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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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.

Romans 13-15: Dangerous Misreadings of Paul #30daysofPaul

Ah, Romans 13. One of the most-misused and misunderstood sections of the Bible. Also, historically speaking, probably one of the most damaging.

For two thousand years, every power-tripping tyrant has justified his authority by invoking the Apostle here, quieting the protesting masses by simply pointing out that he was appointed by God, because Paul said so, very explicitly.

Very often, the Church has backed up such claims and reasoning’s.

In modern usage, it is more often used as a clobber verse against those who don’t like whatever government is in power, telling them that they better get in line, because God said so.

In their combined work “The First Paul,” (which I just started reading and now wish I would have started before this study) John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg call Romans 13 “one of the most imprudent passages in all of Paul’s letters. Looking back on how it has been used throughout Christian history, Paul might surely wish he had never written it.

Can I sign on to that sentiment?

But there has to be some utility here, right? There has to be something constructive we can use in today’s world of democracy and dissent, something that isn’t along the lines of “you’ll take it and you’ll like it. Or else.”

Let’s put things in context here, both Biblical and historicals.

First, imagine the Bible didn’t have the chapter and verse divisions. This makes us look at it like it was written, as one part of an unbroken letter. Romans 13 falls in amongst a whole string of instructions for the church at Rome. Remember how chapter 12 ended?

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So, in light of that, verse 13:1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” – seems to make sense as the next in a line of instructions.

And then, it seems, Paul feels the need to expound upon this thought. That makes sense; this verse by itself would seem confusing to the early church, who was dealing daily with a governing authority who wanted to put them to death. Why in the world should they submit?

So, Paul explains, if you live right and keep quiet and stay out of sight, you shouldn’t have much problem. And then he tells them, pay your taxes. Don’t refuse to do something as simple as that.

I think this gets at the heart of Paul’s intentions. The church at Rome, the individuals who made it up, probably felt like sending a portion of their hard-earned and meager earnings back to Caesar was not only a terrible hardship on them and the church they supported, but probably unnecessary, as they believed Jesus was coming back soon. They may have even felt like violent resistance would be a smart tactic!

And so, Paul invokes the imminent return of Jesus in verses 11-14 to make the exact opposite point the Romans were making. Instead of refusing to pay taxes because of Jesus’ coming return, they should instead pay their taxes, because at his return, that money would be of no use anyway!

So, in this total light, this all makes sense. Nothing overly objectionable here; Paul, in a bit of a rhetorical panic, may have overstated this case he was trying to make here, but he was concerned with keeping the church and Christians in Rome safe. So we can forgive him.

Another reason to forgive: Paul probably didn’t have any inkling that his words would be passed down for 2,000 or more years and read in a way that misconstrues them as the Directly-Dictated Word of God Never To Be Disputed Or Questioned. Remember, this was a letter written to the church at Rome. He had the reasonable expectation that it would be shared among Christians in Rome, and possibly beyond into Italy, during his lifetime. He may have even expected it to be circulated in some circles after his death by his churches to stake his claim.

But 2000 years of infallibility? I’m sure he never expected such a thing.

Paul had, as I’ve described before, an overwhelming Eschatology of Immanence. I mean, he thought Jesus was coming back to judge within his and his follower’s lives. All instructions he gave must be read in this light.

Paul didn’t want his churches trying to overthrow the Roman government. In fact, he didn’t even want them drawing undue attention to themselves. Go with the flow, he said, because Jesus is coming soon, and really, none of this matters at that point.

Now, Paul was wrong about the imminent return. And Christians for 2000 years have been wrong to forget this context. It is crucial to reading and understanding Paul.

Paul wasn’t justifying corrupt, tyrannical, unjust worldly governments. Paul was concerned with mercy and love and justice and a universal church of equality. None of that would lead him to prop up any worldly government, much less an unjust one. Paul I think would have been quite on board with attempts to defy and overthrow them, if he had lived for two millennium and shed his eschatology.

But he didn’t.

And we need to remember that.

And we owe it to him to do so.

Next: Romans 16

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