Disagreeing Christianly: Unity, Humility and Prophecy - July 2008

by Graham Kings

Date added: 14/07/2008

Nancy Astor was the first woman to serve as a Member of Parliament. She once said to Winston Churchill, ‘If I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee.’ Churchill, so the story goes, replied: ‘If I were your husband, I would drink it.’ A pugnacious exchange, laced with wit.

Flashes of disagreement from senior civil servants are more subtle. In the TV comedy ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, Sir Humphrey said, ‘With respect, Prime Minister, I think you should know that the DES will react with some caution to this rather novel proposal.’ The script continues: ‘This was the language of war! Humphrey had all guns blazing. I’ve never heard such abusive language from him.’ Understated but devastating.

As the Lambeth Conference begins, in the wake of General Synod, how can bishops disagree Christianly? What scriptures and questions are there to ponder?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says ‘You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, “You shall not murder”, and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement”. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say “you fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

He goes on to stress that his followers should be reconciled before they offer gifts in worship and should settle even at the last minute on the way to court. (Matthew 5:23-26). Unity comes through humility.

Yet how do we square this with Jesus’ own words of prophetic denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees? There are seven ‘woes’ in Matthew chapter 23 which seem to balance the ‘beatitudes’ in Matthew chapter 5. Is Jesus ignoring his own teaching when he proclaims, ‘You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and all kinds of filth’? (Matthew 23:27) Surely Jesus was not a hypocrite? Surely he practised what he preached?

The denunciations of Jesus echo the ‘woes’ of the prophet Isaiah – also in Jerusalem (Isaiah 5:8-23). They come at the climax of Jesus’ ministry when he is giving a last chance to the leaders of Israel. They were ‘locking people out of the kingdom of heaven’. Unity through humility also sometimes includes prophecy.

We find similar themes in Paul’s letter to the church he founded at Philippi. He dreamt of a Macedonian man asking for help and was welcomed by a Philippian woman, Lydia (Acts 16:9-15). In Philippians chapter two he writes: ‘Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.’

In our present context in the Anglican Communion, this is a powerful reminder from God. Paul continues and introduces his famous poem about Christ: ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…’ (Philippians 2:4-11).

The background contrast he draws is between Adam and Christ, which he also develops in 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3. Adam grasps at unity with God through pride. Christ, the authentic Adam, is one with God and yet empties himself in humility, even to death on the cross. He is exalted and, in a daring christological echo of Isaiah 45:23, Paul announces that ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

I remember the insight of a student at St Andrew’s College, Kabare, in the foothills of Mount Kenya in 1990. Pauline Wanjiru, who is now teaching at the Church Army training college in Nairobi, wrote in an essay that in this passage she heard an echo of John chapter 13. Jesus takes off his garments, wraps himself with a towel and washes the feet of his followers, even those of Judas.

Yet Paul continues in his very next chapter with a prophetic denunciation in very strong language. ‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh’ (Philippians 3:2). Is Paul being hypocritical with this bitter invective? For an answer, I turned to the fine commentary by the evangelical New Testament scholar Markus Bockmuehl, ‘The Epistle to the Philippians (A&C Black, 1997).

He writes that, ‘All three of the terms Paul now introduces [‘Dogs’, evil ‘workers’ and ‘the mutilation’] appear to be satirical word-plays on characteristic technical terms used by his opponents…He derides the religious chauvinism inherent in his opponents’ slogans.’ So Bockmuehl puts the bitter words in inverted commas. They are saying, in effect, ‘Only full Jews can be full Christians; others are “dogs”.’

He continues: ‘It would be ironic if, as seems possible, these opponents are themselves Jewish only by conversion, not by birth. (see v 5). As Gentiles who have undergone the rigours of conversion specifically in order to join the people of God, their hostility to Pauline Christianity could then be seen to manifest a characteristic convert resentment at being told their costly decision was pointless and unnecessary.’ Bockmuehl suggests that evil ‘workers’ is a pun on ‘works of the law’ and ‘mutilation’ is a sarcastic play on the greek word for circumcision, possibly echoing a contemporary anti-Semitic slur about the practice.

In the following chapter, Paul returns to his theme of unity through humility. He writes: ‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.’ (Philippians 4:2-3).

In the words of Jesus and Paul, we have seen that humility and unity hang together, while pride and disunity hang down and drag others down with them. Yet there is also a place, in moments of crisis, for prophetic denunciations, which warn against hypocrisy and beliefs which ‘lock people out of the kingdom’ and undercut the foundation of faith.

How can we disagree Christianly? A few questions to ponder when considering the balance between unity, humility and prophetic denunciation:

  • What do we have in our hearts? – for ‘out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.’ (Matthew 12:34)
  • What are we going to say? - for ‘nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known.’ (Luke 12:2)
  • What are we writing? – it is usually worth pausing before hitting the ‘send’ button on email or on a blog.
  • What does our body language communicate? – shrugs, hand shakes avoided, positions in a room are all expressive.
  • What are the non-theological factors involved? - fear, power, and post colonialism are worth considering.
  • What is the real context? Lesslie Newbigin, in his autobiography ‘Unfinished Agenda’, perceived that when the Church Assembly was discussing the Church of South India proposals in 1946, they were actually having an argument internal to the Church of England.
  • Can we turn what we want to say into a prayer? If not, why say it?
Graham Kings

Graham Kings

A bronze

Wood panel

Wood panel