When Being Right Is More Important Than Being Reconciled

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.

What Does ‘Jesus is Lord’ Mean?

One of my daughters was famous for always responding, “I know” and “I will”. It didn’t matter what you said or asked, she already knew how to do it or she already knew about it… and if you asked her to do something she ALWAYS said she would do it. I imagine this is not a characteristic of my kid only. I think it’s a universal kid thing.

In Luke 6:26, Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” I love Eugene Peterson’s translation that reads, “Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘That’s right, sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you?” This sounds like a parent speaking with their teenager!

Churches have done a disservice by over-spiritualizing the term ‘Lord’ that Jesus uses here. In Jesus’ day, this word ‘kurios or kyrie’ wasn’t a religious word. Everyone used it in society to acknowledge someone who had authority or position over another (the masculine is used because in Jesus’ day authority in most situations was held by men). A king or governor – someone with ruling authority – was a kurios. An employer would be kurios to those who worked for him. If a household was wealthy, the servants would refer to the head of the household as kurios. In an educational setting, the teacher was the kurios to the students.

I grew up thinking of the term Lord as a religious title for Jesus and only him. He was kurios to his followers – any rabbi would have been. But, it is extremely important for us to know that Jesus is intentionally playing off this cultural understanding of kurios when he asks this rhetorical question. The very nature of the question itself demonstrates how absolutely ridiculous it would be in that culture to have a kurios and refuse to do what the person in authority tells them to do! To call someone your Lord and refuse to heed their words would be offensive at best, and at worst would indicate that the person was likely not your kurios/Lord after all.

When we hear the term Jesus is Lord, what do we think? I’ve thought so many things in my life. When people would ask, “Is Jesus Lord of your life?” They were often asking about a certain set of beliefs. If I didn’t align with those beliefs in the way presented, then Jesus wasn’t really Lord of my life. It was used as a tool of conformity to certain beliefs and behaviors that were laid out by churches and leaders, not always the teachings of Jesus. I now realize that Jesus is reminding his followers that it would be unheard of to have a Lord and not do what the Lord instructs. It would be unheard of to not follow the guidance of the Lord. And it would be unheard of to not give yourself fully and attach your life to the Lord. And most importantly, if would be unheard of to have a Lord and live, speak, or act in any way that would be contrary to the Lord you represent.

Modern Christians are really good at saying “Jesus is Lord!” But Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 and throughout the Gospels, is that if you call Jesus your Lord but you are still in charge of your life, Jesus isn’t really your Lord. If you are still living life your way, Jesus isn’t really your Lord. If you are still following your own desires and pursuing your own ideas, Jesus isn’t really your Lord. If you continue to resist shaping life according to the words and actions of Jesus, then he really isn’t your kurios. Something else or someone else may by your kurios, but it isn’t Jesus.

And you know what really stings in this lesson for people who claim to be Jesus followers? Jesus isn’t speaking this line to the crowds. He isn’t speaking to the institutionalists and religious authorities. This lesson is for those who have attached themselves to him as disciples. These words are for those who are friendly to Jesus and open to what he has to say. He is challenging the orientation of his closest followers, those who chose to follow him…the very people who most quickly call him, “Lord, Lord.”

What It Means to Me to Be UMC

Several years ago, a friend was extolling the virtues of a particular social issue on which he felt he needed to take a stand in his daily life. He felt like he had to take this stand because he was a Christian. He said, “You’re a minister . . . so I know you agree with me on this.” In fact, I did not agree with his stand and did not share his conclusion. My faith in God, connection to Christ, and reading of holy scripture led me to a different conclusion. He was flabbergasted. He could not imagine that a Christian could end up thinking differently. From the way the rest of the conversation went, I think he felt like I was a flawed Christian.

