A More Excellent Way: Dispute Resolution and Community Formation in Paul's Corinthian Ministry
St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth provides an important resource for the work of dispute resolution. The letter reveals Paul’s unique approach to conflict. Using modern categories of alternative dispute resolution borrowed from the legal sciences, one can identify the structural approaches to conflict: negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication . These categories help a reader to peer behind Paul’s rhetoric to examine his method. Faced with particular conflicts in Corinth over divided factions in the community, disagreements about sexual conduct, and differences regarding food, Paul has many strong opinions. However, he never imposes those opinions on the Corinthian congregation. Paul never adjudicates, arbitrates, or even mediates between the parties. Instead, Paul undermines traditional understandings of power and authority in dispute resolution by demonstrating a new, cross-shaped, power-subverting approach to conflict. In addressing disputes, Paul articulates a new social ethic of solidarity based in love and points the community towards a new goal that transcends winning or losing, namely growing into the body of Christ as an organic whole. Through this process of formation, Paul seeks to both empower members of the congregation to negotiate disputes among themselves and to build up the community as whole.
Paul’s approach to conflict contrasts sharply with contemporary and traditional alternatives. Jewish practice, as evinced in the Septuagint, the New Testament, Josephus, and the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah, focused on adjudication or arbitration by an authoritative body of elders, the Sanhedrin. The Jerusalem assembly described in Acts adopted this approach to resolving disputes. Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus appears to adopt this traditional authoritative approach. Roman magistrates, in their exercise of imperium, readily adjudicated disputes backed with the threat of force. This consistent assumption of the power to adjudicate disputes is demonstrated in their correspondence and the New Testament. In adopting a cross-shaped approach to conflict, Paul turns away from the traditions of both the Sanhedrin and Roman law as he unsettles assumptions of power and authority.
Many modern churches adopt the authoritative methods of the Sanhedrin and Roman magistrates to resolve disputes today. This focus on arbitration, judgment, winning, and losing, corrodes community and solidarity. Paul’s unique approach to conflict provides a potentially transformative alternative that needs to be reappropriated today.