How do we nurture healthy individuals within healthy communities?
I think it is a widely under-appreciated principle that the apostle Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 8:1: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
It is widely under-appreciated because the more advanced one’s education, the greater the temptation to become conceited about that education and the elite status it seems to confer. We can cite many examples:
- The academics who expect deference be shown to them because of their stature in their academic discipline.
- The political pundits and the newspaper columnists who expect a respectful hearing because of their ability to analyze current affairs.
- The bureaucrats who wield authority because of their insider knowledge.
- The scientists who assume they should have a dominant voice in public policy because of the insights they bring from their particular scientific fields.
- The partisans who assume their allegiance to a particular ideological viewpoint uniquely qualifies them to discern truth from fake news.
Elites alone, however, are not the only ones susceptible to this temptation. It can afflict members of one’s own family in family dinners. We’ve all have sat around tables where a know-it-all brother or aunt tells us that they know exactly what we should do. And local churches can fall into the temptation when proponents of various theological or cultural viewpoints contest for the controlling voice in congregational life.
That seems to have been the case in the church in Corinth that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Corinthians. The congregation was split among several factions. Each appealed to a different spiritual authority. Some members of the church were also looking down with condescension on other members of the church whom they considered less advanced in their views than they were.
This contemptuous spirit had come to a head in one particularly divisive issue. Was it appropriate for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed in pagan temples and was then sold in butcher shops or served at civic dinners? Those who saw no problem in so doing took their stance on the basis of their advanced theological knowledge. Others were less sure of the issue and therefore scandalized when their fellow Christians ate such meat.
Here was a situation where opinion was pitted against opinion, with various appeals to knowledge as authoritative. The impact, however, was to split the congregation into contentious parties. Resentment and furtive back-biting must have been rife.
Unity as the Mission of the Church
That is exactly what alarmed Paul. The arguments were damaging the unity of the church. And that unity was his chief concern.
Unity was not just essential for the survival of the church. It represented the redemptive purpose of the church. As Paul will express in his Letter to the Ephesians, he sees Christ as the force of a reconciling peace that works to unite the divisions of humanity into one. It begins with reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. As he writes:
He [Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:15-16)
The church is to be the advance leaven of this unity that is ultimately to leaven the whole loaf of humanity. When the church falls into contentious factions, it neutralizes its spiritual mission.
The Power that Nurtures Unity
What nurtures that unity? For Paul it is love, not knowledge. Knowledge puffs up individuals, breeding a spirit of arrogance and complacent self-reference. But that is not the spirit that builds communal unity. Rather what breeds unity is a spirit of respect for all individuals in the community, care and concern for their welfare, sensitivity to the needs of all, forbearance, and forgiveness for wrongs done.
This is not love understood as affection. Rather it is love understood as actions and attitudes that seek the well-being of another. Paul provides a clear indication of the behavior that he considers loving in his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). There he summarizes the actions of love:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
These are the kinds of action that build up community, not ideological debate nor an attitude that the winner takes all. Nor an educational system that sees education as simply skill acquisition with no element of character development.
Paul is not a believer in the attitude that an ignorant faith is a superior faith. He highly prizes wisdom as does the whole Scriptural tradition. Knowledge has its important place in the life of faith. But a purely intellectual approach is not fully up to the task of producing a healthy community.
The Church as a Spiritual Network
We get further insight into his viewpoint when we read later in 1 Corinthians 12 his application of the analogy of the human body to the church. The church is like a body which has a diversity of organs and limbs. But all are meant to work in coordination for the welfare of the whole body.
This is not, however, a communitarian view where the welfare of the community always takes priority over the welfare of the individual. Rather the community and its individuals live in interdependence. Individuals enjoy healthy well-being when the community in which they live is healthy. Likewise communities enjoy a healthy well-being when the individuals who compose it are healthy.
This is the concept of a network in which each individual element of the network is interconnected and interdependent on all the other elements. This comes through clearly when Paul tells the Corinthians:
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)
The Contemporary Relevance of Paul’s Principle
It seems to me that one of the reasons why so many Americans today distrust experts and expertise is because all too often experts have delivered their pronouncements with little regard for the impact on the community as a whole.
This has been especially true for the advocates of globalism. They have often been blind to the needs of those who have lost out in the drive to a global economy. Their blindness has triggered the backlash of populism. Globalism would have been much more palatable to the whole community if globalists had had a more acute sensitivity–and empathy–to the needs of those who were being disadvantaged by it. Because they did not, the global world they so deeply prize is being jeopardized.
The church, as Paul envisions it, would be a counter-agent to this style of doing business. But in spite of what we might regard as our advanced theological knowledge (or our insights into Scripture), we are enmeshed in the same divisiveness as the culture around us.