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3rd sunday in ordinary time

january 23, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree Agreeably

The Right Fist of Fellowship

Emmanuel Baptist could trace their history back to colonial days. It was a typical New England congregation situated outside of Boston. The village grew from a farming community to a bustling suburb. The church grew with the town. Pastor Linehart had guided them through 25 years of change. He faithfully challenged the congregation with conviction on the three Ts—temperance, television and the Trinity.

After Pastor Linehart retired the church formed a new pulpit committee. They search long and hard for a new pastor and were thrilled when Pastor Waite accepted. He was a very warm and welcoming pastor. It was a very smooth transition for Pastor Waite and the life and ministry of the church continued. Pastor Waite was a good preacher and he reaffirmed the traditional Baptist doctrines at first. A few months into his tenure he began to say some strange things. He had a different way of talking about Jesus. He keep pushing for the church to reach out the AIDS patients at a nearby hospice center. Then he changed the worship service.

Brother Fowler did not like all the changes nor did he enjoy listening to the people who came to him with their complaints. At a Board of Deacons meeting recommended the Board call a congregational meeting to review the ministry of Pastor Waite. During the discussion Pastor Waite was able to convince enough of the members that the issues could be handled in a different way. Waite was gifted at getting his own way either one-on-one or with a small group of people. Tensions began to escalate and the congregation broke up into sides. Some thought Pastor Waite should go and others defended his ministry and his ideas.

On the third Sunday in May Brother Fowler stood up during announcements to call a congregational meeting to dismiss Pastor Waite. The deacons had met without the pastor and agreed to call such a meeting as required in the by-laws. As Brother Fowler began reading the formal announcement Floria Waite, the pastor’s wife, pounding out “Have Thine Own Way” on the piano. She was joined by Sister Carly on the organ who had also amp-ed up the sound. Together nothing but the music could be heard. Brother Fowler walked over to the wall and before the congregation started the second verse he unplugged the organ and Brother Brian shut the lid of the piano.

After a long uncomfortable pause, Brother Ray walked over to the pastor the way a person approaches an injured animal. They had a heated exchanged under their breath. Satisfied Brother Ray turned and walked to his pew but his foot became entangled in the microphone cord. He fell. The congregation gasped. Pastor Waite delayed reaching out his hand to help Brother Ray up. The pause was just long enough to convince those seated in the front pew that Pastor Waite had pushed Ray down.

Ray thought so too. He bounced to his feet threw a punch that hit the pastor square on the nose. A melee broke out. Shoving and punching one another the congregation converged onto the chancel. Hymn books were thrown. Someone threw the flower arrangement at Brother Ray. The fight finally ended when the sheriff arrived and restored order.

Church conflict seldom breaks out into such violent exchanges but internal squabbling can get very nasty. Friendships are destroyed and seldom reconcile. Attendance declines. Visitors avoid the church and look to quieter congregations. It sometimes takes years to rebuild. Such conflicts cause some to see the similarity between the church and Noah’s Ark. If it were not for the storm raging on the outside, we could not stand the stench on the inside.

While our congregation has been blessed to avoid such intense conflict, we are part of a denomination that has a history of internal conflict. Before the 1700s Presbyterians broke up into two schools of thought. The “New Lights” accused the church leadership of becoming “Pharisee-teachers” because they did not share the same energy, enthusiasm, and moral integrity as newly converted believers. The “Old Lights” claimed the the Great Awakening revivals had created religious zealots who lacked intellectual depth to their faith. The New Lights measured a minister's spiritual state by his evangelical spirit and the Old school insisted on a sound theological education from an reputable school such as Harvard, Yale or one in Europe.

