ai generated image of two biblical men arguing

Many years ago, a church leader gathered up the ministers within his area of responsibility and read to them the first chapter of First Corinthians. He emphasized the verse that says “brethren, I wish that you all would speak the same thing.”

This church leader then informed us what could and could not be taught within his sphere of influence. The issues he was dealing with that evening were not foundational doctrines, even within that denomination. However, in his words, “in other places they can do it other ways. Here were are going to do it this way.”

Then he added, “Are there any questions?”

It was a rhetorical statement. He didn’t expect any questions. In fact, he didn’t want any questions.

However, I raised my hand and said I had just a short question ‘to clarify things.’

“When you say that you wish that we all say the same thing, what I hear you saying is that you expect us all to say what you say. In other words, we are to learn what you believe on these matters and to come into agreement with them. Because we have not discussed and debated these issues enough to have reached any sort of real consensus. Have I misunderstood?”

His response was, “This meeting is over!”

Real unity, a unity that contains and unites difference, takes hard work. It is rarely achieved at all. When it is achieved, it is only for a season. But what great things occur from such a season!

I have never liked the symbolism of the unity candle in weddings, at least if the bride and groom snuff out their individual candles in the process. When unity is defined as conformity, one of the partners must necessarily disappear into the will of the other.

That is not a marriage. It’s a cult.

All human individuals carry God’s image and likeness. However, full personhood emerges only from an individual’s relationship with other persons within healthy community. ‘Persons’ are both individuated and communal. Neither radical individuals nor nonindividuated family fragment are therefore fully persons, at least according to Christian theology.

In the Bible, God evokes personhood by calling out the individual’s name. Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Mary, Saul of Tarsus are all called out from their social environment in which they had been enmeshed. They are called into a relationship with God and then called to form an altered relationship with other human individuals. Often, this calling involves a name change.

In the Christian perspective then, a ‘person’ is both individuated – knows how he or she differs from his or her community – and responsibly related to others. A Christian person, in other words, seeks both his or her individual good and the common good.
The neglect of one’s individual good in favor of the common good leads to a life of perpetual immaturity. The group’s beliefs, well-being, and reputation takes precedence over one’s own development and flourishing. Some groups define faithfulness in this way, as compliance and the loss of self.

The neglect of the community’s common good in favor of one’s perceived individual good, on the other hand, leads to narcissism and abuse. Some groups define leadership in this way, as willful dominance over others. In such cases, the community exists as an extension of the leader. Followers do not individuate.

In St. John’s Gospel, chapter 15, Jesus says to his disciples that he will no longer call them his servants, but rather “his friends.” He clearly did not view discipleship as brainwashing or utter, unquestioned compliance.

Likewise, the Old Testament heroes were praised not for their servile compliance, but their outspoken struggles with God and faith. Abraham, Moses, and Job became God’s friends because they wrestled with what they perceived as God’s unjust actions. They submitted, but not without speaking up. Indeed, Job’s comforters, all pious and upright individuals, criticized Job for questioning God.

When God had His say, he rebuked these mindless automatons and praised Job.

Relationship, even with God, requires difference as well as unity. Unlike some religions, Judaism and Christianity do not aim at the gradual elimination of the individual. Instead, when these religions are healthy, they encourage individuals to become increasingly distinguished from one another even as they grow in relationship with others.

Autocracy is a type of unity that eliminates difference. For a season, there is more peace in a realm ruled by an autocrat. The cost, however, is the elimination of true personhood. Individuals become steadily less educated, as well as more prone to violence on behalf of the autocrat. Debate ceases. Slogans replace ideas. The population begins to celebrate its own dumbing down.

In religion, this transforms ignorance into a form of piety, which leads to persecution of dissenters.

What a marvelous faith, in which a human being can say to God, “Will not the judge of the entire earth do what is right?”

And in which God can say, “Come, let us reason together. You are no longer my servants, but my friends.”

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