A peaceful church

God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace. — 1 Corinthians 14:33, CEB

Many of us have been party to, or at least aware of, conflict in a local congregation.  Church seems less a place of new life than of old quarrels and stale resentment.  People pontificate from entrenched positions, often with aggrieved or self-righteous attitudes.  And of course, nobody listens — at least not with the kind of listening in which people would be open to hearing something new, something that might generate a little empathy or understanding.

As we’ve seen, the kind of “disorder” (the word can imply confusion or commotion) to which Paul refers is not conflict per se, but chaos in the corporate worship gatherings: too many people are speaking at once, in a language no one understands (not even the speaker).  It’s not edifying.  Paul wants to put a stop to it, so he gives them several regulatory guidelines, all for the sake of a positive principle: God is a God of peace, and your life together should witness to that fact.

I’m sure we can imagine, however, if we haven’t already seen it ourselves, that the Corinthians could follow Paul’s instructions to the letter, and there would still be no peace:  Oh, hurry up and sit down already.  You’ve had your turn.  God wants to speak through me now.

Peace is not merely the cessation of conflict.  Nor is it measured simply by the proportion of order to chaos.  Paul is writing to a disorderly congregation, and frames his advice accordingly.  But what might he say to us?  Is it possible that our worship could be so orderly, so predictable, that peace wouldn’t be found there either?

A biblical notion of peace is much richer than the absence of conflict or chaos.  It is not the orderliness of rule-bound predictability, but of a good creation as fashioned by a loving God.  The Hebrew word shalom suggests much more than the English “peace”: in today’s parlance, we might say “thriving” or “flourishing.”  As theologian Cornelius Plantinga has suggested, it’s the state in which everything is “the way it’s supposed to be,” the way God meant it to be.

Rules are given for a reason.  In Corinth, Paul hoped to restore a modicum of order.  But while his guidelines could help protect against abuses of worship, they could not guarantee true worship.  Rules in themselves could not make the Corinthians love one another or seek each other’s edification.

It is the larger vision of peace that gives life and legitimacy to the rules, as well as the freedom to change them when they no longer serve that vision.  Shalom was the character of God’s good creation; sin violated that peace.  It still does.  We still do.  But through the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit, through the hope of resurrection (which Paul will get to in chapter 15), God transforms us into peacemakers (Matt 5:9), active agents of his shalom.

That is the vocation of the church, its sustaining vision.  Whatever rules of conduct we adhere to, they must be means to an end and not ends in themselves.  For God is a God of peace, and we must live as his peacemakers.