At his inauguration on Friday President Donald Trump quoted with approbation King David’s words from Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity." These past two days have brought into particularly clear focus how deeply divided our country is along conservative vs. liberal lines and on many specific matters that are of great importance. The intensity with which political and social issues have separated us may be without precedent in American history, and the violence that has erupted is deeply disturbing.
But the violence will subside over time without having resolved anything at all: the divisions will remain. Trying to find some way of addressing this will become the #1 priority of our new president at the very time when he imagined that he would be moving forward with the agenda that he laid out on his way to the White House. Some of President Trump’s promises will need to be put on hold during this time when an attempt at healing is the first and foremost matter of business. Many people on both sides of the divide remain skeptical that healing is possible, so deeply-rooted are the issues at hand.
As sad, troubling and distressing as these circumstances may be, and as unfortunate as it is that they tend to discredit the viability of the American way in the eyes of the whole world, the disunity of the Church is a matter of even greater significance. Why? Because its implications are eternal as distinct from those of American politics which, regardless of the fervor of the moment, are merely temporal. The world will go on, more or less as it has, with or without political consensus in the United States; but the Church will continue to surrender its opportunities to make a difference worldwide if only its witness were a united one.
Most of you at one time or another have heard me lament the state of the Christian Church today, where we have allowed completely inconsequential things to splinter us, thereby greatly diminishing the power of our witness to Jesus Christ. There are well over two billion Christians in the world, amounting to nearly 1/3 of the world’s religious population, still a percentage significantly greater than that of the growing Muslim population. The collective spiritual influence of that Christian population would be staggering, were we able to set aside our many internal divisions and heed these words of Paul: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). Apparently the sorts of issues that divide us have their roots firmly embedded in the earliest days of the Church, and my lament is simply an echoing of Paul’s lament in First Corinthians.
What went wrong with the Church at Corinth? First of all, it had people in it. More seriously, it had an authority problem that caused an internal identity crisis. The authority issue appears to have been twofold. The obvious one that Paul was addressing in today’s epistle reading had to do with persons posturing under the banners of Paul, Apollos, Peter and even Christ Himself. The second one, that Paul also confronts forcefully, had to do with a dependence on human wisdom in place of divine wisdom.
Do these issues have a familiar ring to them? They certainly should, as they are altogether contemporary. While few persons today would claim special allegiance to Paul or Apollos or Peter, our version today is whether we follow the Roman Pope, the Orthodox Patriarchs, the forefathers of our 40,000 Protestant denominations, or any of the countless persons who continue to put themselves forward as guardians of special spiritual truths and insights unique to them and their adherents. As long as the Church continues to divide itself along such lines, it will ignore the questions and answers posed by Paul in these words to the Corinthians: “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? Since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God Who causes the growth.”
What is the underlying problem here? It’s our human tendency to idolize charismatic leaders, to line up behind them blindly like sheep, to learn their systems and defend them beyond reason, and to forget altogether Paul’s obvious conclusion that we ought only and always to declare our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the One Who sent Paul “to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the Cross of Christ would not be made void.” What powerful, poignant and even painful words: just imagine that our chasing after the teachings of men could make the Cross of Christ void! But it does and it has, again and again in the history of Christianity. Yes, of course, most if not all of these persons behind whom we line up would claim that they are the true followers of Jesus Christ and that they have inside knowledge of how best to unlock Scripture. And it even extends to claims of the superiority of one pattern of worship over another, and whether the keys to the heavenly Kingdom belong to the Pope, the Orthodox Patriarchs or to Willow Creek. These are controversial matters that the Church has been unable to resolve despite an endless succession of councils and ecumenical gatherings and fleeting détente among various Church leaders.
Paul raises another matter that ultimately is the greater divisive force and by far the more dangerous one. He writes, “For the word of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Underlying this statement is the argument he already had presented in the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2: again, it’s the conflict and contrast between human wisdom and divine wisdom. First Paul wrote that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Cor. 1:25). On that basis, he added, “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (II Cor. 2:4, 5). For Paul, that power of God resides in the gospel message, the Word of God. In Romans 1:16 Paul wrote by way of personal testimony, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When it came to spiritual power, Paul was on to something. And it was not rooted in human wisdom.
Our political arena is in desperate need of an infusion of the Spirit and the power of God. From any perspective we seem to have hit a new low of moral and spiritual bankruptcy. The historically informed and spiritually sensitive person inevitably is reminded of countless past empires that have crumbled, dissolved and disappeared because they were godless and corrupt.
Our new president is a controversial figure whose impact on the grand stage of American politics will be severely tested in the time immediately ahead. But an amazing statement was made when his inauguration was completely bathed in prayer and Scripture, from before it began until the very end, with prayers from seven clergy persons including a rabbi, a cardinal, a televangelist and Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. The music was spiritually motivated. The National Anthem was sung more reverently than I have heard it sung in public performance for a very long time. The president and vice president took their oaths concluding emphatically with “so help me God.” By common consent they were helped to be put in office by a core of Americans who believe in the power and the Spirit of Almighty God. Now, the mantle that they bear is a heavy one, as they have assumed an accountability that has been missing for decades in American politics, even among those from either political party who have named the Name of God.
You may know the last words David, the same King David who was quoted by President Trump: David wrote, “He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” David did not attribute those words to himself. In the fuller context, here is what he said: “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was in my tongue. The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me, ‘He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain’” (II Samuel 23:2-4).
We cannot expect President Trump to place his words in the mouth of the God of Israel, the Rock of Israel; and certainly God would not wish to be credited with or blamed for some of his words. But we can hold all of our elected leaders’ feet to the fire when it comes to ruling with justice and in the fear of God.
How do we do that? First and foremost, we are responsible to pray for our leaders, not only as a matter of conscience or good citizenship but as a matter of Biblical mandate. God told the Israelites in exile to pray for Babylon: through the prophet Jeremiah He said, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1–4). And in Romans 13:1, Paul wrote, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
Note that in none of these Scriptures are we commanded to love or agree with the authorities. But we are to pray for them and to be subject to them, even if they are barbaric Babylonian captors or vicious Roman emperors or the presidential candidate with whose views we may have found ourselves in vehement disagreement. This is decidedly not a time for national mourning. This is not a time for sackcloth and ashes, though then again, there are plenty of reasons why that sort of repentance might be altogether appropriate for Americans. It certainly is not a time for rampant civil disobedience, which never has been the American way to effect lasting change and is, in any case, antithetic to the principles of Scripture.
It is a time for prayer, a time for requiring of our leaders precisely what God requires of them: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). On our part, that will require living lives devoted to prayer and to the study of God’s Holy Word, so that the wisdom we profess to have in any area of life will not be the finite, subjective, vacillating and severely limited human wisdom, but a wisdom that is firmly rooted in the Spirit and power of God our Rock and our Redeemer. And then, in our Church, in our country and in the world, whether we agree or respectfully disagree, we will stand together with King David and President Trump and say, “How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity" (Ps. 133:1).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
(I Corinthians 3:21-23)