Of Angels and Attorneys: General Theological Seminary

Of Angels and Attorneys: General Theological Seminary October 24, 2014


When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!  (I Corinthians 6.1-8, ESV)

Paul was a Rabbi and he never got over being a Rabbi.  So, he often resorted to an ancient form of argument that was frequently used by rabbis — an argument from “the heavy to the light” or, to use the Hebrew, qal va-chomer.  In Latin, it is called an a fortiori argument.

As it applies to this passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians the logic works out this way: If the heavy case is: “You will judge the world and the angels.”  The light case is this: “Then how could you possibly defer to secular authorities in negotiating trivia?”  Paul brings his argument home with this inference: “If you are entrusted with the judgment of cosmic forces and you are working with attorneys, you’ve already lost.” A more contemporary and less sophisticated approach might be to say: “If you’ve been given responsibility for judging angels, then don’t be a putz.  Stay out of court with the small stuff.” I’m not trying to get into name calling here.

I have no interest in pinning the tail on the first putz.  Paul would probably say that we all manage to be putzes (or better yet, in Hebrew, putzim) at sometime in our lives. What I am trying to name here is the way in which our conduct of disputes betrays the deepest values to which we are committed.

The situation at General Theological Seminary is, of course, what is most immediately on my mind, but we can all name disputes that look a lot like it.  Roughly speaking, the chronology at General is as follows:

  • Sometime ago, now, because they felt no one would listen to them, eight members of the faculty went to a lawyer for advice on how to bring their complaint home to the seminary’s board of trustees.
  • The faculty issued a statement crafted with the help of their lawyers, announcing that they were going on strike and that things needed to change, if they were going to stay.
  • The board consulted their lawyers and responded, “Thank you very much for your resignations.”
  • In the social media flap that followed, the board decided to have the faculty meet with their lawyers in order to investigate the faculty’s complaint.
  • Some sort of investigation followed at the hands of lawyers and there was a brief interlude with a retired Presiding Bishop.
  • Then the board announced that their lawyers had informed them that the charges were groundless and reaffirmed the status quo.  (The interlude with the retired Presiding Bishop seems to have meant nothing.)
  • More civil unrest flourished in the social media and, as a consequence, one member of the board broke ranks and called for reconciliation and grace. Another resigned.
  • Then, the board issued yet another letter with the help of their lawyers, allowing for a carefully circumscribed reinstatement of the faculty.  (The call for reconciliation and grace seems to have meant nothing.)
  • The faculty consulted their lawyers and issued an equally, carefully crafted acceptance with a strategic broadening of the conditions for their return.

At that point the world went silent for days.

Then, having worked with their lawyers, the board issued yet another public statement tonight, reinstating the faculty that hadn’t resigned with as few specifics as possible and, in the process, reasserted their prerogatives – in the interest of the students, of course.

Inevitably, there will be more silence. But you can still hear the lawyers chirping and chattering, if you listen carefully.  And you can also hear the apostle Paul whispering, “If you are entrusted with the judgment of the world and of angels and you are working with attorneys, then you’ve already lost.”

There are countless, important things at stake in the dispute at General: justice, safety, academic freedom, freedom from discrimination and intimidation, administrative and board prerogatives, the prerogatives of the faculty, the formation of seminarians, the history and traditions of a fine institution, the challenges of adapting to the challenges that face theological education, the preservation of a fragile institution, and — just lives – the lives and livelihood of students, faculty, administrators, and (more at the fringe, because they don’t work there) the members of the board.

Any time this kind of thing happens in the church, a similar list could be generated.  Pick your own example.  They aren’t hard to find.

But Paul was trying to remind us that there is a larger constraint that ought to govern our behavior: Our place in the redemptive work of God — the nature of our lives as bearers of the image of God — the corresponding perspective and sense of responsibility that ought to shape our behavior – and the claims of the Good News that lives can change.  According to Paul, those concerns ought to keep us from ever getting to the point where we are talking to lawyers.

A firm grasp of those truths could have, should have, would have kept this from happening at several points. But the faculty and the board are talking to lawyers.  We’ve also talked to them for years now in adjudicating the ownership of churches.  And they are just the latest in a long, long line of lawyers that have worked things out for Christians, Christians who are supposed to judge the angels and the world.

I really don’t know what to say.  (Heavy silence falls here.)

One could argue that the faculty shouldn’t have gone to lawyers in the first place.  But one could also argue that the board shouldn’t have made the faculty feel so desperate and isolated that they consulted them. One could even argue that the environment had already been poisoned by the legal assumptions that have quietly shaped the prerogatives, roles, and responsibility of the seminary and the church.  If that’s so, then recourse to lawyers was inevitable and it really doesn’t matter who was first.

Truth be told, I’m sympathetic with the faculty.  I can’t believe that eight people involved just invented dissatisfaction with their workplace. Besides, they are the ones whose lives, livelihood, health insurance, and homes are in the balance.  There is an extraordinary difference here in power and leverage.

That said, the logic of Paul’s argument has been lost and mauled, just as it was in Corinth. Our oldest seminary has lost its sense of responsibility and perspective. We, as a church, have demonstrated (yet, again) that legal realities trump divine mandates. And we are all so anxious to be thought of as progressive, influential, and clever, that we have forgotten that our task is to offer the world a revelation.

There is only one thing clear tonight: We have lawyers.

When the time comes, I’m fairly sure the angels will say to all of us, “Who are you, again?”

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