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Thinking Out Loud

Martin and Paul Speak to the Church

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 26, 2016


Amariah McIntoshEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Dr. Amariah McIntosh (pictured) (MDiv ’01, DMin ’14). Amariah is Pastor of Cleaves Memorial CME Church in Evansville, Indiana. She also serves as President of the Louisville Seminary Alum Board of Directors.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon on November 4, 1956, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The title of the sermon is Paul’s Letter to American Christians. He uses the form of a New Testament Pauline epistle to challenge the American church. He assumes Paul’s voice and questions whether Americans’ “spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress.” Dr. King says:

"Let me rush on to say something about the church. Americans, I must remind you, as I have said to so many others, that the church is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature, it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed about what you are doing to the Body of Christ. They tell me that in America you have within Protestantism more than two hundred and fifty-six denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the Body of Christ. You must come to see that God is neither a Baptist nor a Methodist; He is neither a Presbyterian nor an Episcopalian. God is bigger than all of our denominations. If you are to be true witnesses for Christ, you must come to see that, America."

Although we are now into the second decade of the 21st century, and sixty years after Dr. King preached this sermon, we must be mindful that division is still rampant in the church. Our divisions are experienced in many ways. Not only are our divisions inter-denominational they are intra-denominational. We tend to look for ways to divide. We divide over membership, polity, doctrine, liturgy, politics, gender and sexuality. No matter what you come up with, what you introduce, how you feel about ministry and the direction it should go, it tends to divide more than it unites.

During this political season, the church has not been exempt from the rancor and hatred that has become part of the national discourse. Denominational infighting has reared its ugly head in national conventions, churches have split and gone in different directions, and ultimately the Body of Christ has become more broken and fractured.

Martin recognized that division is a cancer, a deadly disease that when allowed to spread wreaks havoc and destruction among the people of God. His ministry and advocacy was rooted in the belief that love, rather than hate, is what will make a difference in this world. Martin wants the modern/postmodern church to understand that when one Christian or one denomination claims to have what others do not have, issues of superiority and envy are introduced. When this happens, the church of Jesus Christ becomes ripe for division and separation and not unity.

Dr. King closes his sermon with these words:

“I must bring my writing to a close now. Timothy is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another church. But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summum bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”

Martin and Paul agree that love is the more excellent way. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, NRSV)

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