Respectfully Yours

An apostle’s counsel on living with diversity in a congregation.

I love the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians.  One reason: it is dead-on realistic about life in a congregation. The church in Corinth was a mess. It was wracked with tensions, scandal, theological confusion, and pretensions. Sound familiar does it not?

I also love the book because we witness Paul the apostle turn into Paul the pastor. Paul had got this community of faith started. He longed to see it grow up into a mature fellowship. So he gives a great deal of attention to its needs and problems.

What Is Acceptable Christian Behavior?

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The sacrifice of a pig on a Greek altar. Depicted on an Athenian cup, 6th century B.C. Now in Louvre Museum.

One locus of tension in the church was the issue of whether Christians could rightly buy and eat meat that came from the animals sacrificed on the altars of pagan temples. These sacrifices were a major source of supply for butchers. An additional issue was whether Christians could participate in civic dinners and trade gatherings in temples where sacrificed meat might constitute the main dinner entrée.

Some members of the Corinthian church asserted that it was perfectly OK.* After all, they argued, pagan gods did not exist. Eating meat from temples then involved no endorsement of pagan gods. Other members of the church were not so sure. They were scandalized by the practice, believing that it entailed a faith compromise. The church seems to have asked Paul’s advice on the subject. He answers in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1.

I’m fascinated by his response. His advice is very practical and pastoral, but it is far from simple and clear cut. Which makes it tricky to deal with.

The dispute in the church was not one of theological principle, but of Christian behavior. One group in the church saw no problem in eating meat sacrificed on pagan altars. Nor did they have any scruples about attending dinner in pagan temples. And concerning those in the church who did not agree, they were ready to dismiss them as “weaker brothers.”

Other members of the church, however, felt scruples about these practices. Maybe they were newly converted Christians, who were not quite yet convinced that pagan gods were not real. They were therefore offended when they saw fellow believers eating temple meat.

Both sides had merit in their viewpoints, but apparently little tolerance or compassion for other viewpoints or sensitivities. That led to contention in the church’s life.

Paul’s Counsel

In conviction Paul himself seems to have shared the viewpoint of those who saw no problem in eating the meat. But the rightness of his viewpoint was not his chief concern. Nor was it the issue that he felt the “more enlightened” members of the church should be agitated about. Paul’s chief concern was whether this intra-church dispute was going to wreck the congregation’s communal life. Were the behavior and attitudes of either side building up the church? Or were they undermining its welfare and unity?

On this point Paul was decisive. If by eating meat, an “enlightened” member of the community causes a weaker member to stumble in faith, then the enlightened member should voluntarily give up his or her liberty and refrain from eating meat. In such disputes over behavior, the welfare of the community must take priority over the rights and liberty of the individual. So he says in verse 8:13:

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

To support his argument, he sets himself up as an example. As an apostle, he is entitled to many things—including financial support from the community. But he says he has voluntarily chosen not to exercise those rights—all for the cause of advancing the gospel of Christ.** As further warrant for his practice, he claims he is imitating Christ.

He summarizes his conclusions in verses 10:23-24:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.***

 In listening to Paul’s counsel, it is important, I think, that what he counsels is voluntary restraint. He is not arguing that the community should impose conformity on all. There is diversity in the church. That diversity is not just a matter of different backgrounds and upbringings. That diversity may be inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. Therefore diversity is to be reverenced and cherished. A forced conformity may be a form of abuse and defilement of the Body of Christ.

Distorting Paul’s Counsel

Yet I find Paul’s counsel tricky to implement. One party in a church may argue that another party should refrain from certain behaviors because the first party finds them offensive. They can argue that if the second party continues in its offensive behavior, that party is not demonstrating Christian love. And so we can devolve into a situation where one party in the church becomes a minority dictating behavior for the greater whole.

I do not suspect that Paul would have countenanced his counsel be used as grounds for a tyranny by the minority. Paul, for example, did not give way to what we might have considered the weaker brothers in the case of the disputes in the Galatian churches. There he felt a serious theological principle was at stake, and he was not about to give way to the Judaizing party and its sensitivities about Christian behavior.

So I find that Paul’s counsel is not as quite as simple and clear cut as I would like. At times, our life in the church may call us to voluntarily surrender our rights for the sake of the good of the greater whole. At other times our life may call us to stand firm on our rights. This calls for careful discernment. We may find that we make many mistakes and experience a great deal of anguish.

Valuing Respect

Yet what can it mean for us today to exercise love in building up the Body of Christ, as Paul counsels? One thing I do believe it requires is learning to respect the differences among us.

Respect is a largely undervalued virtue, but it goes a long way to maintaining harmony. People hunger to be respected in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. It is one reason I believe we are experiencing so much turmoil in our political life. Too many people in our country feel they have not been respected. In anger they raising hell to ensure they are not ignored. Something similar can happen in the church.

