By Robert J. Gustafson
Your Pastor Speaks
Notice how companies seem to have a natural way of wanting to combine, usually for some economic advantage. They get bigger and bigger until we think we have to have anti-monopoly actions from our government. Maybe you have an opinion on if Kroger grocery should be allowed to combine with Albertsons? Is Monsanto too big and powerful in agriculture and food production? Churches seem to do just the opposite. We get divided into factions and then we may even divide into separate organizations. Sometimes, we almost seem to be proud to splinter apart.
This is not a new phenomenon. Paul’s first letter to the new-start church in Corinth addresses this very issue. Paul says, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, …that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you” (1 Corinthians 1). We do not know all of the challenges in Corinth, but we know among them was a misplaced loyalty to a particular person, or brand, rather than first to Christ. Then there were of course interesting “quarrels” Chloe’s people brought to his attention. Might be fun to get the inside scoop.
In his current book “Humbler Faith, Bigger God,” Samuel Wells contends today we as churches still have challenges and that they originate from three levels. One is the question of whether it is ever right for Christians to seek social or political power and to use such power to advance a particular agenda. The second level is whether our historic stories we cling to have been right about some of the most controversial of its stances, sexual expression being a prime example. The third level is whether the church has acted appropriately in advancing its stances and respecting those who hold different views and create new understandings.
Clearly, Paul’s letter did not once and for all solve the problem for the people in Corinth or for us. But we do have tools in our Christian tradition that are helpful. One is Paul’s letters and other scripture. Creeds and confessions of faith can be a help. A big one is the attitude behind the quote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” UNITY IN ESSENTIALS – meaning doctrines and practices that are essential to all churches. LIBERTY IN NON-ESSENTIAL – doctrines or practices that are non-essential and very among churches. CHARITY IN ALL THINGS – ways we can love one another and work with each other despite our differences. This is sometimes attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) but more likely originates with Rupertus Meldenius, a German Lutheran theologian from the early 17th century, a time of great religious turmoil in Europe following the reformation.
We can see the wise counsel in the statement. But of course, it does not take long to see the next challenge point is “What are the essentials?” and “Who determines them?” But we can start with the principle that we have unity. We can proceed with the working principle that we can have liberty within that broader stance of unity. The idea being that we can have unity without uniformity. And of course, based on our love, of God and neighbor, we can be charitable in all things. Differences do not invalidate that love of and for the other.
Much like Paul’s letter alone did not solve all the new church’s growing pains and challenges, the approach of “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” will not prevent all our disagreements. But would it not be nice if we could start with our unity and at least agree to disagree without being disagreeable; unity not uniformity.