First Corinthians: Collateral Damage
Topic: The Responsibility of Christians Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:6–1:11
Have you ever been in a situation where you are the innocent bystander in a conflict? I’m not talking about going and watching a boxing match. I’m talking about those awkward, uncomfortable moments where people begin having an argument and you just happen to be in a spot where you can’t help but witness it. Maybe it’s when you’re out to dinner with someone and the couple two tables over starts arguing in not so private voices. Or you’re trying to get a project finished at the office and two co-workers are really clawing at each other. It’s moments like that, that just makes you go….YIKES.I still remember a time I was at a friend’s house when I was in high school. My buddy and I and a couple friends were going to spend the night playing video games and hanging out, but I came over a few hours earlier because I was invited to dinner. I should be upfront and say that I sort of viewed this family as a picture-perfect image. They did fun things together, had neat little traditions, and always seemed to just like each other. Except for that night.
We’d been eating for about five minutes when my pal’s mom and dad started arguing. But it wasn’t like a 0-60 type of situation. It was one of those slow, agonizing roller coaster arguments. First, it was a comment about something to do with the house. Then an issue with one of their jobs. Then a jab at a missed appointment. It was like a competition of who could give the other more paper cuts. And with each comment, their body language stiffened, their tones sharpened, and their volume increased. My buddy and I did that thing you see kids do at the dinner table sometimes… when it’s awkward or they’re in trouble. We kept our heads down facing our plates but kept looking at each other, offering what we hoped were undetectable shrugs and uh-oh faces.
And then, like every roller coaster, things went from being awkward and uncomfortable, to down-right scary. I’m talking shouting, a few choices words, and even a slammed fist down on the table. That’s the point where I faked my cell phone going off and pretended my dad had called, and I ran home. The parents did little more than huff in acknowledgment but the last thing I saw before I booked it out the front door was my buddy looking at me like I had just left him behind in the middle of a war zone.
Maybe you’ve had a situation like this in your life. It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. And it makes you want to get out of there. And at the center of the situation is conflict. Now, I should say, conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes conflict is merely a part of the process of healing, growth, or restoration. And, truth be told, conflict is unavoidable in the human experience. We are naturally inclined toward conflict. Some call it the sinful nature or original sin. Regardless of the language, we know that every person is capable and guilty of causing conflict. Even at a young age.
I saw this reality play out about two years ago, at a park, in our old hometown in PA. I took Isaac to the playground since it was a nice day. We were there, and Isaac was having a ball playing on the slides and a little wooden train they had there, and a sandbox. Then, out of nowhere, a little girl around Isaac’s age came up to him, looked at Isaac, and just gave him a full-on shove to the ground. No provocation at all. Isaac was just standing by the sandbox, when this Bully, Brenda, came over from the see-saw and shoved my kid. There is no better theater for original sin than the playground. But, whether it’s on the playground, in study hall, at the office, in the secrecy of social media, or even around our dinner table…conflict happens. I already said that sometimes conflict can be a healthy means for growth. I’m not interested in talking about getting rid of conflict altogether. No. Instead, I want to talk about the collateral damage that occurs out of conflict – like the awkwardness, I felt at my friend’s house, and specifically, how tragic the collateral damage can be when Christians engage in conflict with one another.
We’re continuing our series through the book of 1 Corinthians, and this morning, we’re looking at a text in chapter six, where Paul addresses the issue of Christian-on-Christian conflict. We’re in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.
Ok, before we dive into the text, I want to address something in verse nine. There’s a brief mention of same-sex relationships. Two things I want to say before we look at our entire text for this morning: First, that one description used by Paul is not the focal point of his message in this text. Paul is dealing with a larger issue of the church, attacking itself from within, and what kind of message that is sending to the larger community. Second, there are two specific Greek words used here, and they point to much more complicated, culturally-sensitive types of encounters, than what we see today. Paul was speaking to a group of people who lived in a town where prostitution and abusive acts were done against young boys. It is those acts that Paul is calling out here, as obviously in opposition to the life and faith of the Christ follower.
So let’s go back in and sort of work through this text as a whole, all 11 verses. Throughout virtually all of 1 Corinthians, Paul is trying to emphasize a single point: What the church is supposed to be and what it’s not supposed to be. The city of Corinth was a diverse, thriving city. It was a center for commerce, as it sat at a crossroads for many travelers and even had a few harbors. Ships and wagons brought in and sent goods from all over the surrounding world. Culturally, Corinth was a platform for Roman politics and an extraordinarily pluralistic religious hub. Multiple temples for multiple gods were scattered all throughout the city, and in general, the city of Corinth had a fascination with philosophy and deep thought. There was an opportunity which brought and fostered many people. That diversity created an environment where moral standards and lines of good and bad became blurred, but also where entirely unique stories could collide and create new stories. In many ways, Corinth is a past-times reflection of what we often see here and now.
