Shame and the Schisms of the Church

Sometimes there are passages in the bible that come to dominate your imagination, for a season and even a lifetime. A passage I keep reading over and over, and reading to audiences over and over, is 1 Corinthians 12.21-25:
Corinthians 12.21-25
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 
I want to focus on that last phrase "that there should be no division in the body." The Greek word for division is schisma, where we get the word schism--a rent, tearing or ripping of the body of Christ.

The thing that totally rocks me about this text is how these schisms are created. In most of our churches, and throughout church history, schisms are due to doctrinal differences and conflict. But here Paul gets to something that I think is absolutely critical:

The schisms of the church are schisms of honoring and shaming.

What was creating schisms in the church at Corinth wasn't doctrinal. What created the schisms was the shaming of members of the church, the shaming of "weaker" members who were considered to be "unpresentable," members who lacked honor in the wider culture.

Paul's whole discussion about the spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12 isn't about getting you or I to inventory our talents. The chapter isn't meant to be a personality test for Christians. The point of discussing the gifts isn't that the gifts exist and that we each need to figure out our respective gifts.

The point in all this isn't that the gifts exist and that you and I have different gifts, but in how those gifts are honored or shamed. It's the shaming of gifts that is the issue.

The healing of schisms for Paul, then, is about learning how to honor properly. Christian community is learning how to honor less "honorable," "weaker," and "unpresentable" members. Division is healed when "the members have equal concern for each other." And this requires rehabilitative action in how we honor. The less honorable members require, according to Paul, "special treatment." In this we imitate God: God gives "greater honor to those who lacked it."

So that's the message I keep preaching--over and over--wherever I go. I'm a theological Johnny Appleseed about this. What is causing schisms in our churches isn't doctrine or theology.

What causes schisms in our churches is how we honor.

What causes schisms in our churches is how we shame people.

What causes schisms is how our churches fail to give "special treatment" and "special honor" to the "unpresentable" and "shameful" members of the church, those who lack honor in the world.

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18 thoughts on “Shame and the Schisms of the Church”

  1. I spoke to about 100 middle schoolers a few minutes ago, in a public school no less, and read chapter 13. I have to believe that love puts doctrine aside and addresses this. Without faith it is impossible to please God, but there is something even greater than faith.........Love.

  2. The world honors success, money, affluence, beauty, power, etc. The church looks the same in this regard. You hit the nail on the head.

  3. Very informative, have been viewing your blog now for a week. I am enjoying it very much. I have a question: in Matthew Lazarus is dead for four days and Jesus says he's asleep and in Mark there's the girl that's also dead and apparently is asleep, so my question is are you asleep when you die till the rapture happens, or do you go straight to heaven?

  4. Hi Matthew, that's a question with lots of assumptions built in, most of which I don't really share. For example, I don't think the bible teaches a "rapture," at least not as many modern Christians understand it.

    Regarding sleep and death. My best take on Paul's discussion of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 is that when we die we are dead (metaphorically "asleep"). The notion that the "soul" goes somewhere after death is, as best I can tell, a Greek idea and not a biblical one. Though there are places in the gospels and Revelation ("today you will be with me in paradise," the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the vision of the martyrs) that suggest something different.

    Which is to say I'm agnostic on the whole issue. I have no idea. I don't think the bible has a clear teaching on the subject.

  5. Thank you for this post! I am an Episcopalian, and schism is certainly something that is affecting the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion, mainly over the issue of biblical interpretation and human sexuality.

    I really like the idea of honoring and shaming, and it seems to fit. One side feels like it's version of biblical interpretation is not being honored; and the other side feels like our LGBT members have been shamed and made to feel like second-class Christians for way too long.

    I certainly agree that in the past we have failed to give our so-called "unpresentable" and "shameful" LGBT members any honor at all as fellow members in Christ, and am happy that we have been working to address that. But the schisms it has caused have been costly and painful.

    I can only hope and pray that a reunion based on love and acceptance will one day happen...

  6. A question for anyone............How would you reconcile the story of the young man in 1st Corinthians who reportedly had sex with his father's wife where Paul basically tells the church to shame believer but not unbelievers. Our study last week was on that particular scripture.

  7. I think I'm agnostic on this issue, too. I've been wrestling with it since losing both of my parents and step-father last year, and not just losing them to death, but watching the whole thing while I was their caretaker. Everyone kept telling me, "They're with the Lord...," implying "You should rejoice." I think grief has gotten the best of me, as they were my best friends, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole death and dying thing. What are your thoughts on Paul's "to be absent from the body is the be present with the Lord?"

  8. I'm not sure, Judy. Those are such tough questions in normal situations, let alone when we are dealing with grief.

  9. Richard in your understanding, who might the unpresentable and shameful members be in first century Corinth? Or in our 21st century American churches?

  10. From by reading about the 1 Cor. context it was referring to the poorer members of the church, the slaves and such. I'd say the poor in modern churches are still in this group. But I'd also add the less educated, the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, the formerly criminal, the physically handicapped, the elderly, the less talented, children (in some churches), etc. etc.

  11. Judy, my prayers are with you. I think that it might (only might) help you to look at the biblical passages, not in terms of "what is literally happening when someone dies?" but "what sorts of attitudes are there here regarding people who die?"

    I find attitudes of real grief (death is really something to be sad about), of real confidence (the dead are in God's hands, and not in any way beyond the scope of blessing), and real hope (we are not just supposed to feel good because of some mist-land in which their souls are happy, but because there will be a kingdom in which life conquers death forever).

    N. T. Wright has a book called "Surprised by Hope" if you are interested in an accessible take by a New Testament scholar.

  12. Richard, do you think that we have created a zero-sum game where we can only talk about honoring some (e.g., the poor) by shaming others (e.g., the rich)? Just curious--it seems that too many church discussions show an odd fear when it comes to honor/ shame, and I can't tell if it is mere defensiveness, or whether people are really feeling themselves to be under attack. (At seminary, for example, I've heard people say that feel pervasively shamed for being white and for being black, for being male and for being female.)

  13. Loving God comes first and what is needed thereafter will happen by grace. I am not as clever as all of you but I hope i am welcome here. Pax and bonom.

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