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.”

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The Cheap Grace of Donald Trump

 

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Trump and his court evangelicals

One of the Christian right’s favorite ways to excuse Donald Trump’s moral failings as a human being is to say that “God uses imperfect people.” You can read examples here, and here, and here. 

And I get it! God does use broken and imperfect people! I truly believe this; as a process thinker, I think God, in conjunction with each and every one of us, uses every moment of our lives – good, bad and in between – to create new possibilities and realities all the time.

But here’s the thing. I also believe that we are imbued with a sense of right and wrong. We have notions of human dignity and worth, and love for others, embedded within us, as part of the Imago Dei we all carry.

Because of these carried notions, and because humans are amazing, dynamic beings, we have the ability to react to situations, to learn, and the change. In fact, we have a divine mandate to do so. We must learn from our mistakes and shortcomings; it’s bred into our make-up. Human beings would have died out long ago if we didn’t learn and adapt.

In the Christian realm, the leeway we give ourselves and one another to learn and grow and have second chances is called grace. What sets Christianity apart is that grace is unearned, that we get it just because we are.

But, as St. Paul explained, just because grace is unearned doesn’t mean it is free of responsibility. Richard Beck writes, “Grace has been given to us...Therefore. And what follows Paul’s Therefore is a list of obligations and expectations. Like his contemporaries, Paul assumes that grace implies a return. Grace obligates us. Gifts–even God’s gifts–have strings attached.”

Grace without an imperative to change is Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

God may use broken people, but when God does, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge the grace that that is, and do better next time to not keep perpetuating our own brokenness. The excusing of Donald Trumps’s moral failings without requiring him to show any progress is cheap grace. It is an affront to the God who has shown us grace, but who also expects us to react to that grace, not just keep on what we were doing. The brand of American Christianity that keeps excusing Trump is a brand of Christianity built on a foundation of cheap grace; this foundation is like Jesus’ house built on sand.

I’m not saying Donald Trump can never make mistakes. Obviously, we all do and will. But if he keeps refusing to acknowledge those mistakes or make any changes, then it is the Christian duty of his court evangelicals to call him on it. And if they won’t do it, they are abdicating their Christian responsibility, and choosing power over Christ.

Romans 16: Gender Equality and Paul #30daysofPaul

Well, we’ve made it to the end.

30 days of Paul turned into something more like 41 days of Paul, thanks to illness and work and birthdays and just life in general.

But this is it. The last piece.

I’ve learned a lot about Paul and his writings over the course of this series. I’ve found him to be funny, intelligent, moving; his personality really shows through in his letters. I’ve also been able to dispel myths about him that I had before, and that I think a lot of progressive Christians carry around.

In wrapping up, I want to address one of those misconceptions one more time. This is the big one, the one that really trips folks up when they read the Apostle: Paul’s views on women.

Now, Romans 16 is, I think, a really good place to tackle this subject. This chapter is really just the postscript and signature line for a long, important letter. He greets a bunch of people, sends some greetings from his compatriots, and signs off. But look more closely at those greetings.

27 names are listed.

10 of those names,

are the names of women.

The stereotype of Paul is that he held a decidedly anti-woman view of the world, and of how the church should be organized. This is based on several verses from his letters, or letters attributed to him. The most commonly cited are 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

Now those last three verses cited, from Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy, are relatively easy to dismiss from this argument, because if you haven’t noticed, they aren’t included in this study and thus are not considered to be authentic writings of Paul. So they are not indicative of his views on the sbject.

The 1 Corinthians verse is a little trickier. That letter was most assuredly written by Paul. But many Biblical scholars no longer think those verses, and a whole raft of others in the letter, were actually written by Paul.

I didn’t touch on this much when were going through 1 Corinthians, but this scholarly consensus on this stuff is almost unanimous. And for 14:34-35, the view is that this was inserted by a later editor to advance an agenda that prioritized the leadership of men in early churches. This assumption is made because these two verses break up a flow of commands about keeping order and peace within the church, related most likely to the subject we tackled yesterday, Paul’s desire for the church to not stir the waters too much in light of the imminent return of Jesus.

So, we’ve determined that the texts justifying Paul’s exclusion of women are no such thing. How do we get from there to seeing Paul not just as a typical mysoginistic first century male, to a radical believer in gender equality?

Back to those 27 names in Romans 16.

Like I said, 10 are women.

Prisca (or Priscilla).

Mary.

Junia.

Tryphaena.

Tryphosa.

Persis.

The mother of Rufus.

Julia.

The sister of Nereus.

Phoebe.

All are prominent enough to get called out by name.

Some get special attention.

Prisca is a well-known associate of Paul, along with her husband Aquila, and is said to work with Paul.

Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis also get a shout-out for their work. In fact, the Greek word used here for work, “kopaio”, is a word Paul uses to describe himself in Galatians and Corinthians, and indicates specifically apostolic work.

Junia is noted for being “prominent among the apostles.”

And finally, Phoebe is called “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” and a “benefactor” of Paul’s, indicating she was a patron of sorts to him. It is Phoebe who is entrusted to deliver this letter for Paul to Rome.

I think in light of Romans 16, it is hard to paint Paul as someone who doesn’t value women, or doesn’t see a place for them in active church leadership. Paul saw women as key actors in the early Christian movement, and was never afraid to associate with them, commission them or place them in leadership.;

This really helps highlight what I feel is the key takeaway from this study. Throughout these seven letters, the impression I have gotten of Paul is of a universalist, a radical, an egalitarian. Paul sees all people as equal in the eyes of God. He wants all people brought into the church, to be made whole in the ever present love of God. Paul didn’t care if you were “Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What a great summary of Paul the Apostle.

Next: There is no next! This is it. Thanks for sticking with me through this study; it’s been a lot of fun and very informative. I have some exciting plans for the next few months going forward here on the blog, which I will lay out in more detail in the next couple of days, so keep checking in to see what’s in store!

For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.