Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Courtroom Dramas: A Pauline Alternative for Conflict Management

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Courtroom Dramas: A Pauline Alternative for Conflict Management

Article excerpt

The tendency among many in the Episcopal Church today to use litigation or the threat of litigation as a weapon in ongoing conflicts between members is not a new one. Careful examination of 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, an oft-neglected passage, reveals the destructive nature of lawsuits in a first-century Pauline community, as well as a creative alternative for dispute resolution. Combining biblical exegesis with sociological tools such as "the spiral of unmanaged conflict," this article explores the apostle's use of familial imagery in reshaping the corporate self-understanding of church members, and the relevance of that approach for Episcopal Christians today.

In the recent history of the Episcopal Church, more and more legal actions against dioceses by clergy and congregations have been pursued or explored. Specific instances usually involve property disputes when a congregation or part of it attempts to leave the Episcopal Church in favor of an extra-provincial network or organization. At times, it has included more unusual actions, as exemplified in the attempt by several bishops in the 1990s to broach the complex issue of the Church's status of incorporation and legal name (the so-called PECUSA Inc. plan). Often, the explanation for such actions has been, "We are not leaving the Church; the Episcopal Church has left us." More recently this statement has been modified to, "The Episcopal Church has left the Anglican Communion," or even, "The Church has left the biblical faith."

This last statement is arguably at the heart of most of the disputes, as those who consider themselves to be orthodox Anglican Christians maintain that the progressive leadership of the Episcopal Church has stopped taking Holy Scripture seriously, in particular in regards to interpretations of sexual ethics. To the orthodox, a clear reading of Scripture shows the liberal Church to be in error; and only a return to biblical faith, biblical morality, and biblical authority can save the Church from its growing trend toward secularism and, ultimately, heresy. The institutional response to such arguments often has been to speak of the importance of inclusivity, the demands of justice, and the ongoing shared experience of God. In other words, the response-on the surface so radically different in its theological vocabulary-merely confirms the suspicions of the "true believers." As I have argued elsewhere, there is a bit of naivete on the part of those "who seek a greater appreciation of sacred sexuality and inclusive religion, who genuinely think there are real possibilities for dialogue and conversation with those who disagree with them."1 Although a fundamentalist, literalist reading of Scripture is clearly rejected by the progressive element, an equally clear alternative for approaching Scripture is not always provided, leaving the progressives open again and again to accusations by the orthodox that they are biblically bereft-or worse.

If we put aside for the moment the polemics and labels of the day, however, we might discover some interesting and potentially transformative points as we give earnest consideration to a scriptural passage that, not surprisingly, has been largely neglected in the present debates. I am speaking here of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul's challenge to the Corinthian Christians who were divided amongst themselves to the point of taking one another to court-and this in full view of the rest of the world outside the Christian community. This article provides a detailed examination of Paul's alternative to the kind of legal actions that then, like now, were not only costly but also ineffective for solving intra-church disputes. Following a recounting of the passage itself, the discussion turns to an exploration of the first-century context of the dilemma that Paul describes. It then moves into possible correlations with our own time, always cognizant of the dangers of eisegesis, of reading into the passage what we desire or understand from our twenty-first century vantage point. …

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