That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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