constitutional politics into the Church. In the Church we do not have rights before God: we have responsibilities only, and must humble ourselves. We do not have a right of free speech in the church or a right to protest – only a responsibility to use the minds God gave us and the spiritual discernment of God’s will (which should be our constant personal spiritual discipline) to come as a group to common decisions; and to commit to the good of the church.
God does not ask that we never disagree. Church is not meant to coerce unanimity (most unanimity at the parish level IS coerced because we seldom have patience for proper processes). God does not ask that we never fight or argue in the church. Avoiding conflict is not the solution. I would say that God does not expect that we will not sin against each other in the church: after all, He is a realist. Through St. Paul, God does ask – even demand – that we treat disagreement, offense, and sin as nutrient-rich soil, a chance for us to grow and be formed into better, more loving Christians. If disagreement is handled correctly, the whole church will be stronger for being “perfectly mended.”