January 21, 2010

Striving for the Greater Gifts

                The Apostle ends 1 Corinthians 12 with the following exhortation: “But strive for the greater gifts.”  As summation of his discussion of how the many members of the Body of Christ can work together and as prelude to the beloved next chapter on love, St. Paul knows that sustained unity amidst diversity taxes even the best among us.  At the first hint of conflict persons nervously move away from one another, fearful of what might damage the relationship. Yet they ensure that the relationship will be damaged by refusing to enter into transformative conflict.  The most mature relationships are characterized by conflict, not forced unanimity which subjugates one party to another.

                Richard P. Olson, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central, has recently published Love Letter to a Conflicted Church. He offers distilled wisdom  from over 40 years in pastoral ministry on how to engage conflict constructively. He writes: “…there are redemptive and transforming possibilities in conflict. Through conflict a person can become more self aware, articulate, and personally empowered. Not only that—one can learn to see the other as a human being, a child of God, one with struggles and needs much like one’s own. Indeed, redemption can happen in conflict when one obeys Jesus to love both neighbor and self” (p. 21). These are words to live by, indeed to “fight” by. I commend his insightful work.

                Another scholar I respect, Mitch Carnell, a Baptist layperson in Charleston, S.C., has issues a clarion call for a different kind of discourse than what populates the varied radio and cable news talk shows. In his book Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he suggests that a challenge greater than the political arena may be in bringing people of faith together to practice the way of civility. The purpose of his book is “to explore ways for people of faith to talk to and about each other in a way that glorifies God and advances God’s kingdom” (p.14). Our stewardship of words matters.

                While I am not sure what all the Apostle had in mind when he referred to the “greater gifts,” surely he was urging the Corinthians (and those who listen to the epistle today) to learn how to live with others respectfully. In Pauline theology, one of the functions of the Spirit of God is to assist persons in bearing the strains of their differences in a constructive way. Learning to “speak the truth in love” and not “to think too highly of oneself” are grace gifts worth striving for in our day.

                                Molly T. Marshall

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