The Stories We Tell
How we think about the world around us comes a lot from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, the universe, and, of course, God. Is there an abundance of good things available to us, or are we doomed to fall into the same destructive patterns that we always have? Is our church going to grow because God can give the increase or are people not really interested in religion today so who cares about it anyway?
The stories we tell ourselves matter.
They frame the way we view everything, and they frame the way we deal with problems or obstacles that pop up when they inevitably do.
A Church Divided
For example, growing up, I was taught that the religious world was divided, and that division is a sin. In order to be pleasing to God, we needed to speak the same thing, and this meant teaching and believing the same doctrines, worshipping in the same way, and living the right way.
To stray from this pattern, this ideal, meant to belong to a church that doesn’t belong to Christ; it meant to be divided.
If we want to have unity, then, I have to “walk like you, talk like you, tooooo.”
But where does this idea come from? It comes from 1 Corinthians 1:10. Let’s go to the King James Version since that is the version embedded deep within me.
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.1 Corinthians 1:10
There it is: “that ye all speak the same thing.” But when we think about different churches, or different Bible class teachers for that matter, it is obvious that we don’t all speak the same thing, which, we are told, means we have a problem.
But one day, you’re reading the Bible through again, and when you get to this passage, all of the old ways you were taught to think about this passage come right back to your mind as usual, but then something happens: when you read the next couple of passages, the old way of understanding this text begins to unravel. At this point you’re reading the New King James Version, so you read something like this,
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.1 Corinthians 1:10–11
“Ah, so the divisions Paul is talking about are something specific,” you think to yourself, “I never thought about that before.”
So, you read on,
Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.”1 Corinthians 1:12
Apparently some of the people were aligning themselves with whoever taught/ baptized them (as a few verses later reveal), and these different allegiances were how they were speaking different things. Then Paul says,
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?1 Corinthians 1:13
So the divisions or contentions of verses 10-11 have to do with declaring that they belonged to someone besides Christ. Christ isn’t divided, so to claim allegiance to a particular leader is to divide Christ’s body.
But when we think about our own situation today, most Christians I know regardless of the denomination claim allegiance to Christ and Christ alone. If they mention any particular author or church leader, it’s because of the influence they had on their life, kind of like Timothy’s mother and grandmother, and not out of some sort of special allegiance.
So when you think about your church, regardless of the differences and diversity, everyone would speak the same thing: “I am of Christ.” Which means the divisions you or someone else think might exist, may be someone making something into a big deal that God didn’t make a big deal. There may actually be unity, but since we place the emphasis on the wrong things, we can’t see the unity because our vision is clouded by our egos, preferences, traditions, desires, or whatever.
Here It Comes Again
Now, it’s been a few years since you’ve reread this passage. You may use a different version of the Bible now. You might even go to a different church, but something happens: there’s a big disagreement. And when the conflict arises, instead of remembering what you learned a few years ago, words and phrases like “division” and “contention” and maybe even “speak the same thing” begin to naturally come to your mind. After all, it takes a lot more than one deep study of a text a few years ago to undo all of the wiring in your brain, especially when a lot of intense emotions and conversations are involved.
The stories we tell ourselves matter. If we use this kind of “us versus them” language to describe members of our church or maybe of another church or group we’re cooperating with when a problem arises, then we’ll start to see division and contention everywhere. Instead of following Jesus’s procedure for dealing with conflict, outlined in Matthew 18, we skip the first step of talking to the person we have a problem with and going straight to two or three people to gossip or, even worse, the whole church.
It’s so easy to get caught up in this.
But if we tell a different story, one of unity of the Spirit and the need to base our unity in Christ and not any preferred tradition, method, or preference, then instead of seeing our fellow members as enemies or people on “the other side,” we see each other as a wonderfully diverse family, which means we need to get used to sacrifice and laying down our lives for each other.
Two More Thoughts on Division
Paul uses the word “division” or “schisms” two more times in 1 Corinthians: once in 1 Corinthians 11:18 and another in 1 Corinthians 12:25.
In 11:18, instead of waiting for everyone to eat their meal together in memory of Christ, some sat with their clique and ate until they were full. When the poor people showed up to the meal later, there was nothing left for them and they were going hungry. What was meant to be a common meal in which there is no Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, became an exclusive lunch at the popular kids’ table.
In 12:25, Paul provides a better understanding of what unity in church looks like, and it doesn’t have anything to do with conformity. He wrote,
On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.1 Corinthians 12:22–25
We have unity in our congregation when we adopt a “first come last and the last come first” approach. We elevate those who might be outcasts or new to the faith, and we affirm and acknowledge those who may need a little more help. And this produces a culture in which members have the same care for each other. When this happens, our churches will look something like this:
And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.1 Corinthians 12:26
This kind of mutual care and mutual rejoicing for each other is one fruit of unity. When we lift up those who may not get acknowledged in another setting, we are practicing a healthy celebration of diversity, not a cold demand for conformity. This is what it means to be of the same mind.
But you see how even though we may know this on one level, when it comes time to practice what we’ve learned, the old ways of thinking come rushing back, so what are we to do? We need to learn to be patient with each other as we all work to live with our inner legalist or inner fundamentalist, as my friend Brian calls it in his book Faith After Doubt.
And we need to learn to be patient with ourselves. The fact that we can acknowledge and name when this happens is a huge sign of growth and should be celebrated. There’s no need to beat ourselves up when these old interpretations or stories or language show up now and again. But what we can do is use our experience to help name it for others and remind our friends and family to pay attention to what stories they are telling.