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. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Peter,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
We’re in St Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. It’s one of the earliest pieces of church communication that we have on record!
As you no doubt realise, the letters of Paul were written before the Gospels, and Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth were certainly written before any number of the other epistles. Furthermore, the first letter to the Corinthians was obviously written before the second letter, and here we find ourselves in the very first chapter of that first letter. Hence I say we are looking at one of the very first pieces of Church communication that remains on record, and here we are in the very first chapter, and what is the problem that the church is facing? Tribalism!
Some things change. Some things never change!
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 … What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Peter,” or “I belong to Christ.”
There it is! The first problem addressed in Paul’s first letter to one of the first churches. The early Christians were already dividing themselves into distinct denominations of sorts based on which Apostle they identified most closely with!
“I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, “I belong to Peter” …
This is shocking, says St Paul, and what I personally find most shocking about it is the realisation that, 2000 years later, I’m part of a Christian denomination that continues to say exactly the same thing! This indeed is the war-cry of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney: “We belong to Paul”
Am I wrong? For those who aren’t aware, it’s part of our Protestant heritage. The Protestant Reformation was, at its heart, a rediscovery of some of the teachings of St Paul and a re-emphasis of those teachings, even if arguably at the expense of some other New Testament teachings.
I think it has rightly been said that the essential theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism is that Protestants tend to read the New Testament Gospels through the Epistles, whereas Catholics tend to read the Epistles through the Gospels. In other words, we say “we belong to Paul”, while, sadly, there are no shortage of voices to be heard from the other side of this divide who stake their ecclesiastical legitimacy on the direct lineage of bishops and priests that goes all the way back to that one-time fisherman who was supposedly the first Pope. In other words, they call back “we belong to Peter”!
Why do we do this? Why do we always seem to need to separate ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, based on which one of us really has it right?
When people find out you’re a Christian they always ask, “Oh, what kind of Christian are you?” We may well ask the same thing of other Christian people that we meet. Why do we ask this? Are we keen to know whether they might have some unique theological insights to pass on to us? No. It’s because we want to know whether they are a part of our tribe.
It’s very hard to avoid this. We are forever categorising people and labelling them, and I assume it’s ultimately based on fear. We need to know whether other people are ‘safe’ before we get too familiar with them and people who don’t look like me or think like me or speak my language are probably not very safe!
I get this online a lot – “Oh, you’re a leftist, liberal Democrat, aren’t you”. I’m generally labelled that way by my American friends because I’m not a great believer in guns, which to some people means I’ve excluded myself from the Christian tribe altogether!
I say “I don’t think I’m strictly a Democrat because I’m not in favour of abortion on demand”. They say “No, you are. You’re just not a consistent democrat.”
I think next time someone asks me “what sort of Christian are you” I’m going to say “an overweight one”.
It’s not just a Christian problem, of course – not by any means. Indeed, it seems to me that while we Christian people haven’t reached the point of unity yet by any means, we have at least stopped killing each other on the basis of tribal differences whereas this is not the case at all amongst our Islamic brothers and sisters at the moment.
I do believe that the violence between Sunni and Shia that we are witnessing at the moment – most evidently in Syria but also right across the Levant – is the most serious crisis facing our world today!
Of course it’s not all the Sunni against all the Shia. Ninety percent of the violence comes from the Wahhabi sect which only accounts for a tiny portion of Sunni Islam and is not dominant anywhere in the world except in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve tried to make quite a serious study of these things and I’m conscious of the fact that while most of us use terms like ‘Muslim extremist’, ‘Jihadist’, Wahhabi’, ‘Salafist’, ‘Islamist’, ‘Takfiri’, and ‘Al Qaeda’ almost interchangeably, there are significant differences between each of the groups referred to by those terms. Even so, at the risk of over-simplifying a complex subject, the distinctions are, for the most part, tribal.
I had the great privilege last year of spending a few days in Kuala Lumper with the great Malaysian human-rights activist, Dr Chandra Muzaffar. Dr Muzaffar is a man I have known and admired for about 30 years now, is the author of more books than I can count and is also a great scholar of Islam.
Chandra said to me, “You know, Dave, there is no real theological difference between Shia and Sunni Islam. It’s only a matter of which caliph you assign greater priority to.”
Of course there are any numbers of different interpretations of various hadith associated with this and different traditions and customs that have developed that make the Shia and the Sunni Islam distinct, and persons with a greater knowledge of Islam than I would no doubt be able to tell you why some of those differences could be seen as quite significant. Even so, in the end, so far as I can see, what Islam is experiencing is exactly the same things the church experienced in Christian history. One group says “I follow Paul” while the other group is saying “I follow Peter!”