When the issue of slavery engulfed the nation the church mirrored the division of the country causing a split between Northern and Southern Presbyterians that lasted over 120 years. During the 1920s a faction demand that the clergy adhere to the fundamentals of the faith. The conservative movement was abrasive and their opponents overreacted and forced them out of the denomination. That split has still not been mended. Fights over race relations and the ordination of women marred the 60s and early 70s. Middle ground could not be found. It was an either / or. Those who could not ordain woman were forced to leave. Since 1976 we have been debating whether to ordain those who are practicing lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people. We have also had some arguments over our understanding of who is the person of Jesus Christ. These debates are becoming more and more intense. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has much to say to our denomination. I wonder if we are willing to hear it. His letter also gives us valuable wisdom in handling controversies.

Corinthian Conflict

The divisions in the Corinthian Christian community came to Paul’s attention several years after he started the church. He writes that reports by “Chloe’s people” (v. 11), literally, “those of Chloe.” Paul is writing to the Corinthian community from Ephesus, and it is not certain who Chloe’s people are. They could be slaves, free employees, family members, friends or business associates. The expression “of Chloe” indicates members of Chloe’s household. In the ancient world the household was an extended group of people in some way dependent on or related to the head of the household, and this group could include business clients as well as slaves and relatives.

That Chloe, rather than her husband, is the point of reference may indicate that Chloe was a widow or that she was a woman of sufficient means to establish an identity with Paul and the Christian communities associated with him independent of her husband’s authority. Since Chloe is mentioned only here, there is little on which to construct an identity for her, and the consensus of scholarly opinion (influenced, perhaps, by the figure of Lydia, Acts 16:14) is that Chloe was a wealthy businesswoman who supported Paul’s missionary activity, perhaps in Ephesus, Corinth, or elsewhere.

Since the reports of the divisions in the Corinthian community have come from Chloe’s “people” and not Chloe herself, it is also possible that Chloe was not a Christian, but that some members of her household or associates were. With so little known about Chloe, it’s impossible to decide conclusively.

The conflict appears to be personality-generated. As Paul describes the conflicting loyalties that were fraying the community, he uses proper names to distinguish one group from another. The first three names Paul mentions are men who have taught, preached, witnessed and baptized within the new body of believers in Corinth. Paul cites himself and Cephas (Peter) as the apostolic witnesses who have taught and preached among them. The other teacher who attracted a zealous following is Apollos. From Acts we learn that this teacher is well-regarded, schooled in the ways of witnessing, and a genuinely gifted orator. Paul seems almost amused by the loyalties some Corinthians are investing in a certain name. He almost mocks such one-upsmanship by writing "or I belong to Christ" to the end of the list. Paul could not resist pointing out that our self worth or identity is not found in any other human personality.

Paul uses three rhetorical questions to teach them that the true nature of the church is unity not division. He first asks, is Christ divided? This question is easy. Of course not. God is one

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.

(Matthew 12:25, NIV)

Paul’s second question shows the weakness of all human leadership. The question applies to every leader. They may be the most talented person you have ever met. They may be articulate, persuasive even charismatic but not one leader would ever say that they have been crucified for their people. A few might say that they have been crucified by their people.

The third question follows the second. If our leaders cannot be crucified for us, than neither can we be baptized in their name. When we are baptized we pledge are loyalty, our devotion, our commitment to the person in whose name we are baptized.

Rules for Agreeable Disagreement

In the opening sentence of this paragraph, Paul has pleaded with the Corinthians to come together as one. This plea is grounded in their identity in Christ. Several questions now arise. How are we to handle disagreements? What specific practical steps are we to take when we disagree. Paul did not give the Corinthians a step by step set of instructions. However, I believe that we can glean from other passages wisdom that offer guidance

The first attitude that we must maintain in any conflict is respect for the other person. There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of respect shown in American politics. Actually, disrespect has always been apart of the political forum.

A slur upon the moral government of the world
John Quincy Adam 1767-1848 on Thomas Jefferson

The Harpers Weekly r once summed up an American politician in these words: "Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robher, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate."

