I’ll confess to being a softy when it comes to romantic things. I’m not necessarily good at thinking them up and doing them, mind you, but I’m an appreciative observer. I’m a sucker for a romantic film, even a corny and predictable one. I like violins crooning the background and happy endings.
But, I must also confess that I get nervous about too much romance in weddings, of all places. And since I go to lots of weddings, usually with the best seat in the house, I get nervous a lot. Why? Because I’ve seen too many wonderfully romantic weddings end in heartache. A couple of years ago, I participated in one of the most beautiful and elegant weddings I’d ever seen. It was absolutely wonderful, except for the tiny little problem that the couple I married divorced in less than a year. That’s a big oops, and a very sad one.
I also get nervous over too much romance, maybe it’s better to say idealism, when it comes to the church. I often hear people talk about some new church they’ve found – including a church where I was the pastor – in utterly glowing terms: loving fellowship, inspired worship, fantastic preaching, etc. etc. Though I’m glad they’ve found such a congregation, I worry that too much idealism can lead to all sorts of disappointment and hurt. No matter how wonderful a church may be, it’s still full of real people who, though forgiven, aren’t perfect. And in sucah a fellowship conflict is inevitable. (Photo: One of the most romantic moments from arguably the most romantic wedding of the last fifty years, between Prince Charles and Lady Di. Such romance didn’t guarantee a happy marriage, did it?)
Years ago when I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I was coaching a team of leaders that was experiencing lots of disagreement. One of the women on the team became exasperated and blurted out: “What’s wrong with this group? I thought we were supposed to be a family!” My response was: “Yes. That’s exactly the problem. How many families do you know that don’t sometimes have major conflicts?” This woman was confronting the reality of the church and the unreality of her idealistic expectations. Soon she was going to have to make a choice about whether or not to stay involved in a genuine but messy and sometimes conflicted fellowship, or to leave and look for greener pastures where her idealistic dreams would be nurtured, at least until she really got involved with those people.
One of the things I love about the Bible is its realism about all sorts of things. Read the Bible and you get a clear picture of what life is really like. When people talk about experiencing church just like in New Testament times, I laugh to myself and wonder if they’ve ever read the New Testament. Make your way through this text and you’ll find that almost every book bears witness to the reality of conflict in the church.
But the New Testament is also realistic about what it takes to overcome conflict. There are lots of specific instructions, some of which I’ve already surveyed in this series. But there are also the overarching principles that will help us find our way through the confusing maze of church conflict. The most important of these principles is love.
As you may know, there is one chapter in the Bible known as “The Love Chapter,” and for good reason. 1 Corinthians 13 uses agape, one of several Greek words for “love,” nine times. That’s as much as in all four gospels combined. Only one other chapter in the whole Bible, 1 John 4, uses the word “love” more frequently. So if you want to know something about love, you’d do well to consult 1 Corinthians 13.
I have often read this chapter in weddings. In terms of frequency, I think it comes in second for all biblical texts (next to Colossians 3:12-17). For a while it was out of style to use this text. But now 1 Corinthians 13 has made a comeback. That’s just fine with me, though I often wonder if couples getting married have really paid much attention to what the text actually says. Sure, it talks a lot about love. But the picture of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is decidedly non-romantic. In fact, you could almost say it’s anti-romantic. It talks about love in realistic, down-to-earth terms. 1 Corinthians 13 says nothing about love being wonderful, happy, or heavenly. There are no inspiring violins playing in the background of 1 Corinthians 13. If you pay attention to what this chapter reveals, you’ll realize that love is hard work, and much of it doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why I like reading 1 Corinthians 13 in weddings. It cuts through the overly-romanticized, feeling-centered notions of love with the double-edged sword of God’s realistic Word. It talks about what love is really all about, warts and all.
Of course Paul did not write 1 Corinthians 13 for weddings. It was written because the Corinthian church was in the middle of a big brouhaha over many things. It was written specifically for Christians in conflict, the overarching theme of this blog series. So, in my next post in this series, I’ll begin to examine how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us to deal with conflict among believers in Jesus.