1 Corinthians 13 has taken on new meaning for me in the context of church division. The Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth with 13 distinguishable disagreements on a variety of subjects. These aren’t disagreements over the color of the curtains in the fellowship hall. They are disagreements rooted in identity, culture, politics, practices, and relationships. Paul sees a basic failure in relating as Christians ought to relate to one another and a dramatic failure of the local leaders. There is no kindness, gentleness, or love. There is arrogant theological reasoning on the part of some that is amateurish and overconfident, and there are tensions rising from the pressures over Paul’s teachings about sexual relations.
Paul does not merely intend for 1 Corinthians 13 to make marriages better. This chapter on love is Paul’s attempt to hold a fractured community together. It also shows his desire that the Christian community’s witness to the world is driven by love. For Paul, a community held together by love is a community that witnesses to the power of Christ to the world in the midst of deep division. This chapter is intended for a divided church dealing with serious conflicts. The passage speaks to the kind of love that allows the church to be united in purpose, even when its many members are different and divided.
What holds the community together according to Paul is not agreement…it is love.
Love has nothing of self-centeredness, self-interest, self-seeking, or selfishness about it. According to Paul, love is virtually impossible when a person’s first or sole concern is self. Love is centered around God. And love’s field of concern is not self, but others.
Mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to love and that is only possible because love respects and honors other people. These two qualities amplify the virtue of love, and give some specificity to it. Mercy and forgiveness speak to the relational nature of love, for we do not love in theory or as a concept. Love has to do with the messy work of relationships, grievance, and interpersonal strife. Patience and kindness are forms of mercy practiced in our relationships with others . . . two traits that seem to be sorely tested in our days of argument and advocacy for a particular position.
The biblical love Paul is talking about respects and honors others. Love is not theory or concept, but is actionable . . . experiential . . . put into practice in real, everyday relationships and divisions. Love is to be desired and sought over every other quality, because Paul knows that love is at the heart of who God is and what God does.
Two things really stood out to me this week:
First, verses 4-8 say something like, “This is what love looks like when it takes over your life: You become patient . . . you become kind . . . you stop boasting . . . you let go of envy . . . you are no longer prideful . . . you accept others as they are . . . you rejoice in what is true and real, both in yourself and others.”
Second, the beginning of the chapter says (my paraphrase), “if I speak with tongues of angels (pretty persuasive and eloquent), if I have prophetic powers (I can see what is coming in the future more clearly than others and I know what is true and right), if I have more and greater faith than the others do (I am on the right side of this thing when it comes to the pure faith), if I am more generous and more willing to stand my ground as a martyr for the cause (I’m willing to put myself out there to take the slings and arrows)…but if I don’t have love, the real kind of love that Paul describes and Jesus embodies…then I am nothing”
What saddens me is I see very little love in church division. Our witness to the world is severely damaged – not because of a lack in the quality of our belief, but because of our lack of love for one another. This is what it looks like when we’d rather be right than reconciled.