Who was being talked of? Abraham Lincoln

Nothing more than a well meaning baboon
General McCellan on Abraham Lincoln

Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angleworm.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), 18th American president

The people are tired of a man who has not an idea above a horse or a cigar.
Joseph Brown on Ulysses S. Grant, 18th American president

Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer, on Congress

While public insults by of politicians by journalists and other politicians has nearly become an American pastime it should never be present in the church. Jesus reaffirmed the Second greatest command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Every home owner and renter knows that we will not always agree with our neighbor. Sometimes our neighbors will be found in the pew we share or sitting in front of us. Our neighbor may have a different view on politics, the economy or the environment. They may understand God in a completely different way than we do but we are called to love them as we love ourselves. We cannot love without showing respect.

The second trait that should mark our interpersonal communication is understanding. Francis of Assisi once prayed, “Lord, grant that I might seek to understand more than to be understand.

In the practice of law, good lawyers will make sure that they can articulate the position of the other party. They cannot mount a defense unless they know what the other person is going to argue. Lawyers do this to win a positive decision for their client. We are to do it for much different reasons. Do you really know both the what and the whys of the other person? The whys may even be more critical than the what. Sometimes people believe strange things or want things done in a certain way for very good reasons that are not always apparent.

When two parties are more concerned about understanding the other person than proving their own point of view, friction is always lessened. Striving to win is removed. Combatants may also become allies because understanding brings clarity and clarity sometimes reveals that the two positions have more in common than the parties realized. Or they may even be saying the same thing in different ways.

Sometimes even with two people showing respect toward one another; even when they strive to understand the other, they may never come to an agreement on every issue. In those moments of respectful disagreement they must agree to disagree agreeably. This was evident in the lives of two very great preachers of the 19th century—George Whitefield and John Wesley.

During the early 1800s Whitefield and Wesley led massive crusades that had thousands of people come to Christ without the aid of a projector and screen, sound system, Facebook or Twitter. Their work made a tremendous impact on this nation.

They disagreed on many issues but they never allowed their disagreements to create conflict between their supporters. Because their worked in harmony they changed two nations. Benjamin Franklin once said that after George Whitefield spoke

"wonderful...change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street." 1

These men could have become bitter rivals. They could have included much time in their sermons pointing out the errors of the other person. But they did not. On occasion they even worked in harmony with one another. In his sermon at George Whitefield’s funeral service, John Wesley urged the faithful to follow Whitefield’s example and to “agree to disagree” on the non essential doctrines that have divided denominations. This was actually the first time this phrase had ever been used in a theological reference. Theologians have not been known for the cordial disagreements.

Conflict is an inherent temptation to people with strong religious interests. They study the Scriptures to learn the heart and mind of God. They think through the logic of their position and come to a conclusion that they believe is the best interpretation of Scripture. Therefore all other interpretations must be wrong. We defend our position as if we are defending God’s reputation. That may seem silly as I explain now but, I have been in too many discussions with pastors and lay people who suspect me of heresy. They relentlessly pushed their arguments on me.

The Constant

A story is told of two men who were shipwrecked on an island for years. After their rescue they were brought before the captain of the ship. The captain noted that he saw three small huts on the island. He assumed that each man has his own hut and so asked for what purpose did the third hut serve. The rescued sailors explained to the captain that for safety they both stayed in one hut. The other hut was built shortly after they arrived as a place for worship. They designated it as the island’s designated as the island’s First Presbyterian Church. The captain then asked what was the purpose of the third hut, to which the sailors respond, “Oh, that was the Second Presbyterian Church.”

Whenever two or more people gather together they will have differences of opinion on many subjects. Paul appealed to the Corinthians to learn to agree with one another because just as Christ cannot be divided neither can they. Learning to agree with one another is not an option but an imperative.


1The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p.104-108; Samuel J. Rogal, "Toward a Mere Civil Friendship: Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield." Methodist History 1997 35(4): 233-243. 0026-1238

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1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390


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