Church unity in little choices

Methodist churches get their ministers by appointment from a bishop. After every annual conference, lots of congregations get a new minister. For all you Methodist readers who still have the same staff you had before, if your senior pastor has been appointed to his or her seventh year, chances are better than even that you will have a new one this time next year. Not everyone will be happy with the new minister. Some folks will wind up leaving that congregation.

Many other Protestant denominations call their own pastors. Changes of pastorates  occur at less predictable intervals. They can be very messy if a bare majority of the church wants to dismiss a pastor. I belonged to one congregation where the pastor was caught both in an adulterous affair and embezzling money from the mission fund. Undercurrents of resentment over another failed pastorate seventeen years earlier interfered greatly with the process of calling another leader.

The New Testament insists on church unity over a number of issues. In Paul’s epistles, most frequently he insists that it unite around the teaching of the apostles and reject various false teachings. In Corinth, however, he found a doctrinally pure church squabbling over other things, including whom they should acknowledge as leader.

Paul planted the church in Corinth and stayed there longer than he had ever stayed in any one place before. He loved that congregation, and many of them loved him. Then he left and someone named Apollos took over. Now Paul learned to be a Jewish Pharisee, and he had a very Jewish style. Apollos got his education at a major center of Greek philosophy and had a style that was more appealing to the Greek mind.

The people who liked Apollos pointed out that he was a good Greek and more philosophical than Paul ever tried to be. Paul might have gotten us off to a good start, they said, but we’re in better hands now. Paul’s friends pointed out that he knew the other apostles personally, and that Apollos may be a good speaker, but he still didn’t have as much authority as Paul.

Some people in Corinth didn’t want to take sides like that. They said that neither Paul nor Apollos were really world-wide leaders. Ultimately, they had to take their lead from the men who actually knew Jesus. Peter was the leader of that group, so whether Paul or Apollos or anyone else was in Corinth, Peter was the real authority in the church.

To all of which some others piously replied that they were just going to follow Christ and not pay attention to anyone else. The result? Two pastors, four arguing factions not speaking to each other except to shout.

Paul goes on to mention other problems and quarrels in that church. We know more about the inner workings of the church in Corinth than any other New Testament church. It isn’t pretty.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that our church and every church we have ever been a part of is too much like the one in Corinth. We spend too much time squabbling with each other over stuff that doesn’t matter and not enough time building ourselves and each other up in faith.

A big part of the problem is that both the church in Corinth and the church in America adapt the gospel to our cultural expectations rather than allowing the gospel to renew our minds after the image of Christ.

There is an old saying that is helpful for us to remember: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity. We have to know what is essential to the gospel and be in agreement about that. There can be no unity between the gospel and any kind of false teaching. But if something isn’t essential to the gospel, everyone can think or do anything they want.

Christians can be Methodist, or not. Believe it or not, Christians can be Democrats or Republicans or neither. Christians can like different kinds of church music or worship styles. Christians can drink beer or not. Christians can eat meat or be vegetarian or even vegan. In North Carolina, where college basketball appears to be everyone’s real religion, some Christians root for North Carolina and others for Duke.

We all have our own cultural preferences. And when someone else makes a different choice, we have to accept and love each other and concentrate our full attention on what we have in common in Christ.


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