Saturday, January 10, 2009

Some Reflections on Our Troubles

(This is a first rough draft of my ideas)

Recently I heard a talk by Walter Brueggemann from a conference a few years ago. He talked a bit about the struggle for Jewish identity going on in Israel. Various groups were competing with one another for the claim to be the norm for what it means to be Jewish. This struggle was both passionate and strident with the various claimants unwilling to yield or compromise. Brueggemann cites a prominent rabbi to the effect that a “win” for any of the contesting parties would in the end result in a “loss” for the whole community.
I began to reflect on our own struggles in the PC (U.S.A.) over sexuality and ordination. Might it not be the case that a “win” for either side in our struggle would eventuate in a “loss” for our whole communion? Our struggle is over justice and hermeneutics, claims the one side, and exegesis and biblical fidelity, claims the other. There is no question that these are indeed crucial issues and strike at the heart of the identity of the PC (U.S.A.). It would be nice to think we cold resolve these kinds of struggles without the internecine warfare and inward (and likely eventually outward) splintering that accompanies such strife. But we have not in the past and likely will not on our present issues, unless something changes in the foreseeable future.
We are clearly at an impasse. Further study and discussion are simply delaying actions. There are few undecided people out there for whom such actions would be helpful. We have no wisdom about how to get beyond this impasse to significant and potentially fruitful conversation with each other. The question for us, it seems to me, is what to do with a church significantly and implacably divided over an important set of issues.
Given that a resolution of our issues leading to a consensus and united ministry seems out of the question at present, and that each side feels significant, even non-negotiable issues of justice, faithfulness, and witness are at stake, and that faithful, truthful witness and unity as a denomination seem in irreconcilable tension, where do we go from here?
Two strategies in which both sides are implicated have been tried. The first, victory through polity has failed. Both sides have held the upper hand at points over the last thirty years but neither has been able to consistently enforce a polity settlement. Second, the threat of separation, a regrettable but tragic last resort, looms over us as the ultimate end game settlement of our disagreements.
Is there any other way, then, for us to maintain our unity amidst serious disagreement, a way that honors both the truth we seek and community we long for? Or more powerfully, the Truth that Jesus Christ is and the unity that alone testifies to the love of God for the world (Jn.17:21)? In terms of the rabbi’s statement noted above, is there any way to avoid the “win” for some of us that will ultimately be a “loss” for all of us?
Might 1 Corinthians 6 offer such a way? There Paul confronts quarrels in that fractious community that have or will soon go public in the law courts. Paul chides them for failing to know who they truly are (vv.2-3), for failing to trust that God will provide them with enough wisdom or wise folk to settle their grievances internally and redemptively (vv.6-7), and for resorting to secular judicial proceedings, even with the inevitable negative consequences for the church’s public witness (vv.6-7).
Instead Paul offers this counsel: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud – and believers at that” (vv.7-8).
Is Paul discounting the importance of truth here; of issues of justice? Doubtless it can only seem so to the claimants on either side of our issues – if they are focused on “winning.” Paul however, seems to think “winning” such disputes is not necessarily the most desirable outcome, and not because he’s slighting the importance of either truth or justice. He appears to have a different question whose answer governs his response.
That question is the question of identity: who are we as God’s new people in Jesus Christ? Apparently not the kind who press claims against each other at all (v.7) and clearly not those who take their disputes and adjudicate them in terms of secular judicial norms and processes (vv.3-5)! Such practice apparently makes us guilty of wrong and defrauding behaviors ourselves (v.8)! Such a situation seems (scandalously) to entail a threefold critique from Paul’s point of view. First, we are not acting as the people of God we are in Christ, so “bound together as a people in a way that requires (us) to modify (our) former ways of life” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation Series, 93). This further entails an awareness that as this community we have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor.2:16) and presumably wisdom enough to settle our disputes in accord with this new identity. After all, according to Paul, we have wisdom enough to judge the angels!
Secondly, since integrity follows from identity, such practices distort the church’s witness to the world. Again, Hays writes, “The Corinthians are shamefully taking family disputes out into the streets, as it were, thereby bringing the whole family into disrepute” (Hays, 95).
Thirdly, such actions betray the cross-shaped life to which we are called as God’s people. “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (v.7). Paul claimed to intend to know nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor.2:2). His counsel to the disputants in the church seems a pastoral translation of this very cruciform theology into concrete terms.
What might our disputes over sexuality and ordination look like if we adapted Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians over legal disputes as our way for struggling henceforth together over these matters? Stephen Fowl, in an insightful article “Scripture in a Divided Church” ( offers some guidelines for reading scripture in a situation of dispute. I offer them for their own worth but also as provocations for each of us to consider how we might incarnate such practices and their implications in our own situations.
We cannot read Scripture, according to Fowl, apart from being formed by it in the Church. Our division is a failure of ecclesial love. There are three practices to avoid letting interpretation of Scripture divide us:

1. Seeking the truth in Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5). Bring all thoughts captive to Christ. Truth is the first casualty of sin and the first component of forgiveness and reconciliation.

2. We must recognize and name sin, especially our own.

3. We must cultivate patience. (Philippians 3:15.)

Or, in Paul’s classic formulation from the letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
What do you think?
-is it possible that we might continue to live together peaceably in midst of disagreement as a sign and model to a polarized and fractious world that such a thing is possible?
-while it is unlikely that further study will change many minds at this point, is it possible that we might hang together with each other in worship, prayer, accountable friendships, and a humility to wait for any further light to break forth from God’s Word or wisdom on how to keep talking to each other in our disagreement?
-is it possible that we might truly name our sins to ourselves and others, including those we oppose on these issues? What difference to our conversation do you think this might make?
-is it possible that we (on whatever side of the issue we are) might find the courage to commit to this communion even if does not adopt the “right” position at present in the conviction that our unity as a people in serious disagreement bears its own important witness to the world and in hope that we will discover wisdom enough to keep moving toward greater insight in dealing with our issues?
What do you think?

-Rev. Lee Wyatt, Interim Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Corsicana, TX