Relevant Scripture: 1 Cor. 1:10-18
Gung hei fat choy! Happy New Year of the Rat to everyone. I should probably also say “sam dai tsim hang,” be healthy, given our present worries. It is a scary time, but it is also a time of the year in which people are meant to come together to celebrate a new year and new life. So the question on the mind of so many is whether the joys of friends and family outweighs the risks of traveling in crowded conditions during a disease outbreak. But St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that the power of fellowship should always outweigh fear and division. This is why we have also been celebrating Christian unity over the past week.
I can think of no more important time for Christians to be united than the present, when it seems like politics and fear is making us even more divided. Blue and Yellow, Mainland versus local, sick and not sick. But lately, the idea of unity has been a complicated one for me and the denomination that I call home. Some of you will remember that I am a Methodist, a United Methodist to be specific. We’re a slightly different sort than Hong Kong Methodists, whose big churches you can find in Wan Chai. We certainly all share the theology of British evangelist John Wesley, but my church is a distinctively North American variety. Part of the meaning behind our name “united” is that we are the union of several different Methodist denominations, two of which had originally divided over the issue of slavery. What you may not have heard is that U.S. Methodists are—ironically—preparing to split again.
The cause of this split is…as you can probably guess… the issue of same-sex relationships. My church has been debating this controversy for quite some time. Theologically, the question is whether language that condemns homosexuality should be removed from our doctrine, what we call our Book of Discipline. Practically and pastorally, the question is whether LGBTQ+ clergy can be public about their sexual orientation. Of course, the most visible issue is whether pastors are allowed to perform same-sex weddings (some have already been doing without permission). This theological question is unresolved, but in December, a group of bishops did agree, in principle, that the more conservative churches would split off to form their own new Methodist denomination, while the main church will finally remove its prohibitions on the LGBTQ+ community. It’s not certain that this will happen, but the whole church will likely vote in favor of it in May.
My reaction to this news was not sadness but relief. The time, energy and resources spent on the matter has been wasteful and embarrassing. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of a church being fully welcoming of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation, but we should not have spent years on just a small section of text! For me, the theological question is one that is easily answered using tools already available in Wesley’s balanced approach to doing theology. This involves four sources of wisdom and authority: First you have Scripture—the Hebrew and Christian accounts of God’s work in history. These texts say something about God’s relationship to humankind. Second, Scripture is always read and acted out through many different liturgical and theological traditions. Third, we have our human experience. Outside of the Bible and church, we encounter the living God everywhere and at every moment in our lives. Finally, there is a source authority that we often forget about: our reason. Together, all four of these sources of wisdom are needed to form a complete picture of human life in relation to God.
I don’t see how you can reasonably say, in this day in age, that someone who is gay cannot be fully welcomed into a community meant to incarnate God’s unconditional love. A few instances of Scripture condemning a particular lifestyle cannot overturn our experience that gay couples are just as capable of receiving and expressing this love. Of course, there are many Methodists and other Christians who would disagree with this position, but maybe this means that my church was already split a long time ago over this theological question. Instead, the conflict that we have had over the last couple of decades—and the one that may be finally coming to an end—was never a theological one, but rather a political one. One side was trying to gain the power to change the church, while the other sought the means to silence these reformers. Both did so in the name of keeping the church “united”. My hope is that both sides have realized that such a battle is not worth it, or even reflective of Christ’s love.
But wait—how can we reconcile this kind of division with what Paul writes to the Church in Corinth? Are we not to be united in the same mind and purpose? Does this not mean Christians should not divide themselves into factions and denominations?
But unity is not the same as homogeneity, or sameness. Is notable that the Apostle describes the dispute as if the Corinthians are identifying with different Christian leaders, including himself and St. Peter (here called Cephas). Whether or not this is the real cause of the Corinthian’s dispute, Paul here is cleverly reminding us of the relationships that existed between the first Christian evangelists. Even during the early church, those going forth to preach the Gospel would have had their own interpretations of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is only natural that those Christians baptized and taught by different individuals would express similarly diverse views.
Famously, Peter and Paul differed over the status of the gentiles. While Peter is described as being more interested in converting Jews, Paul was more cosmopolitan in his mission. He emphasized that Christ died on behalf of all, and that grace could be received by anyone regardless of culture, ethnicity and language; To him, there was neither Jew nor Greek. Given this attitude, it’s natural that he would be against factional divisions.
But just because Paul cautions us against disagreement doesn’t mean we can’t have strong differences of opinion. Christians come from all walks of life and cultures, and this is something that the apostle affirmed. What Paul refused to do is allow such disagreements to get in the way of what was important—that is, the divine love incarnated and offered through Jesus Christ, our light and salvation. The Corinthians’ disputes were overshadowing this key Truth. For Paul, we are baptized in Christ’s name, not in the name of Peter, Paul or Apollos. Not in the name of John Wesley or John Calvin, Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. We are different denominations, but we are all baptized into one Christian community.
The difficulty for Christians is distinguishing between those divisions that weaken us, and the differences that can actually strengthen us. From Paul’s perspective, the differences of belief and practice had become so divisive in the Corinthian church that they threatened to weaken and destroy it. This is something a young Christian community, part of a minority religion, could not afford. But today our religion faces no such problem. Diversity of mind and practice is our strength not our weakness, and disagreement is not a problem…unless we lose focus on Christ. That is our only existential threat.
My church lost focus on what was important. We wanted to stay united as an organization, but that came at the cost of being disunited as Christians. Together we spent years, decades even, fighting over something important, but that something that was only part of the bigger picture.
Splitting certainly won’t be easy. As a child of divorce I know that, while sometimes it is best to separate, it is an incredibly difficult adjustment. Pastors and congregations will have to make the difficult decision of whether to stay in the UMC or not. It’s likely that my hometown church will vote to leave. My hope is that this grief can be part of a healing process, that we can learn to work better together as separate communities that still share one communion. This is how it is between most Protestant communities, including this one. And of course, I hope that eventually the other side will become more open about sexual orientation and we can potentially come back together, just as the Northern and Southern Methodist churches eventually did.
While this issue has been a personal one for me, and not likely to impact our community here, it is an experience that carries universal meaning. We have to be careful that when we fight for unity, we are not pushing a false unity that suppresses diverse opinions or, worse, doesn’t allow anyone to express any opinion at all! Even if our disputes lead to political separation, if they allow us to work together to pursue God’s love and justice in the world, then we are still united in following the same Christ. To quote Wesley: though we cannot think alike, can we not love alike?