We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Paul's Four Commandments for Church Life

Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, as we have it in the New Testament, closes with a brief set of injunctions on how the Jesus community in Corinth should carry forward.  Working from several English-language translations and paraphrases, however, II Corinthians 13:11 seems confusing.  The translators and paraphrasers render the verse in quite different ways.  For example:

  • American Standard Version (ASV): "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfected; be comforted; be of the same mind; live in peace: and the God of love and peace shall be with you."

  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): "Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."

  • Today's English Version (TEV): "And now, my friends, good-bye! Strive for perfection; listen to my appeals; agree with one another; live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you."

  • The Message (MSG): "And that’s about it, friends. Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure. Greet one another with a holy embrace. All the brothers and sisters here say hello."

  • Laughing Bird Paraphrases (LB): "Sisters and brothers, I finish my letter by wishing you every joy and offering these last words: ........- get everything on track; ........- take courage from what I’ve said; ........- seek consensus; ........- live in peace."
To take just the first injunction: being perfected (ASV), putting things in order (NRSV), striving for perfection (TEV), keeping things in good order (MSG), and "getting everything on track" (LB) are not all the same thing at all.  Wright's Kingdom New Testament translates this injunction as "put everything in order."  The old J.B. Phillip's translation takes a different tack, "live in harmony."

The other injunctions are similarly variously translated or paraphrased.  Taken together, however, we come out with something like this:  (1) Paul called on the brothers and sisters in Corinth to get their act together and move from a disorderly life together to one that is more orderly.  (2) He enjoined them to pay attention to his advice to them and take comfort from his words.  (3) They were to reach a meeting of the minds on the key issues facing them in their life together.  They were to live in peace with each other.

We might call these Paul's Four Commandments for Church Life and summarize them more briefly as: [1] strive for a clean political process; [2] pay attention to scripture; [3] work for consensus; and [4] in all things behave peaceably.  Do these things, and the God of peace and love will be manifest among you.  That is, first, as a church works through differences it should do so openly and without political games, attempts to coerce members into a forced agreement, or dividing into contentious factions.  Second, just as Paul called on the Corinthians to heed his advice, which should have carried the weight of apostolic authority for them, so we should pay special attention to the Bible as our source of authoritative guidance.  Third, the goal of the members of the church is always to seek a meeting of the minds where points of difference or even conflict occur.  We can take this to mean that church members seek to understand each other's viewpoints and concerns, seek to discover consensus in their differences, and not allow differences to  destroy their deeper unity in Christ.  Finally, the fourth commandment sums up the intent of the first three: live in peace.  Where churches follow these four commandments, the Spirit will be clearly present in them.   Amen.