In a time like this, as a generally inflammatory businessman like Trump has unexpectedly been elected the next President of the United States, I think we, as Christians, are all asking ourselves, “How should the Church respond?” With all our differences in opinions regarding the candidates and their platforms, how can we stitch together a united front to take on the challenges facing our country over the next four years? I propose looking back to call of the early Church in the first century after Jesus – from here, the modern-day Church can find inspiration in response to the threat of disunity.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is addressing an extremely broken people – a group divided by sexual immorality, legal disputes, and idol worship. Even though Paul addresses all of these issues in his letter, he chooses to first comment on something that, to us, seems far less controversial – an issue of leadership and unity:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ”.1
In the present day, this almost seems like a non-issue. A mark of our post-Christian society is that we can and should take the freedom given us to follow anything, believe anything, and act on anything we feel is right. The issue of leadership is, in a sense, relative; mostly, leaders are chosen simply because they are “not as bad” as any other feasible alternative. And yet, even with this pervading mindset, we have arrived at the birth of a Trump presidency, which brings to bear many fears, questions, and intense divisions among people of different beliefs and backgrounds, manifested most notably in the “Not My President” movement happening all across the country.
Paul’s perspective on leadership, however, is quite different. Paul, here, declares the powerful truth that the Church was not created to follow a particular human leader. Human leaders are intrinsically broken and sinful, and any church created or led exclusively by a human is doomed to fail. The Church, instead, was created as a literal embodiment of Christ, who is the only divinely-appointed Head of the Church. Our highest instruction then, both as God’s temple2 and as the Church, is to be united:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.3
So much more than an organization with rules and qualifications, the church is a collection of broken, beloved people who rise together, fall together, hurt together, and celebrate together, all for the glory of God, which is manifested so radiantly through the fact that even though these people are full of sin, they are counting everything they have as loss for the exaltation of the One who chose to redeem them for the fullest life. Our human leaders, then, are instituted over the local churches to proclaim God’s truth, orient their congregations toward seeking Christ, and to help provide a stable structure, built on the foundation of Christ, from which and through which people from both inside and outside of the church could experience the blessings of our Creator and Redeemer.
These characteristics and goals of a Church leader emulating Christ also serve as a model for leadership outside of the church as well. In the secular, political world, we commonly view leaders as those who are intrinsically powerful, have relevant and successful experiences, and, quite truly, are commonly “the lesser of many evils.” However, I think we could all agree that our society would run best if leaders in positions of authority were willing to deny themselves (including all of their previous accomplishments and sources of pride) and sacrifice their own desires to enact change that is necessary and beneficial to their constituency. This idea of an “upside-down kingdom,” with the leader actually serving the least of the kingdom, is only fully realized in Jesus Christ, but can be used as a model of maturity and humility in leadership even among the secular authorities.
The question in our current time, then, becomes “How can we trust that our democratically elected leader is going to emulate Christ and serve his constituency humbly?” Sadly, the answer is that we cannot, and not solely because Donald Trump is our new President; as Christ is the only being in existence to have no sin, it is impossible that any human leader will be perfect. There will never be a candidate for President that will fully embody all the values and love that Christ first showed us, and therefore we cannot invite division in the church by refusing to try to understand different political viewpoints. Importantly, we must take to heart that we cannot place all our hope in our human leaders. This is a concept we can understand intellectually, but many times our emotions betray our innermost beliefs: If we were devastated at the results of the election, does that not mean that we were placing real hope in a candidate who lost, or that we think the only redemption of our country will come from an elected human leader? I can imagine this feeling was akin to how many of the disciples and other followers of Jesus felt the day after he was crucified and buried; indeed, the men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 voiced, “but we had hoped that he [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel”.4 Death had then separated their hope from their future. Amazingly, though, their hope was placed in the right source – directly after this statement, the risen Jesus revealed himself to them, and their hope, through the resurrection, was restored. Importantly, while our hope in any human leader should be tempered, since failure is inevitable, our hope in Jesus is eternal and promised. As Paul writes in a different letter to the Roman church, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.5 His love for us is secured, and the hope that we have in Him is the only hope that cannot fail, because He alone has overcome the world and the powers of sin and death.
Finally, given that Christ is Holy and the only One deserving to be the Head of the Church, our mission on earth should be to obey and serve Him with full hearts, keeping our eyes fixed on Him, and, in doing so, seek for unity amongst all people groups. Because we have been redeemed and given life to the fullest in Jesus, we are free to reach out to each other in undivided love. Paul’s appeal for unity in the Corinthian church was not an impotent request. While Paul knew that his command would be difficult to enact, he knew even moreso that Jesus, through His resurrection and the abiding power of the Holy Spirit, had already given the church the strength, courage, and love they needed to put it into action. As the Holy Spirit is just as powerful today, we now have the ability to build bridges, close divides, and love those who are different from us in a radical way. This strength comes not from our earthly authorities, but from Christ, and as such is our lifelong goal, regardless of any circumstance. In this time of great confusion and hurt for many, I implore the church to put our hope in God. The command that He gives us is not to stand idly by and hope that change comes; instead, we are commanded to stand firm in the face of any adversity which could lead to disunity; to love our neighbors even when it’s far outside of our comfort zone; to speak God’s truth and love into the division caused by human sin so that Christ can be glorified; and to become the fullness of Christ that He intended for His Church to be on this earth.
1. 1 Corinthians 1:10-12.
2. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.
3. 1 Corinthians 12:12, 24-26.
4. Luke 24:21.
5. Romans 8:38.
Emily is a Ph.D. student at Penn studying Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. She is currently finding excitement in autumn leaves, unexpected snowfalls, and the eternal hope in her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.