Some of us have been meeting together for in-person worship during the past two months, after worshiping only on-line for more than a year. For me, it’s been good to see some familiar ABC faces (at least the upper half) and be reminded of times when we could more fully enjoy each other’s presence. Now, we’d like to take togetherness a step further. Our ABC Retreat, scheduled for September 25, is intended to be a celebration of the ABC family as an expression of the body of Christ.
However, be prepared for some interpersonal bumps in the road. Christian teachers speak of the Church Gathered, in comparison to the Church Scattered. When we’re scattered into our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, we’re still the Church. But being gathered for worship, inspiration and fellowship is critical to our existence. Ironically, it’s when we are the Church Gathered that we get under each other’s skin, rub each other the wrong way and hurt each other’s feelings.
ABC didn’t create this tendency of the Church Gathered to show more disunity than unity.* Travel back with me to the Church at Corinth, who received the letter from the Apostle Paul that we know as 1 Corinthians. Early in the letter, Paul calls them to account for some serious “divisions among you” (1:11). Our response might be that they should spend more time together so they can talk things out. But Paul’s observation is that when they do meet together, their divisions get worse. That’s a sad situation, when the Church Scattered experiences more unity than the Church Gathered.
The first Corinthian example of this is found in chapter 11, where Paul talks about their celebration of The Lord’s Supper:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. . . .
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. (11:17-21.34-35)
I’ve highlighted the repeated phrase “when you come together” to show how Paul emphasized the fact that their in-person contacts tended to be toxic.
The next two chapters deal with special subjects, chapter 12 with the way we are meant to exercise our individual gifts for the benefit of the whole Church body, and chapter 13, with the miraculous power of love.
Then in chapter 14, Paul focuses on their worship services. Here too, their divisive tendencies tended to overwhelm their unity. Note again the repeated use of that highlighted phrase:
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. . . .
For God is a God not of disorder but of peace. . . .
All things should be done decently and in order. (14:23, 26, 33, 40)
Now, here’s an amazing thing: Embedded in these chapters about the Gathered Church’s tendency toward disunity are some of the highest peaks of the Early Christians’ experience of unity in Christ: the words of Jesus at the Lord’s Table (11:23-26), the miraculous expression of oneness as the Body of Christ (12:12-27) and the great Love Chapter (13:1-13).
It’s as if Paul was saying, “All these interpersonal sparks of disunity are in reality God’s way of welding us together in true spiritual unity!”
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Disclaimer: I didn’t write this because I feel ABC is experiencing disunity right now. By God’s grace, we seem to be in a time of harmony of spirit and purpose. My reason for writing this, rather, is to show that we ought not to feel it’s particularly strange or sinful to sense some friction in our relationships with some particular ABCers. It’s part of who we are, and God will use it.