Treating someone with respect is letting someone be himself or herself. It does not mean smoothing out differences, but it allows diversity to be, understanding that there is a hidden wisdom to diversity that eludes all attempts to unite by imposed conformity.

Treating each other in the church with respect does not make differences, conflicts, and disputes go away. But treating others with respect does mean our disputes need not tear us apart and destroy our life together.

So the strange dispute in Corinth over eating meat sacrificed to idols becomes an occasion for Paul to illuminate an important principle in our life together in the church. Neither arrogant individualism nor smothering social conformity are to govern life in the church. Rather, says Paul, let love govern our behavior. And one manifestation of love is respect.

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* They may have belonged to a group in the church who prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Earlier in the letter Paul chastises them for their putting down what they may have regarded as their “less enlightened” brothers.

** Paul walked his talk. While in Corinth, he earned his living as a tentmaker. He did not receive financial support from the church.

*** The translators of the NRSV has placed certain phrases in quotation marks because they believe that those are words that Paul is quoting from the letter the church sent him.

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A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

Sloppy Editing or Rhetorical Subtlety?

I’m fascinated by the way the book of Isaiah begins.

 I was reading the book of Isaiah recently when I was struck by how oddly it begins. The books of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all begin with an account of the prophet’s call to be a prophet. That account may be short, as in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) or long, as in the case of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27).

This call establishes the prophet’s credentials in proclaiming a word of God to the people. Only once that authority has been established do we get the content of the messages each prophet is commissioned to deliver.

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The prophet Isaiah, as envisioned by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, 16th century.

The call of Isaiah, however, does not come in his book until Chapter 6. What precedes it are five chapters of the actual messages that Isaiah delivers. That’s what I find odd. We don’t learn about Isaiah’s authority to speak for God until we have been exposed to a powerful summary of his prophetic burden.

Lifted High, Dropped Low

That summary is a real emotional roller coaster ride. Chapter 1 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The prophet denounces the people’s religious infidelity. This infidelity is shown in the people’s extravagant piety in worship while they accommodate to injustice in the kingdom’s social and economic life.

So fierce is the prophet’s denunciation that he calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities are the Old Testament’s great symbols of urban corruption. They suffer a fire and brimstone fate (Genesis 19). One can hardly imagine a greater insult to Judeans, who considered themselves pious, faithful, and respectable.

Chapter 2 opens, however, with a glorious vision of the temple mount in Jerusalem drawing pilgrims from all over the world. People come to the mount because there they expect to receive instruction from God and the word of the Lord. It will be a transforming word, for they shall end up beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Then the prophet returns to his denunciations. The land is filled with riches and the machinery of war, but it will be humbled when the Lord comes in judgment. Chapter 3 continues this recital of destruction, describing a society collapsing in chaos. It contains a particularly vivid description of the elite women strutting around town in their jewelry and finery (Isaiah 3:18-23),* before they will be reduced to baldness and sackcloth.

Then abruptly in chapter 4 the prophet returns to a hopeful vision of the glory that will return to Jerusalem after its spiritual cleansing. The Lord will dwell in the city and protect it as the Lord did the Israelites journeying through the wilderness during the Exodus. Whoever lives in the city will be called holy.

Then as we launch into chapter 5 we plunge again into a fierce denunciation of Judah as a people who were created to be the vineyard of the Lord, but a vineyard that has produced a harvest of sour, wild grapes. As a result, Sheol, the land of the dead, will open its mouth and swallow the people into its land of no return. This chapter ends with a vision of darkness enveloping the land:

They [foreign invaders] will roar over it on that day,

            like the roaring of the sea.

And if one look to the land–

            only darkness and distress;

and the light grows dark with clouds. (Isaiah 5:30)

Only after this rhetorical cycle of highs and lows do we come to the story of the prophet’s call. When I reach chapter 6, I am crying out for a respite. In a sense that is what chapter 6 provides for at least its first eight verses, before the text launches into another searing description of the judgment to come.

Why This Beginning?

When I read all this, I find myself asking what rhetorical purpose did the editor who compiled the book of Isaiah have in mind when he chose to arrange his material in this way. Was it to grab his audience’s attention immediately, and when they begin to protest to the emotional barrage, to spring the authority behind it with the call of the prophet?

I am not sure I see clearly the rhetorical purpose. But I have learned that the biblical writers and editors are generally very astute communicators. Things in the biblical text are seldom left to chance. The writers and editors bring an acute intelligence to their work.

And so when I come upon things that I don’t understand, I don’t immediately assume that this is a case of sloppy writing and careless editing. There may be a rhetorical subtlety at work that I don’t yet perceive. Is such the case with the opening of Isaiah?

Any thoughts among you, my readers?

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* This passage is a particularly detailed description of all the paraphernalia that the women of ancient Jerusalem would have considered high fashion.