The Challenge of Christian Diversity

 Welcome those who are weak in faith,[a] but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord[b] is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?[c] Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?[d] For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.[e] 11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to[f] God.”

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God

Romans 14:1-12, NRSV

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans was part of my morning Scripture reading for Saturday, and it really struck me, as it always does.

Far too often, many Christians, of all denominations and backgrounds and persuasions, believe one of our tasks as disciples is to beat others over the heads with our own interpretations and readings of the faith, in order to win some argument and prove who is “right.” Yours truly is certainly guilty of that quite often.

Paul was, as well. Go read Galatians. Go read 1st Corinthians. Paul had a certain view of the Christian faith, one that he dedicated his life to traveling and preaching around the Mediterranean world. And, quite often, his views came into conflict with the views of other traveling preachers and disciples. Read what he writes in the first chapter of Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel[b] from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Galatians 1:6-9, NRSV

Paul certainly isn’t following his own, later words here. He had preached the Gospel to the churches in Galatia. After he left, their heads became turned by other voices, news of which gets back to Paul, who dispatches this angry and scathing letter. Paul definitely isn’t scared to quarrel over the Gospel, to use his own choice of accusatory verb.

Over at his blog, Alan Jacobs has been recording how he and several of his fellow Baylor faculty members are reading chronologically through the letters of Paul (something I tackled on this blog a few years ago. In his first post, Jacobs writes:

Here we discern a note of high anxiety creeping into Paul’s letters: he can visit and teach the members of a particular church, but once he has departed to teach elsewhere, he has no idea how faithful a given community will be to his instruction. He spends a lot of time reminding the Galatians of his God-given authority, of how he was converted not by human persuasion but by the direct intervention of Christ himself. (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”) Nevertheless, he notes, the other apostles, the ones who knew Jesus in the flesh, have heard from him and have accepted his apostolic authority. Why do “you foolish Galatians” fail to do so? The self-commendation here is relentless and, to some of us, rather off-putting.

How fascinating is the evolution of Paul we can watch through his letters? From the worried, anxious church-planting Paul of Galatians, to the calm, authoritative theologian Paul in Romans, we can track the evolution of this singular person as he read tiny glimpses into his correspondence.

I love, and am deeply challenged by, the book of Romans. As a theologian myself, I love that it is perhaps the most systematic work in all Scripture, as Paul attempts to tell a coherent story about the redemption found in Christ. But, as a deeply flawed person who often fails to live the ideals I aspire to as a Christian, it challenges me on every page. Paul’s theology in Romans isn’t a detached, academic theology; it is the first practical theology, the first praxis of faith produced for a public.

And so, as I said, Paul’s words in Romans 14 challenge me. They challenge me to remember that I do not have the market cornered on Christian interpretation. Nor do the people I read and respect. Nor do those who I deeply disagree with, but my own shortcomings remind me, they aren’t completely bereft of truth either. We all, to paraphrase Paul again, see in a mirror dimly, and are all grasping after the truth.

Paul’s words are a reminder that we each approach the faith from different starting points. Thus, we each are going to see things differently. So to expect each and every Christian to believe and act in exactly the same way is almost the definition of unrealistic. We must make ourselves open to difference, of opinion, of practice, of belief, of emphasis. And we must realize that this diversity, rather than detracting from the message of God, instead enhances it, as it reflects the multitude of ways we see God portrayed and modeled in Scripture. We are diverse because God is diverse.

Now, as someone who writes a blog that at times emphasizes calling out damaging and destructive forms of Christian faith in the world, far be it from me to discourage all forms of disagreement, and even quarreling, among Christians. I strongly believe the faith we practice is a human product, and thus to fires of struggle and debate are more often than not refining fires. Debate can be a powerful and wonderful force.

And beyond that, while there are a diversity of ways to be a Christian, there are unequivocally wrong ways to be a Christian. There are certainly practices and beliefs -particularly, those that dehumanize and exclude others – that it is wrong to apply the label of Christ to, and these must be confronted and exposed.

But, as Paul reminds us, we all stand before the judgement, ultimately, of God. To exclude others from the Table of Christ is to commit a deep wrong against God’s church. We must always recognize that others will live their faith differently than ours, and we must realize that in doing so, they too are seeking the Way of Christ.

To quote a favorite saying of Christian peacemakers, “In essentials. unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Excerpt #7

All of the sudden, the words I sing every day at morning prayer echoed in my head. Send out your light and your truth, that they may guide us and lead us to your holy holy hill and to your dwelling. I felt dizzy. This was God’s holy hill: the Hill. And that apartment, with the broken tricycle out front, next to Ruth’s? That was God’s dwelling. God lived right there, in that actual apartment. God lived in Ruth’s hands.

What had I been thinking by praying those words without really paying attention?

They were real. Above me, above the projects and Ruth’s tears, above the wrecked roofs and broken doors and every mistake I’d ever made in my life, was the dark sky, luminous in the east. And in my hands were some Cheerios, some lettuce, and a loaf of bread.

I was going to keep giving that food away. What I glimpsed in the projects was the last thing I’d expected growing up: that because God was about feeding and being fed, religion could be a way not to separate people but to unite them.

It wasn’t that class and race disappeared in the blinding light of God. It wasn’t that the painful cultural splits among believers – over abortion or homosexuality or the role of laypeople – were erased by invoking the name of Jesus. It wasn’t even that people on the Hill who prayed with me or blessed me or told me about their churches necessarily shared my own peculiar ideas about God. But something happened when I brought a plastic bag full of lettuce and potatoes and left it on Ms. Robinson’s table. Something happened when Ruth fixed me a plate of neck bones and green beans and made me sit down to eat it, or Ty-Jay offered me a sip of his ice tea. The sharing of food was an actual sacrament, one that resonated beyond the church and its regulations, and into a real experience of the divine. I wanted more.

Sara Miles, Take This Bread, 196-97

Excerpts #6

By renouncing their allegiance to the King, the delegates at Philadelphia had committed treason and embarked on a course from which there could be no turning back.

“We are in the very midst of a revolution,” wrote John Adams, “the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”

In a ringing preamble, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the document declared it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” and were endowed with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And to this noble end the delegates had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence, of course, the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and eminent member of Congress who opposed the Declaration, had called it a “skiff made of paper.” And as Nathanael Greene had warned, there were never any certainties about the fate of war.

But from this point on, the citizen-soldiers of Washington’s army were no longer to be fighting only for the defense of their country, or for their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen, as they had at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and through the long siege at Boston. It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality.

[…]

At a stroke the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical junction something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.

David McCullough, 1776, 136-37