As an aside, another thing Dr Muzaffar told me that really got me thinking was that the current divide between Sunni and Shia, he told me, had only arisen since the Iranian revolution. His opinion was that the modern outbreak of tribal antagonism was something that had been deliberately fomented by political power-players from the West and from within the Levant in an attempt to destabilise Iran in particular.
I don’t doubt that Dr Muzaffar is right and that the religious violence between Sunni and Shia, in the end, has nothing to do with religion, just as the horrendous wars that once took place between Catholics and Protestants had nothing to do with religion.
“Religion is the opiate of the masses”, Marx said, and he was right. Religion is a powerful tool that can be used to manipulate the masses and turn them into an angry warring mob, but in the end it’s not the dogmas of the faith that people in power use to whip the faithful into action. As has been well said, Al Qaeda is not run by theologians. It’s not religion, in the end, that inspires people to violence. It’s loyalty to the tribe. The problem is that the line between faith and tribalism is so easily blurred!
If you’ve been following events in the Sudan and in Syria this week you’ll be up-to-date on the latest crimes of tribal violence worldwide. One story that captivated me this week was from the English edition of Al-Akhbar.com, detailing how Christians Syria are being given an ultimatum by the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) when their towns are taken over: convert to Islam, pay the tax or leave!
“Christians in the Levant are facing dire options: convert to Islam, pay a tribute to the Muslim rulers, or leave the land. These options stem from a 7th century pact offered to Syria’s Christians under the caliphate, which the supporters of Sharia implementation in Syria are currently debating”
I guess that story captured my imagination because it was about my tribe, though I do recognise that I should be equally concerned about ISIS’s persecution of Shia, Alawites and Druze which is generally far more brutal!
It is a feature of tribal warfare that we always reserve the greatest hostility towards the tribes that are closest to our own! I remember my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour, used to say to me. “If we ever bump into Osama Bin Laden [which is even less likely now than when he said it] and he only has one bullet in his gun, you won’t have to worry. You may be public enemy number two but I am public enemy number one!”
Why? Because he was the dreaded apostate Shia half-brother, whereas I was a far more obvious ‘shirk’ (‘idolater’, ‘infidel’, ‘unbeliever’).
We Christians operate exactly the same way. If you understand truth to be a narrow path that hovers over a vast chasm of deadly unbelief, it’s the persons who are closest to you on that path but who are at the same time sliding off into the chasm who are the ones most likely to pull you in! The person who by his obvious apostasy committed himself to the chasm ages ago is not likely to mislead anyone! It’s the person who looks orthodox, sound legitimate, and so appears to be a member of our tribe who is the greatest threat!
Hence the first bullet of Osama Bin Laden would always have been directed at the dreaded Shia half-brother ahead of me, and for the same reason you’ll find that our beloved church will always put far more energy into repudiating the deadly errors of Christian feminism, Catholicism, liberalism, Pentecostalism, post millennial dispensationalism, and any other form of alleged heresy that threatens to pull the faithful from the narrow path of truth than they will into actually saving the world or spreading the love of Christ into areas of our world where it is most desperately needed!
There is a particularly tragic irony, I think, associated with our church’s tragic commitment to orthodoxy (correct belief) over what some call orthopraxis (correct action) as one of the great gifts the European Reformation gave the church at large was a repudiation of the classic tribal doctrine that plagued the Christian community for generations – the belief that “there is no salvation outside of the church”.
People like Martin Luther pointed out that this was simply not true and that the grace of God could not be constrained such that it only functioned within the tribe! Even so, generations later we find Protestant Evangelicals everywhere reclaiming the idea that God never moves beyond the confines of their tribe. How did we ever come to do this in the name of St Paul and the Protestant Reformation?
So how do we stop tribalism?
Get rid of religion is the obvious answer that some give. John Lennon wasn’t the only one who dreamt that a world without religion would be a world without tribal warfare. The problem with this is that subsequent history shows that Atheism, Marxism, communism, Nazism, and any number of other secular ideologies are also quite capable of degenerating into forms of tribalism that are even more brutal than the religious forms that they were supposed to be superseding!
St Paul’s answer, notably, is the opposite!
Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:13)
Paul’s solution to tribalism was not to get rid of religion or to try and downplay differences by stressing all the things we have in common, but rather to hand over everything to Christ, whose love is far greater and more powerful than any of the things that might divide us!
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 1:18)
It’s never going to make a lot of sense to most people that we don’t like being categorised or labelled with all our tribal qualifications. Yes, I know I’m a white, middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic Christian male who probably does have a leftist, liberal-democratic type of leaning, but if I truly belong to Christ then it doesn’t matter much as there is absolutely nothing to divide me off from anybody else!
The message of the cross is foolishness because it overlooks all those differences that the rest of the world considers so important.
“I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Peter,” “I belong to Christ.” No! We all belong to Christ and there is only one Christ, one love and so, in the end there is only one tribe!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 26th of January , 2014.