Yesterday morning in Sunday School (yes, it is important for a seminary president to be rooted in a class where “everyone knows your name”), we took up the thorny topic of conflict. Using Distinguished Professor Olson’s new book, Love Letter to a Conflicted Church, we began to examine why we are so fearful and virulent in our disagreements—especially with other Christians. Our faith touches the deepest things within us; thus it is understandable that conflicts in this area provoke anxiety and self-protectiveness. We also have the tendency to personalize conflict in ways that prove unhealthy. Even for the more mature among us, it is hard to allow that another perspective holds equal validity to our own.
The Epistle reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany shines a light on a perpetually conflicted community, the church at Corinth. (I have always wondered why Baptists like to name churches after this cantankerous expression of the Body of Christ!) “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. For it has been reported to me…that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11). Paul well knows that a conflicted church could render the Gospel even more unbelievable in a context that already viewed it as scandalous and foolish, hence he exhorts the Corinthians to unity that can only be found in Christ.
In a time when vitriolic rhetoric sears the airwaves, God is calling persons of good will to practice ways of engaging conflict that hold promise (a key thesis of Olson’s book.) Often Christians of both conservative and progressive wings forget that ideas cannot be abstracted from the relationships where they are incarnate, and that truth is never the sole possession of one perspective. That is why in the Corinthian correspondence disputes over “insiders or outsiders,” primacy of gifts, theological correctness on the resurrection, role of the Holy Spirit, order in worship, etc., must find resolution in abounding love—the greatest of God’s gifts.
I will be listening to the national discourse this week as the President offers the State of the Union address. Even more, I will pay attention to my own pejorative speech that undercuts unity of mind and purpose.
Molly T. Marshall
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