It's in this place that a group of Christ followers have formed a church and are trying to become disciples of Jesus. In this specific place of Paul’s letter, he focuses on how the Corinthian Christians are managing – or, rather, mismanaging conflict between each other. Paul saw Christians take their conflict into the public courts through lawsuits. Instead of these believers being able to address their conflict in a healthy manner together, they are putting their problems on display for all the city to see. And in doing so, they are letting people who have no love for Christ or allegiance to God at all, cast judgments on other Christ followers. I suppose there is a place for the necessary lawsuit here, and there is usually a necessary place for most things. But lawsuits aren’t the critical piece here. It’s how these conflicts between Christ followers are being handled and how it looks to the rest of the world.
We have to catch this here: Paul is not upset that there is conflict between Christians. He’s upset with how those conflicts are being addressed. Namely, in the public and secular forum of the courts. He goes as far as saying in verse seven, “The very fact you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.” Paul is frustrated with the scandal that has come about. And scandal is something we’re very familiar with. You don’t have to turn through the pages of history long before you find either an ancient or a current example of a church scandal. And regardless of the nature of the scandal (financial, political, sexual, or otherwise), the result is always the same: The world looks at the church and scoffs. Those suspicious, critical, or skeptical of the church will sneer and point fingers in proclamations of self-acclaimed knowledge of how the church is a holier-than-thou, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, corrupt group of selfish people with nothing to offer anyone.
In those moments and in the smaller ones that never make the news or headlines, the church does harm to itself and causes unspeakable collateral damage. The outside world becomes teenage Matt sitting at a table watching two people (in this case, Christians) scream at one another and display behavior totally opposite of the message they speak out. That collateral damage, that awkward silence, that sense of dread is a poison. It taints and spoils the church’s ability to share good news.
And what Paul is saying here, is that we were meant for so much more. The church is meant for more. That the people of God are supposed to be messengers of hope, not the same old bearers of bad news. A city on a hill, not a city at war with itself. Paul says that we were washed and justified and sanctified in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are supposed to be different than the rest of this world. We are supposed to represent all of the wholeness, goodness, and truth that God offers humanity. And instead, we end up looking like the front page of a tabloid.
Now the truth of the matter is this: Paul’s message doesn’t only apply to controversy within organizations, or a scandal with pastors or leadership in a church. His message applies to every single one of us who identifies as a follower and lover of Jesus. Whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, the world notices what we do, when we carry the banner of Christian. There is a hesitancy at worst, an expectation at best, that we are supposed to somehow be different. And that includes how we manage conflict between ourselves and another brother or sister of faith. N.T. Wright said this, “Nobody minds much who wins; no doubt they will take sides, but that’s secondary. What matters in the eyes of the world is that a public dispute between Christians is a sign that Christians are really no different from everybody else. And 1 Corinthians is all about the fact that Christians are different from everybody else - and if they’re not, they might not as well bother calling themselves Christians in the first place.”
Jesus laid this out for us. He said in Matthew 18, that you heard Shelia read. When there is something wrong between two followers of Jesus, the answer isn’t to hang that dirty laundry out for all the world to see. The answer is to allow the church to be the means for healing and restoration, that we believe God has called it to be. To go to other wiser, unbiased believers, and have them assist in revealing the opportunities for reconciliation and healing that are possible in the conflict. Obviously, every situation is different, and every single conflict has a unique emotional investment, but it doesn’t change the need for us - as followers of Christ, to attempt to prevent collateral damage that could tarnish the beauty of the church, or, even worse, turn someone away from the church entirely.
Finally, I want to say this: Tension is always going to be there. The church is no different than the playground I mentioned earlier. We are still a collection of broken, sinful people when we walk into this building. I think the trick is trying to figure out how we can function within that tension, even within conflict, in a way that helps the world, instead of hurts it. When our life is transformed by the work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, everything about us is supposed to be transformed. And that includes why and how we manage conflict. Paul obviously believed that was possible. You might be in the middle of a conflict with another believer right now. Maybe it’s been an awkward thorn for some time. Maybe it started with a small misunderstanding. Maybe it’s something significant. My challenge to you is this: Don’t let your conflict create collateral damage that harms your family, friends, and those who notice you as a Christ follower. We are a forgiven people made for so much more than slander, sarcasm, gossip, and cold shoulders. The more we drag another believer through the mud (in private or public), the more we muck up the truth of the Gospel we claim to believe. The more we dig in our own heels to win a conflict, the more likely we are to lose our ability to share the love and grace of Christ with others. In the end, it’s about so much more than what happens to you and the other person involved. It’s about making the effort to be the people of grace Jesus sacrificed Himself for us to be, and it’s about ensuring we don’t hurt the witness of the church by creating any collateral damage.