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.

SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.