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Want to unite the church? Lift up the marginalized, says Paul.
As we move toward becoming a more antiracist and equitable society, one of the obstacles that we face is the idea that the progress that we make may leave some people behind and may result in polarization or divisiveness. I hear it time and again when we consider the dignity of LGBTQIA and BIPOC folks, that if we are not careful, we will be divisive. This occurs in secular and Christian environments, but I want to focus on the Christian tendency to name progress as divisive because while it appears biblical, it is in fact the opposite.
The solution to our polarization, as moderates would tell you, is to ensure that we have decent dialogue between the two poles and that we rely on our relationships to heal our divides. Sometimes Christians cite Jesus and Paul as using a creative approach to heal divisions – I don’t see this in the text, myself. At best, what I witness in the text, is Jesus using creativity to evade the authorities. See his conversation with the religious leaders that are about to stone a woman or his conversation with Pilate.
But the Bible writers take division very certainly and ask us to strive for unity. Paul begins his letter to Corinth with a warning against divineness:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Paul notes that what is dividing people here are factions that are loyal to certain leaders: Apollos, Paul, and Cephas. We see the same divisions in our bodies today. In Circle of Hope, our pastors lead in unity and with a common voice to avoid this sort of division. But there have been seasons where that unity is not apparent and it has led to division. When other leaders or former pastors actively undermine the direction of a church, this causes division. There is room for dialogue, but too much dialogue that happens secretly about our leaders leads to division. That is what Paul is warning against and he is naming it.
Instead, to avoid this divisiveness, we listen to the Spirit as a body and move collectively to fulfill agreed-upon goals in common. In Circle, we call this mapping, but it is basic discernment that any body can do. We map together so that we have a common voice and direction, so our pastors are united. We spend months in dialogue so that we can have our disagreements beforehand, and we can move together after.
In Corinth, however, disagreements come from factions that exist in the body. The divisions in Corinth could be between people who feel free to act as they wish because they are very spiritual (we call them libertines) opposed to ascetics (or legalists), people who feel like they have to live a very tempered lifestyle. Gnostics opposed to non-Gnostic Christians (the former believing in a disembodied faith that valued secret knowledge), Jews opposed to Gentiles, or followers of Apollos opposed to followers of Paul.
But the most significant fault line in the Corinthian church is higher-status Christians on the side and lower-status Christians on the other. The Weak in Corinthians are the poor and the Strong are the rich. There is a significant division here.
Paul exhorts the Corinthians that the way to keep the body united is through lifting up the marginalized voices in the community and caring for them. In 1 Corinthians 11, he rebukes the Strong for mocking the Weak but getting drunk on the communion, while the Weak starve:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)
In Chapter 12, Paul makes it clear that to unite the body, we need to give greater honor to the parts of the body that we deem dishonorable, greater respect to the parts of the body that seem disrespected. And he teaches us to suffer collectively when one part of the body suffers:
The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 11:22-26)
Paul describes the church as an interdependent body where members have their own autonomy (they aren’t co-dependent), but they also rely on and impact one another. He specifically mentions the “weaker” members of the body but names them as indispensable. The rich Corinthians marginalize, ignore, and shame these members but they are essential to the body.
And if we think of a member as less honorable, we elevate it even higher, we give it greater respect. And we do this so that there is no division in the body. Paul is saying when we uplift the marginalized, we unite the church. When we oppress the marginalized, we divide the church. But when we care for one another equally – which means honored the dishonored, empowering the weak – we unite the body. Because when one of us suffers, we all do. Paul is burdening the Strong with accommodating the Weak. That is how the body stays united. This is how the body undoes polarization.
We model this as a church by lifting up the marginalized, the oppressed, the weak. That means we need to consider that we indeed have dishonored people among us and that oppression leads to dissension. It’s the same thing that the church of Corinth deals with. We are working on unity here. Calling for honoring our most vulnerable is a call for unity. We aren’t safe until we all are. We aren’t honored until we all are. That’s how we unify the body. And Paul, next week, will show us the most excellent way to do that.