Conflict has always been a part of group life. And discussion and resolution of conflict is how relationships stay together. This is true of couples, of families, of churches, of work environments, and of governments. Conflict happens.
Recently I have been wondering what the Bible might have to say about how we deal with opposing viewpoints in peaceful ways? How might we come to resolution of differences without violence? How do we exist with those with whom we disagree and how might scripture help us as we wrestle with these questions.
Today’s Epistle, I think, has some relevance to this.
What we have heard today is part of a lengthy letter Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth. This letter, as do most of Paul’s letters, speaks of actual life in a particular church at a particular time. While the questions and disagreements of that place and time are not ours now, I think we can learn from Paul’s approach to their conflict.
Corinth in the mid first century was a hub of eastern and western trade and the center of Roman culture in Greece. A wide variety of people lived there from different backgrounds and from very different religious traditions. The mix included people on both ends of the economic spectrum. Some were very wealthy and so could participate in an active social scene and others were so poor that they struggled to stay alive. Some were very well educated and others had little or no education.
Corinth was one of the first places that Paul brought the Gospel. When he moved on to bring the message of Jesus Christ to other places, the church there continued to grow. The variety of people in the city meant that the church was also a mix of people with different backgrounds, wealth, and education. And with growth, areas of conflict arose. Some of these disagreements dealt with ethical issues, others in how to exist with the Roman government. Some dealt with theological questions and others practical matters.
The specific conflict in this morning’s chapter dealt with eating food that had been used in pagan worship. Animals would have been sacrificed as a part of those pagan ceremonies and afterwards the meat would be sold in the local markets. The argument arose from how the meat had come to the market and whether or not Christian believers should consume it. It was a sensitive issue because often the newer Christians would have been pagan before they converted.
When Paul wrote his response to the arguments he was well aware of the worship of pagan gods. However he did not give meaning to them. Paul knew that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. These other pagan gods were not the true God. And therefore anything that had been dedicated to those gods had no meaning. This meant that because of Paul’s education and theological understanding, the meat was perfectly fine to be consumed by Christians. It would not harm God, or the believer.
However, Paul does not say that his knowledge is the ultimate reason in deciding how to behave. Even though intellectually he knew those arguing for eating the meat were right, Paul placed the community’s needs above an independent individual choice.
For Paul the relationships that connected the group of believers were the ultimate basis on which to make decisions. Putting others first demonstrated and modeled the love of Christ. This love for the community and those in it is what should guide one’s actions.
Being right, having the correct knowledge is not enough to decide on what to do. Having a deep concern, a true love for others and realizing how one’s behavior will affect them is as important. Knowledge can exalt the individual. Basing a decision solely on knowledge can lead to more conflict as each side in an argument becomes entrenched in their position and unwilling to listen to the other.
To quote Paul from this morning’s translation, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Or to use Eugene Peterson’s words for this verse, “We sometimes think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.”
“Our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.” This raises the question of our motivation behind resolving the conflict. Do we want to win the argument? Or do we want a solution that builds up the community? Because when there is a winner in an argument there is also a loser which continues the circle of winning and losing.
Rather focusing on our motivation behind our action is what is needed. Asking ourselves, “How would I act if I loved these people?” is a way to keep the focus on Christ and his love, rather than on what we know or have learned or been taught. Sometimes an explanation of our reasoning is what is called for, if done in a loving manner. There is a place for our minds and learning for sure. But Paul cautions that it is not always at the top of the decision making process. We must remember that love comes first.
Pausing for a moment I must say that in other parts of I Corinthians Paul uses his prophetic voice to emphatically direct how a conflict will be resolved. He is not afraid to speak truth and to say that something is totally wrong. Yet even, and particularly when he uses his prophetic voice his motivation is the same. He speaks connected to Christ’s love and with love of God’s people in mind. Never are his statements so Paul can say that personally he is right. Rather his strong words are intended to turn people towards the gospel and Christ’s love, and away from doing or believing in what is evil.
There is a time for using a prophetic voice and a time for considering how our actions and words will affect the community. In each case the motivation is what matters. Knowledge exalts the individual while love and humility build up the other believer, and in so doing strengthen the community. Everything we do and say must be grounded in love. Our Christian witness requires us to remember that how we deal with disagreement carries an important message of what we truly believe.
Thank you St. Paul for reminding us to not lose sight of God in all of our conflicts and to keep our motivation always on his love. Amen.