Christians are suspicious of one another. It’s sad but true. The old party spirit that St. Paul condemned in the Corinthians still haunts us. We look doubtfully at our brothers and sisters saying, “I am of Rome,” “I am of Constantinople,” and “I am of Wittenberg” or “Geneva.” Then the most spiritual among us says, “I am of Christ, for I hold no creed but the Bible!” We should know better. The central rites Christ gave us (Baptism and Eucharist) speak of union with him and one another. But alas, party spirit still befuddles our views of the sacraments too! If we want the world to recognize Christ among us, then we have to figure out real ways to show our love for one another, even with our real differences.
So where does all of this suspicion come from, this sibling rivalry? As I wrestle with my own temptations toward party spirit, and encounter it in other believers, I see three “isms” that breed the Corinthian Syndrome: (1) religious parochialism, (2) spiritual individualism, and (3) theological triumphalism. These aren’t the only reasons we look sideways at one another, but from my experience these three mindsets motivate a lot of our suspicion. Anybody puffed up with party spirit probably exhibits at least one of these outlooks or all three at varying degrees.
By religious parochialism, I mean the refusal to see truth in any expression of the faith beyond one’s own. Many Christians receive the faith in small circles, easily assuming that their circle’s experience is the standard. I’ll never forget how a coworker from an independent Bible church responded when she saw a picture of my pastor, all decked out in priest’s regalia. Under her breath she muttered, “Interesting.” But what she really meant was “Strange!” And that sense of strangeness turned to repulsion when she found out Anglicans sip from the chalice! I understand. I came up as a Southern Baptist, and later joined a small independent church, where I began to see everybody else as left of center. But then I started turning the pages of Church History. I met so many inspiring Christians and so rich a Tradition that I eventually had to leave that small circle, along with its parochialism.
Also, I see a lot of spiritual individualism among charismatics and certain evangelical types. This mindset assumes that Christ gives believers all they need through a subjective “chrism” of the Holy Spirit. They believe worshiping God in spirit and truth means rejecting what came before, especially all that empty, millennia–old ritualism. These folk balk at the idea that Church History is Christ’s Spirit-animated gift to guide his people. They see the great Christian Tradition as irrelevant compared with the Spirit’s new work, or compared with the latest fad for doing ministry. I remember another co-worker, a Pentecostal, strongly implying that everything in Church History before Azusa Street is negative example at best! And all that stuff about the Trinity is proof of the Spirit’s absence! Similarly, trendy evangelicals may affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, but they despise the liturgical and exegetical heritage that forged it by the Spirit’s fire, all in the name of “relevance.” “I am of Steven Furtick!,” or “I am of Azusa!,” they say.
Theological triumphalism is the mindset that places so much weight on certainty, that there’s little room for faith, and none for doubt. This outlook often falls into an arid intellectualism that can’t see the importance of symbol, sacrament, myth, and metaphor in the life of faith. Instead of seeing the Bible as a divinely given piece of literary art, full of profound mystery, we force it into airtight systems, and place a high premium on being able to explain it all with our modern exegetical expertise. Or we read within a narrow tradition unaware we are guided by that tradition. Thus we look sideways at other believers who don’t share our interpretations. As a former theological student I began to escape my triumphalism by reading more broadly from the Christian Tradition. The Church Fathers and Mothers showed me that, however important left-brain rigor, theological mastery means being mastered by Divine Love.