“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” [Philippians 2:1-7]
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I am an opinionated person. I am also “firm of resolve”… a trait that, from time to time, has been referenced (by others, but honest others) as being “headstrong”, “stubborn”, or “stiff-necked”. If you, Gentle Reader, have been with this blog for any time at all, that confession is nothing new to you.
The deepest buried and most persistent “thorns” with which I grapple are my own pride and its consequent tendency to judge and devalue others, or their views.
I suspect I share some of these traits with Paul the Apostle. There is absolutely nothing wishy-washy about Paul. In fact, I wonder if when he wanted someone else’s opinion on something, he gave it to them? Some of what he writes is “divinely inspired imperative” (“here’s how God wants things done”). Some of what he writes is “divinely inspired and influenced imperatives of his (Paul’s) own” (“here’s how, prayerfully, *I* want things done”). Some of what he writes is disclosure and commentary. And some, very little, of what he writes is his opinion alone… and he clearly marks these places (“take this or leave it, as your conscience dictates”).
Of all the Biblical writers, no one gives us so much about the Bride of Christ, the Church. So many times, in so many ways, Paul addresses this glorious mystery. Constantly, his letters address both the practical and sublime about the lives of Christians (individual), and how they are to meld into the life of the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ (collective).
But of all Paul’s opinions, positions, imperatives, instructions, reflections… all of that… nowhere do I so clearly hear the passion, the crack in his voice, the urgency of his heart’s need to speak clearly… than in the passage above.
“Here!”… “Here!”… Paul seems to cry… “Here is the HEART of the Bride, the Body! Here is her beauty. Here is her mystery. Here is where I pour out my life.” The mystery of the Resurrection, the truth of Christ in us the hope of glory, the heart “being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose… with humility of mind regard[ing] one another as more important than yourselves…”
There is the heart, as Paul speaks it, of the Church. I see that. I feel that. I yield to that. Yet… sometimes… more often than I care to admit, I struggle with it. How? How, in practical terms, are we supposed to do this? How does this play out in real issues, real questions, real debates? How do we direct our actions between maintaining both our integrity before Christ and one another, and maintaining the same mind, love, and spirit?
When a brother or sister expresses a view or opinion different from our own, an interpretation different, a conviction different… when and how is it right to speak, versus refraining out of deference to their interests being above our own?
I would dearly love to follow that question with… “Well, Gentle Reader, HERE is how we do this!” But that would be dishonest of me. Like so many things of spirit, grace, and truth… I cannot define a “rule” or a “law” that will definitively dispose of all cases with assurance.
But I can, and will, share the single “answer”, or rather writing of Paul’s that has given me the most guidance here. Along with a caution as to some limits of it. But the text is quite clear, as Christians of the early Church found themselves bickering and debating over “right and wrong behavior” on matters of what is sacred and what isn’t, what violates the conscience and what does not. (Which seems to be the root of a huge amount of Christian divisiveness and conflict.)
The passage is from Romans 14:
“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
“But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
“So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” [Romans 14:1-14]
C.S.Lewis, with his wondrous gift of solid spiritual direction through humorous fictional application, addresses this chapter in Letter XVI from supervisory demon Screwtape to his apprentice tempter Wormwood. Advice is offered on how to keep their “patient” (person being tempted) from experiencing true grace through church attendance, by means of this judgmental distraction as the patient “comparison worships” between two different churches:
But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility, [C.S.Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XVI]
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Ah… yes… well. I was going to go on, but upon rereading that passage of Lewis’ I don’t think there would be much point.
I will just leave you with the confession that I still struggle with the application of this in my own life, even though I can clearly see where the grace is here. And let us together continue to move forward in our efforts to make of our Church a “hotbed of charity (love) and humility.”