I’ll go ahead and lead with a confession: I’m no better, sometimes, than the conveniently inconsistent stereotype. I too call for church unity just as loudly as everyone else does, except where my own sense of what Church “really” is comes to be the question at hand. Then I get downright schismatic. I’ll not say where my own “bright lines” are (most folks who have read what I write could probably guess), but I’ve got them just as much as anyone else.
What interests me most about 1 Corinthians is not that Paul calls for unity among the believers but that he has to. After all, in some people’s minds, the first century, when Paul writes, is a golden age of such, a moment that Christians centuries later should look at for the sake of emulation. And I’ll grant that, if one looks mainly at Acts and perhaps Philippians, that’s not a bad attitude to take. But the Corinthian letters remind us that division is a problem for the Church from the outset, and that’s important on a couple levels:
- Nobody should idolize any moment in Church history too quickly.
- Nobody should accept ecclesial division as the “natural” state of things rather than a sin to be confessed.
When Paul insists that Christ is not divided, that the faithful should not take on the names of Cephas and Paul and Apollos but insist on one name of Christ, that’s no trivial matter of “brand loyalty.” As Paul casts things over the course of 1 Corinthians, Christians who break into factions do nothing short of tossing aside the most revolutionary part of the gospel, neither righteousness nor afterlife but a different way of living together here and now. To maintain one tongues-speaking faction, one wisdom faction, one healing faction, and so on takes what should be a complex and interrelated body and break it into constituent parts, the work of a butcher, not a body.
Thus Paul expresses his relief that he has not actually baptized anyone in Corinth, so that they cannot claim to have been baptized first-hand by the chief of apostles. (The aside here is funny–as I imagine the scene, Paul’s scribe likely reminds him, in mid-thought, that in fact he did baptize a couple folks, and Paul, being the honest sort of fellow that he is, allows the brief tangent.) Paul himself is not the point, and his role as proclaimer is not by any means the primary reality in the grand good story but simply one man’s part, always important because attached to Christ but never self-important because Paul knows where he stands.
Ultimately, Paul recognizes, unity is not the state that human beings tend to seek. Our urges, whether one calls them “worldly” or attributes them to “sin-nature” or whatever else, move us to take sides, one against another. Our impulse when faced with other people is to insist that any given other is part of “us” or “them.” And to deny such impulses to divide, then conquer is nothing short of a “slave revolt” in morality, as Friedrich Nietzsche might put it; or as Paul might, “folly to the perishing.” But that’s precisely where the power comes in: just as Nietzsche rightly saw, the coming of Christ, and the community of disciples that continue the work of Jesus in the world, do in fact alter the very definition of what counts as “good.” Conquering the enemy gives way to loving the enemy, and any notions that one’s own region or tribe or faction is superior to the others must give way, if Jesus is in fact way and truth and life, to an uncomfortable notion that our differences result not from our coming out on top in a grand struggle but from our God-ordained roles in a divine drama. If we really think about it, I suspect, unity might be among the most terrifying doctrines that the New Testament ever offers.
May our differences among the faithful contribute to the grand unity, and may God expand our imaginations that we might see it.