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.

Headed for Oblivion

A number of circumstances have converged in my life recently and I have (once again, for the millionth time) started playing my guitars. I have been channeling my inner Peter, Paul, and Mary, my inner Statler Brothers, my inner Don Williams, my inner Don McLean, my inner many, many others. Mostly I have just been channeling my inner John Denver. I have been listening to and watching a lot of JDs songs. One song in particular always leaves me with a lump in my throat, its called “What are We Making Weapons For (Let Us Begin).” One brief little snippet of a verse is this,

Now for the first time, this could be the last time.

At the time Denver wrote and recorded the song there was no real certainty but what the “cold” war would suddenly and irreversibly go “hot” with no mechanism for controlling it. For the first time in human history, it was a very real possibility that any “shooting war” would be the last of our civilization.

I don’t think we face that kind of mutually assured destruction today – at least not at the degree of uncertainty that caused Denver to write that song. But, at least in the United States, I do think we are headed for a form of oblivion. How far progressed we are will be a question for historians to determine. I do not hold much optimism for the future, however.

Observers of political history are right to point out that we as a republic have always had our rancorous moments – and just about every national political contest has generated some form of ugliness. In the defense of our current situation, at least we do not settle disagreements with a duel. But that is slight reassurance for what we do to each other.

I can attest that every presidential election – and I mean ever blooming one – since 1980 has been styled as “the most important election in the history of the United States.” Even given some slack for hyperbole, that is really quite a mouthful. Somehow I think the elections of Lincoln and later Franklin D. Roosevelt to have much more significance for our republic than Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump. Maybe all four combined! I would even rate the election of Kennedy to be more significant than Clinton, either Bush, and certainly Obama.

But with each election cycle I am noticing how much more divided the electorate is becoming, how much more unforgiving the contestants are, and how the victors are becoming so much less inclined to set aside their election mentality and settle down to the process of governing. Today it is all campaign, all the time. There simply is no time to govern.

So, maybe for the first time in our republic, this could be the beginning of our journey into oblivion. A nation of 350+ million people cannot continue to exist with the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the passionate and long lasting intolerance that all sides have for each other. The “middle ground” of American politics is evaporating before our very eyes. What has taken its place?

As goes culture, so goes the popular religions within that culture. Which means, dear Christian, that the church of Christ is every bit as threatened by this headlong march into anarchy as is the government. Note: this is not an attack from the outside – it is clearly an internal war. In America in 2018 there is less tolerance of opposing viewpoints regarding Christ, the church, and how we are to relate to one another than in any time in our history.

How we are to come out on the other side of this is still a matter of the future. But, just as one person’s opinion, I do not think that we can deny the division and the passion that accompanies this division. I think I am also correct in suggesting that if we are ever to make any progress in slowing down or eliminating the eventual melt-down of the church, we are going to have to put down our weapons and pick up some towels and some wash basins.

What are we making weapons for? If peace is our vision, let us begin.