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A more excellent way to handle conflict

by
08 February 2022

The Church would deal with disagreement better if it were free from fear and full of love, says Eeva John, in a sermon preached in Great St Mary’s, the University Church, Cambridge, on 30 January

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DEBATE, critique, argument, and defence . . . these are all common currency in academia. Undergraduates are encouraged to critique and question the scholarship of those they are studying, and doctoral students put forward new arguments and are called upon to defend their theses.

The Cambridge Union describes itself as “the globally renowned debating society of Cambridge”, “a unique forum for the free exchange of ideas and the art of public debate.”

Debate is an engine of public life as well. The very architecture of the Chamber in which the House of Commons meets encourages MPs to confront one another as they gather for “debates”.

And there is much to be said for these modes of engagement. They encourage students to be active in their learning, not just to acquire knowledge but to investigate it, to subject it to question as well as analysis. In the House of Commons, debates are tempered by rules and conventions, designed to help MPs reach informed decisions.

At their best, debates deepen our understanding of a subject, causing us to explore different points of view. But debates — whether in Parliament or in the Cambridge Union — often end in a vote. So, while debates may not necessarily be about winning or losing, they are often perceived as such. Which is where the trouble begins.

 

THE trouble is that, when winning a debate becomes its goal, debates can spin out of control. Rules and etiquette are flung to one side as the debate intensifies. The Brexit campaigns, for example, saw facts and figures being mangled to persuade people in one direction or another. The practice of “whips” in the Commons has recently caused some to question the very methodology of parliamentary proceedings.

Arguments lose their nuance and complex issues are over-simplified, resulting in a polarisation of views and outright conflict, with people taking sides and shouting ever more loudly. Perhaps most damagingly of all, debate turns in on itself and self-destructs when proponents of a particular view are not only “no-platformed” but are also inhumanely hounded by campaigners.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in social media, where words are not moderated by human encounter, but are flung into the public arena with little thought about how they might be received, thereby attracting equal and opposite responses that only escalate the disagreement and intensify the bitterness.

Nor is the Church immune from this lack of discipline in disagreement and debate. Although the Assembly Hall of the Church of England’s General Synod chamber is circular, it nevertheless maintains the dynamic of debate. And opinions in social media are often articulated in frankly unseemly, cynical, and unChristian ways, often including personal attacks on individuals. Recent outbursts about “saving the parish” are a case in point — not to mention questions of sexuality and gender identity, which, for the last four years, has been the world in which I have found myself immersed.

 

THE early church was no stranger to disagreement, debate, and conflict, and the church in Corinth in the AD50s was a case in point. “Conflict and community” feature in the titles of several commentaries on Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church — evidence that this is the focus of Paul’s anguished and impassioned letters to this young church.

Corinth was a thriving city. Situated between Ephesus and Asia on the east, and Italy and Rome on the west, it was a prosperous centre of trade. And with prosperity and economic success came consumerism, competitiveness, a culture of self-sufficiency, and pride — not just in social and economic achievements, but in a sense of streetwise “know-how” of how to make life work: a kind of worldly wisdom.

Just as in our day, the Church was susceptible to imbibing some of these characteristics and even values. These uncomfortable dissonances between the Christian gospel and Corinthian culture manifested themselves in outright conflict on the one hand, or in smouldering divisions that had the potential to erupt in conflict, on the other.

So what were these conflicts and divisions about?

There was church politics as people aligned themselves behind different church leaders — some with Apollos, others with Paul — creating rival factions.

There were arguments about which of the callings — to singleness or marriage — was the superior, most “holy” one.

Questions about personal freedom, doctrinal truth, and spiritual maturity lay beneath quarrels about whether or not to eat food offered to idols.

And celebrations of the eucharist — the Lord’s supper — belied shocking social divisions between rich and poor.

And there were arguments about spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church was a gifted church, but the very diversity and plenteousness of their gifts had become a source of competitiveness, leading to spiritual hierarchies.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to identify parallel tensions and conflicts within the Church of England today.

And it is here that we pick up this morning’s reading: 1 Corinthians 12.12–13.13.

 

I WONDER what went on in your mind when you listened to these verses from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church?

That first part, with its 19 repetitions of the word “body”, and its humorous and slightly over-egged metaphor of human body parts having a conversation with each other, reads more like some of the parables Jesus told, with their characteristic hyperbole and ridiculous imagery: camels going through the eyes of needles, farmers selling their land for a single pearl, the wedding banquet to which no friends or family wanted to come — the seriousness of the message wrapped in something that makes us smile or at least takes us out of our serious selves.

Confronted with the varieties of gifts, services, and activities in the Corinthian church, Paul is careful to celebrate this diversity, and then to remind this slightly self-congratulatory community that they owe everything to the Spirit of Jesus Christ — the Spirit who is the giver of the gifts of which they are so proud.

But not only that: he reminds them that unity is a given, it is a reality. It is not something that they make. The choice is not whether or not to be united, to be one body. Rather, the choice is whether or not to live out that unity and thereby be a fully functioning body — or to compete among themselves, thereby rendering the body dysfunctional, unable to fulfil its calling as the body of Christ given for the world. A body that is at war with itself will not flourish and may even self-destruct. The members of a body are totally interdependent — and so should the members of the church community in Corinth be.

This living out of the unity that is given means turning upside down any thoughts about inferiority or second-class members, people on the fringe, “others” whom we may not even notice. It also means cultivating relationships that allow one member to affect another. It means choosing to depend on one another.

