13th July 2008
We value love for one another as Christians. In our love for each other, we value our differences: we would not want to be the same even if that were possible! At the same time, we value our unity in Christ, for we know that when we belong to Jesus we are joined together, as the reading from 1 Corinthians shows.
The disciples were a diverse group. Matthew had been a tax collector who worked for the Roman government, Simon the Zealot probably had belonged to an organisation devoted to getting rid of the Romans and everyone associated with them. Yet Jesus bound them together.
Paul uses the picture of a body and its parts to illustrate how we are diverse individuals, yet one. Some Corinthian Christians believed that only those who had certain gifts (possibly the gift of speaking in tongues) counted as true Christians, and those who did not have those gifts felt that they did not belong. (In some circles these beliefs still hold sway.) The heart of the problem was the feeling that everybody needs to be the same, with the same experience of God and the same way of looking at things.
Paul teaches that Christians come in many varieties. There are many different gifts, and each Christian has been given something to contribute to the well-being and growth of the whole. The different gifts accompany different experiences of God, and calls to different ministries. We value this diversity, because it is important to the health of the church and to our own spiritual health. No-one has all the spiritual resources they need; our resources are scattered around the different members of the church. We need the other members, and each member is needed.
This teaching has a number of consequences. One is that we need to be prepared to receive help from other Christians, even the youngest and roughest – God may have given them what we need if we want to grow. (Do not expect to receive only from our leaders.) Another is that if we stop meeting with other Christians, we deprive them of the help God might want us to give them. Another is that we must not expect people to do things the way we would – they have different gifts.
The different parts are nevertheless united – there is ‘one body, one Spirit… one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:4-6). Paul appeals to the Philippians to stop quarrelling, and to be ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose’ (Philippians 2:2). And earlier on in this letter to the Corinthians he has written, ‘I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought’ (1 Corinthians 1:10). That’s not to say that we should never have disagreements. But if the love, the spirit and the purpose are the same, disagreements need not lead to division. Paul and Barnabas fell out about the team for their second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-39); but that resulted in a doubling of the mission, and later they worked together again (1 Cor 9:16, 2 Timothy 4:11).
1) When, if ever, should people who call themselves Christians divide?
2) How can we best use our gifts?