Enmity and Accord: New Testament Perspectives - by Harold W. Attridge

Harold W. Attridge

How do communities of Christian conviction confront and creatively engage the bitterly divided discourse of our days? One option is to withdraw, seeking within our faith communities the unity and mutual respect so blatantly absent from the larger society.

We might be inspired to do so by Acts’ picture of the early church, united in fellowship, caring for common needs in the midst of a hostile world (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-34). Trying to enact such an idealized vision may well be part of our response to our times, but the New Testament has more, and more complex things, to say about confronting enmity and polarization.

The early church, of course, was not always the realm of sweetness and light that Acts’ sketch of the Jerusalem commune suggests. Divisions over doctrine and practice arose from the start, occasionally leading to rhetorical outbursts that rival Trump tweets or partisan commentaries. Think, for example, of Jude’s tirade against “certain intruders” (Jude 4), “ungodly” people “who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness.” Such folk are like “irrational animals” (Jude 10), “blemishes on your love feasts … waterless clouds carried along by the winds, autumn trees without fruit” (Jude 12). Yes, early Christians knew how to denounce their opponents, and probably would defend their vituperation as appropriate for prophetic preachers. We have certainly been tempted to use similar tropes in our rhetoric of resistance.

Nonetheless, the New Testament offers other models for dealing with social conflict. The Sermon on the Mount is foundational for a Christian ethic of reconciliation. That foundation provides a strategic goal for Christians today, but we might also usefully reflect on other tactics that some followers of Jesus employed in turbulent apostolic times.

Paul presents the most interesting and best documented case. His life and ministry were dedicated to the belief that God had done something new in Jesus Christ, fulfilling his promises to bring all nations to worship together (Isa 66:18). That conviction drove him to include Gentiles as Gentiles in the community of faith, a policy that caused the controversy recounted in Galatians 2. How Paul dealt with the aftermath of that disagreement merits more reflection, but that was not the only dispute he faced.

Hearing Both Sides

Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian community are replete with efforts to confront socially divisive issues. Paul evokes them in 1 Cor 10:10-17, naming the various factions that had emerged at Corinth. Paul confronts the situation in two ways, beginning with an appeal to what the common bond of the community should be, the foolish wisdom of the cross (1 Cor 1:22-25). Contemporary political leaders often try to do something similar, making hopeful appeals to common values. The focus of their rhetoric, however, is usually not as strangely compelling as the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), which dramatically runs counter to human standards (1:26-31).

Paul’s appeal to the foolish wisdom of his gospel has practical implications for the ways in which he confronts the Corinthian factions. The bulk of the letter addresses very specific practical matters

that are dividing believers. Paul responds to some with a firm command. Prostitution, for instance, is not allowed (1 Cor 6:15). Yet on other issues Paul’s rhetoric is much more nuanced. In weighing his response to such questions, he recognizes what is valid on both sides of the debate before giving his own recommendation. Is sex entirely prohibited? No, says Paul, not as a general rule, but one might temporarily abstain (1 Cor 7:5). Can Corinthian believers eat meat sacrificed to idols? Those who say yes certainly have a good theoretical point (8:4), but by following that point they might scandalize their neighbor (9:6). According to those who argue no, there may in fact be an objective problem with the practice (10:20-21). Is the resurrection of the dead a realistic hope? It must be, says Paul, or our faith is utterly vain (15:12-15). Yet those who wonder about the physics of the event have a point. The resurrected body will be a “spiritual” one (15:44) and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50). In all of these cases Paul has listened to both sides, recognizes validity in each, and tries to draw both together toward common ground.

Tumult and Persistence

Paul’s practical efforts may have succeeded, although his relationship with the Corinthians continued to experience bumps and fissures, as 2 Corinthians shows. Rivals came to town leading to a “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1), a rupture in relations, and a bitterly ironic rant (2 Cor 10:1-12). Yet Paul did not give up and worked through an intermediary, Titus, to effect a rapprochement (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6). That willingness to persevere in efforts at reconciliation paid off and Paul celebrated with his Corinthian believers the healing work of God that they experienced (2 Cor 5:16-21). Patient persistence in pursuit of that strategic goal can, and in this case did, bring results.

Yet not all such efforts have a happy ending. The major divide that Paul’s gospel produced, between the Jewish people from whom he came and the Gentile believers who joined the movement, brought him pain eloquently expressed in Rom 9:1-5. To heal division between Jew and Gentile believers was a goal to which he devoted considerable effort throughout his ministry. His endeavor to organize a major collection to aid the poor in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9) was also an attempt to mend enmities. Such a collection would have demonstrated in a concrete way the unity between opposing factions of the early Christian movement.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written as he readied to deliver his relief collection from Gentile Christians to Jerusalem (Rom 16:25-27). It is not clear that the gift was accepted. Instead Paul’s visit resulted in his arrest and transmittal to Rome, where tradition reports he met his end. The Paul who wrote the Corinthian correspondence was probably not surprised by the thwarted result of his efforts. The work of overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation is a formidable task. But it is not impossible, and it is one to which ministers of the gospel of Christ are called.

Harold W. Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity at YDS, was dean of the School from 2002-2012. He has written widely on New Testament exegesis, Hellenistic Judaism, and early church history. His books include Essays on John and Hebrews (Baker, 2012), and he also edited The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does It Continue? (Terry Lectures Series, Yale University Press, 2009).