This was not an easy message for the self-sufficient middle-class members of the Corinthian church to hear, were they to take it beyond rhetoric into their hearts and their life together. It means paying attention to who is suffering and who is rejoicing. It means a realignment of how time is spent and for whom it is spent. It means a softening of hearts to the experiences of others. It means taking the time to really listen to the stories and the worlds that others inhabit. It means rendering the word “other” meaningless as we are drawn together as one, one body, the body of Christ.

It was not easy for the church in Corinth on the global church scene, either. To the Corinthians’ shame, while the relatively poor Macedonian church had given spontaneously, joyfully, and sacrificially to help the church in Jerusalem out in a time of famine, Paul had to persuade and instruct the wealthy Corinthian church to part with some of their abundance.

Again, parallels with the Church in England are not difficult to find.

 

AND then, at the end of this almost humorous chapter, there is a sudden change of mood as Paul turns to address the Corinthian Christians directly: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it [ . . . ] and I will show you a more excellent way.”

These opening bars sweep us into the familiar symphonic majesty of Paul’s hymn of love.

So — just as we wait with bated breath to hear what this “more excellent way” is — Paul launches into a series of superlatives that describe what it is not! They are, however, tantalisingly desirable:

  • the ability to articulate deep spiritual truths eloquently and persuasively;
  • prophetic powers and all knowledge and understanding;
  • faith so strong that it has the power to work miracles;
  • and an altruism that is ready to dispense with all one owns and is.

But, says Paul, not only are these attributes worth nothing without that more excellent way — they are liable to become self-seeking and narcissistic.

And so Paul unfolds the characteristics of this more excellent way of love — the gift of the indwelling love of Christ.

First, love’s attention is entirely directed towards the good of the other in its patience and kindness. It shuns the habit of measuring ourselves against others, which makes us envious or boastful, rude, arrogant, or irritable and resentful. It resists the lure of self-fulfilment, seeking, instead, the fulfilment of others. It waits to listen to others, rather than barging in with our own views.

This kind of life oriented towards others bears fruit and brings life for both giver and recipient. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” says Jesus, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12.24); “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25).

Second, it calls us to let go of our cynicism and Schadenfreude, and, instead, like looking for a precious jewel in the muddy mix of truth and falsehood, good and evil, holy and profane, love calls us to seek truth and to rejoice when we find it. Love wants to wrench from us the hermeneutic lens of suspicion that we hold so tightly and replace it with a hermeneutic of grace that searches out life-giving truth, the truth that is the way and the life.

Third, love reminds us that our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, of God’s world and of God are incomplete. And so love calls us to a degree of humble uncertainty, as, together, we journey towards the day when “the partial will come to an end” and we will see God “face to face”.

And, finally, love recalls us to the one through whom alone this more excellent way is possible: Jesus Christ, the inexhaustible one in whom we dwell and who dwells in us, so that we, too, are given the strength to keep bearing the burdens of others, to keep kindling faith, to suffuse all situations with hope, and to never give up.

Unlike the diversity of gifts distributed among believers by the Holy Spirit, this way of love is universally and unconditionally available. It is the love of God — the God who is love — poured out on all humankind to be reflected back in gratitude, service, and worship.

 

SO . . . what of debate and conflict? What of the destructive and divisive effects of polarisation in our society and within the Church? What help do we find in these texts?

What would it look like for this more excellent way to take root in the way we engage with disagreement and conflict — in our personal and professional lives, in our local church communities, and the wider communities they serve? In the institutional life of the Church, as well as its engagement in the public square?

Allow me to retrace our steps very briefly in the light of these questions by way of conclusion.

“For just as the body is one and has many members [ . . . ] so it is with Christ,” writes Paul.

What if we exercised patience in disagreement — not rushing to division — but waiting upon God, remembering that unity in the body of Christ — and in the human family — is a gift, a given, a reality — not something that is ours to determine?

Paul writes: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior members, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”

What if we were to be more welcoming of diversity and the giftedness of others, not seeing these as a threat or as a means to create hierarchies or to engender a spirit of competitiveness?

What if we were to cultivate genuine everyday interdependence — to choose to need one another — within and among our church communities?

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it [ . . . ] and I will show you a more excellent way.”

What would it look like to be turned inside out in our disagreements and conflicts — to be more intent on listening to and understanding the perspectives, the stories, and the worlds of “the other”, including and especially those with whom we disagree? Seeking to do so with an authentic curiosity and a genuine belief that this “other” who is loved by God is someone from whom I can learn — that this encounter is an opportunity to enlarge my understanding, to enlarge my heart, to deepen a relationship, and even to meet Christ anew in them.

What if, when engaging with disagreement, we put to one side, at least for a time, our instincts of suspicion and exercised grace and the benefit of doubt, instead? Looking for nuggets of truth, of places of agreement, rather than scrutinising another’s point of view for opportunities to be offended or to declare heresy.

“For we know only in part. . .” says Paul.

What if we had a more dynamic understanding of knowledge — as “coming to know” — as learning. How might this transform disagreement into mutual exploration? How might this enable us to see new perspectives that had been hidden from us both because of our intransigence?

How would it be if we stopped being afraid — if we didn’t feel so solely responsible for truth? If we lived in the reality of the Lordship of Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit who leads us — the body of Christ on earth — into all truth?

St John says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18).

How would it be if our conflicts were free of fear and more full of love?

How would it be if the Church, in the way we handle conflict and disagreement, were to model this more excellent way, testifying to the reconciling love of Christ among us?

How would it be if the world encountered the living Christ among us because of the love we have for one another?

Amen.


Dr Eeva John is the enabling officer for the Living in Love and Faith project.

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