My friend presented me with a ‘false dilemma’. A false dilemma is an informal fallacy based on an assumption that if the first part of something is true, your options are limited to a single course of action or a single result. A false dilemma says, “If A is true, then B must be true” or “If A is true, you must respond in this particular way.” If you do not respond in the way another feels is appropriate in their original “A” statement, then you must not be “A” – it only limits your options because the other person chooses to limit your options.  A great biblical example is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The devil challenges Jesus’ identity with, “If you are the Son of God, then…”. Jesus refused to be limited to only one way of affirming His identity. He passes the test by refusing to be limited by the false dilemmas presented to Him.

I am a United Methodist Christian. I am an orthodox Christian – which has been defined by the history of the Church as one who aligns with the historic creeds and affirmations of the Church. I am an evangelical Christian – which means I believe a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the central aspect of our Christian faith. I have a high view of Scripture – it guides my daily personal life and the congregations I serve and have served. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church since 1992, I’ve served churches in both the South Georgia and Texas Conferences of the United Methodist Church. In every United Methodist I’ve encountered, I’ve seen the same deep passion for Jesus, a desire to impact the community, and a belief that grace is at work in broken lives. 

I am a United Methodist who is compatible on many issues where United Methodists have historically disagreed, such as; divorce and remarriage, women in ministry, and the many changing cultural and social positions the church takes. The United Methodist Church has always been a big-tent church. We often land in different places on some theological positions. It doesn’t mean anything goes…it simply recognizes that in 2,000 of Christianity, we have often found ourselves in different places on theological issues.

Is it easy to be a part of the United Methodist Church? Of course not. But I have always believed that if we keep Jesus as our center, around which all other loyalties orbit, we can remain a United Methodist family even when we have significant disagreements.

I am excited to be a part of the United Methodist Church and to keep serving in this denomination. We live in a great country, and we are blessed to be a part of a diverse denomination where committed and deeply connected Christ followers engage in faithful mission every day. I love our United Methodist Wesleyan theology, our heritage, our history, and our amazing connectional footprint that equips us to make a much more powerful impact in the world together. United Methodists number over 12 million with half in the United States and half in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  We are a global Methodist church. The mission we undertake through Jesus Christ spans more than 130 countries engaging in evangelism through health and welfare ministries, education, and financial support. And, I love that we have many deep ecumenical relationships across the USA and the world.

In October 2021, over 700 United Methodists gathered to discuss our future together. Over 150 young clergy were there. And over 250 of the largest 400 United Methodist churches were represented. When we discussed what we value most in The United Methodist Church, five top values were clear: emphasis on God’s grace, passionate faith in Jesus Christ lived out by serving others, theology shaped by scripture interpreted with the aid of tradition, experience, and reason, a wide welcome for all God’s children, and a church for thinking people. The over 700 gathered viewed themselves as orthodox and evangelical. We were clear that the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church must be retained. And the large group self-identified as traditionalist and progressive.

When we discussed what needs to change in The United Methodist Church the top four responses were: reforming the general church structure to be more effective at making disciples of Jesus, inclusion of all persons into the life of the church, reworking apportionment formulas, and creating a simpler Book of Discipline to be a more effective church in our current day. Those present had differing views on controversial issues like same-sex marriage, but over 92% of those gathered believed that same-sex marriage should be ‘allowed, but not required’ of any church or clergy person. 95% of those gathered considered themselves compatible on the issues we disagree about, and 95% of those gathered said they would remain in The United Methodist Church even though there are things about which we disagree. This became even more clear when we asked, “how would your church define themselves on these issues of disagreement?” It was almost exactly a 50/50 split between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’. That is a pretty amazing image of the kingdom of God.

United Methodists live the Gospel of Jesus in our various contexts. There is a richness in this theological diversity where we hold together in essentials, show tolerance in non-essentials, but always love one another with the love of Jesus Christ. I am proud to be a Christ follower and I am proud to be a United Methodist. I have been and will continue to be the pastor of a church where we don’t agree on every issue, but we deeply love each other.

I am a United Methodist Christian. I am an orthodox, evangelical, traditionalist with a high view of scripture. I am, and I plan to continue, to be United Methodist. #BeUMC