Wednesday, March 7, 2012

C.S. Lewis, Paul & Unity

I keep returning to a sermon posted on the Covenant Network. It isn’t so much that I agree with “In Praise of Unity,” by Rev. Christopher A. Henry, I disagree with some of it, but I find some very familiar subjects enveloped in its thoughts, namely C.S. Lewis, his Screwtape Letters, and Paul’s thoughts on church unity. On a recent weekend I saw the stage play of Screwtape, and this morning’s Lenten devotionals moved, thankfully, from Ecclesiastes to I Corinthians beginning with Paul’s admonition about unity in Christ.

Henry quotes the demon Screwtape’s advise to his nephew Wormwood about his tempting of a new Christian:
“…if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on real doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better…the real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between (the two).”
Henry goes on to I Corinthians and writes of Paul’s admonition to that church with its unity problem. “The church had devolved into fractured factions. Rather than coming together for worship and fellowship, each affinity group gathered secretly to proclaim their superiority over the others. They had fallen into personality-driven discipleship. I belong to Paul; I belong to Peter; I belong to Apollos.” As Henry points out Paul quickly exhorts the members to get along because “division in the church undermines its mission in the world.”

But I want to go further than Henry—I don’t believe he has covered enough ground nor used enough of either Lewis or Paul in sorting out the problems of division. He did quote that part of Lewis that gives some hint of what righteous and unrighteous division might be about—and yes I did use the word ‘righteous’ division. Here, once again is the Lewis quote, “…if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on real doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better …” (Italics mine)

The division comes not from the person rejecting false doctrine but from the one promoting false doctrine. And as Lewis puts it the demon knows that the enemy (God) wants the Christian to be “critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but” … “wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise-does not waste time thinking about what it rejects—but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.”

And there is also a description of a pastor who in unbelief and disregard for the word of God “has undermined many a soul’s Christianity.” The pastor, Lewis describes, is more concerned with shocking his congregation with his disbelief than he is in nourishing them. This is true division on the part of a pastor or a leader—to divide the sheep from the Shepherd.

So the sheep themselves begin separating from the false shepherds by rejecting their words, taking only small bits of any nourishment they can find in an otherwise bleak offering. That is the righteous division—rejecting false teaching. In a sense not even hearing it. If that kind of division happens a battle begins, not outside of the church but within. And if many churches are engaged in such a battle then it occurs within a whole denomination. Notice, it would be those who are leading the sheep astray, leading them away from Christ, who are the cause of the division.

So turning to Paul and his call to unity, Henry is right when he states that Paul believes that, “division in the church undermines its mission in the world.” Notice the sin in this case is failure to see themselves as one in Christ. And the phrase ‘in Christ’ holds a lot of theological weight. It means set aside as holy to the Lord. It means wearing the righteousness of Christ. It means being a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is so concerned about this that he asks the church of Corinth to set a man who has committed grave sexual sin outside of the church. And he does this for the sake of the man—that he may be saved—and for the sake of the church that they will not be contaminated by allowing and condoning gross sin. Paul calls them arrogant, both for their sin of division and their sin of allowing a sinner to continue on without repentance.

There is one more important issue involved in the division of the Corinthian church. They were evidently depending on worldly wisdom and not on the cross of Christ. Paul makes a point of emphasizing the cross. He places the cross right in the center of the issue of division. After Paul states that the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks he speaks of Christ as both the power and wisdom of God. So the understanding that unity exist because Christians are in Christ is absolutely connected to the death of Christ on the cross. He is their only power and wisdom.

The arrogance displayed by the Corinthian Christians both in their divisions and their allowance of sexual sin had to do with their failure to lay all at the feet of the crucified Savior. At the foot of the cross no one will find a reason to boast of an allegiance to a particular leader or a particular sin. Rather total dependence on Christ both for unity and for righteousness is necessary


Mary E said...


I have been reading following the plight of the Episcopalian/Anglican Church. They are in the same struggle as we are but sadly longer.

But reading the Covenant Networks sermons,so called sermons. I have this to offer from David Virtue. Although it is about Episcopalians it can be easily be reflected of the PCUSA. Enjoy.


Viola Larson said...

Thanks Mary- although enjoy isn't quite the right word: )