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Politics of Scripture

Follow the Leaders

This week’s lectionary represents the challenges of leadership, and the passing of more than one torch. The arc that emerges is one of hope and promise, but also one of struggle and discernment concerning leadership.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

This week’s lectionary represents the challenges of leadership, and the passing of more than one torch. In last week’s reading from the Johannine gospel, John the Baptist names Jesus “the Lamb of God,” the one who will baptize with the Spirit instead of water. Today, jumping to Matthew’s account, we open with the news of John’s arrest, and Jesus beginning his preaching and ministry in Galilee. 

Although Christians reading the text today see the Baptist as a forerunner of Jesus, Matthew’s gospel indicates that Jesus does not choose to begin his public ministry until after John’s arrest – indeed, the first proclamation that Jesus makes is the same as John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

And then, in turn, Jesus calls some of the very disciples who will lead the early Christian community after Jesus’s death and resurrection. In this, the structure of the lectionary draws clear connections across the readings this Sunday: the prophecy of Isaiah is quoted by Matthew as Jesus becomes a visible leader. Peter, or Cephas, is called to follow Jesus, and then self-proclaimed followers of Cephas are addressed by Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community. The arc that emerges is one of hope and promise, but also one of struggle and discernment concerning leadership. 

I should mention here that I wrote this post a couple of weeks before you will read it – specifically, the week that pope emeritus Benedict XVI died. As a Roman Catholic, the death of Benedict XVI has heightened the visibility of divisions within Catholic communities. While Benedict’s resignation in 2013 did not cause any official schisms, in the context of the US it magnified a conflict that had already caused trouble and strife.

Benedict’s papacy represented a popular kind of conservatism within Catholic circles, one which emphasized the continuity and consistency of doctrine and tradition, and sought a church that was vibrant and dedicated, even if it meant shrinking its numbers. Francis’s papacy came to reflect a more pastoral, liberal (if not quite progressive) Catholicism: he famously offered the idea of a church as a “field hospital,” responding to urgent needs of the world writ large, not merely the true and faithful few.

And while the passing of a previous pope is particularly relevant to Catholics, these lines of division are not only a Catholic problem. Many Christian communities in North America have been struggling with internal conflicts that map along similar contours of conservatives vs. progressives. My closest friend in divinity school, a UMC pastor, worried about a split in her church for years before the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation fell through last summer. Similar struggles can be found in most mainline denominations.

It would be easy to approach this text and draw blunt comparisons. I could say: “I follow Benedict,” or “I follow Francis” is like “I follow Apollo,” or “I follow Paul.” It would be easy to default to an exhortation that “both sides” need each other, and we need to overcome division and reconcile. 

But instead, I think it is more interesting to think about why these conflicts exist – why they have existed since, if we are to believe Paul, the earliest Christian communities were slowly sorting out their path in new and uncharted territory.

When Paul chastises his readers for their quarrels, he does so by returning to the cross of Christ. He wants to remind us that we don’t follow people, we follow God. But, at least in my own ecclesial context, to say “I follow Benedict” is to actually make a claim about God: the belief that Benedict is a more authoritative interpreter of tradition and the gospel than Francis. And the same applies to “I follow Francis”: this is also a claim about interpretation of the gospel, of the kinds of actions and teachings that are most in line with what Jesus would preach today. 

This is made even more complicated by the moral nature of these claims. Many current ecclesial conflicts – in the Catholic Church and elsewhere – revolve around gender norms and the LGBTQIA+ community. My own commitments, as both a theologian and an ethicist, see real harm being done to this community through the approaches of “Benedict Catholics.”

To be frank, “Francis Catholics” are not immune from the problems of Catholic teaching on sex and gender, either. Francis himself often displays anti-LGBTQIA+ bias when he criticizes what he calls “gender ideology.” In spite of this, I ultimately find his leadership a more compelling interpretation of the gospel because it shows more pastoral sensitivity and leaves more room for allowing human experience to inform and reform doctrines about sex and gender.

All this is to say that Paul’s “we follow Christ” may push for unity without acknowledging the deeper stakes in the conflict. Why is this community following Cephas/Peter, or Apollo? Who benefits, or who is harmed by these different leaders? 

Catholics make the historical claim (itself a kind of interpretation) that Peter’s leadership “won” in the end – this is the basis we give for papal authority in the Catholic ecclesial structure. Even if we accept that claim (which is not the case for most other Christian churches and denominations), that doesn’t mean that Peter operated without learning from the other emerging community leaders around him.

Take, for example, the well-known conflict among early Christians about the acceptance of gentiles into their communities – specifically, whether gentiles needed to follow the Torah, including being circumcised (Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 15:1-20). In Galatians, Paul describes confronting deeply conflicted Peter, one who is “afraid” of the group in favor of circumcision (Gal 2:12). In Acts, Peter is depicted speaking persuasively and passionately against that position – perhaps because of Paul’s very confrontation with him earlier.

Whether or not you share the theological and ecclesial commitment to the authority of Peter, it is clear that in a moment like this – a moment of deep division and conflict – leaders had to work together to learn from each other. Most importantly, leaders had to ultimately take a moral position through the lens of interpreting and preserving the gospel.

This very much rejects an appeasement approach to Christian unity. Indeed, one “side” clearly won: gentiles were not required to be circumcised in order to be considered part of the early Church. That decision, once hotly debated, now operates as a given in the practice of the Christian religion.

I have already laid out my own ethical moral commitments when it comes to present conflict. I know the voices that I hope my church’s leadership learns to listen to. Yet, I resist leaving this with too simplistic of an ending, where Francis/Peter wins the day and unity prevails. That is not what is happening in my own church, and it is not what is happening in other churches. The ecclesiological and theological contours of previous conflicts do not map neatly onto the contours of today’s divisions and conflicts. In fact, that resistance to easy parallels and pat endings is precisely what I want you to take from today’s readings, too. If we can reflect on our Christian history of conflict in a deeper, more complex way, we can resist “both sides-ism.” We can resist the desire to brush over the sources of conflict for the sake of “unity.” Instead, we ought to examine the root causes, identify the moral and political stakes, and yes, critique leaders when they harm parts of our communities. And we can hope that our leaders will make the decisions that favor inclusion and dignity. I know I do.

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