Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Midtown Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, one year ago today*

What in the world are we doing here as Midtown?  We’re a group of friends committed to one another and committed to loving one another in the name of Jesus.  And we’ve committed ourselves to one another because God committed himself to us.  We’re a community that has already committed itself to love and serve one another, knowing that as we embody the life of God on earth—here in Springfield—we will experience the presence of God in power, and that has a super-abounding effect on everyone around us.  When we love one another in practical and sustained ways, the presence of God is stirred up among us, in us, and around us, to empower and enliven us, and to radiate blessing and God’s own life to the surrounding neighbourhood.

Midtown is a really pathetic “work” in terms of the world.  We meet in this dingy, moldy old building and we don’t have any full-time people.  There is much that we don’t do very well.  The compulsion, then, for this place and our community requires that we see through all the distractions and failures to the beauty and power of this place and this ministry—the beauty and wonder of each other and of all us together as a community.  And that, of course, requires that God is truly present among us, always opening our eyes, always giving us life, always renewing and redeeming us.

When we gather on Saturday nights, we are not putting on a show.  If that is what we do, we’re a miserable and spectacular failure.  When we meet on Saturday nights, we’re spending family time together.  We’re meeting to be reminded of what is real and what reality is all about.  We’re here to be reminded that God so loved the world that He sent his Son, who came into this enslaved world and loved the unlovely, the rebel, the outcast, the downtrodden, the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  And he gave himself unto death for the healing of the world.

We gather to celebrate this reality, and to put our heads together to figure out how to be the Body of Jesus in the world—how to be the hands of Jesus as he seeks to love the world and give it life.  And we gain strength to actually put those plans into action, to love and serve one another and this little portion of Springfield in the name of Jesus.  So we gather to find out what it would look like practically to translate John 3:16 theologically: “For God so loved Springfield, that he gave Midtown…”

That’s what Midtown is all about.  It’s about giving, loving, serving, knowing that throwing ourselves into this “work” is putting ourselves in position to be drawn into the very heart of God, feeding off his joy and feeling his heart break as he looks out on his lost sheep who desperately need the Shepherd.

We’re going to do again what we did last Fall – we’re going to study Mark throughout the Fall up until Advent, after which we’ll follow the church calendar.  We’ll have the schedule printed up that we’ll follow throughout the fall so that you can read that chunk of Mark that we’ll cover and be ready to discuss it.

Mark is perhaps the most challenging of the four Gospels.  It’s written in a very jarring and dramatic way.  Next week we’re going to study Mark 8:31-9:29.  Several lessons we’ll hopefully learn from Mark:

First, we’ll learn about Jesus – who is he and what does it mean to follow him?  What does it mean to inhabit the Kingdom of God, to lay our lives down for others, to participate with God in seeking and saving what is lost?  Our hope is that as we study Mark, our minds and hearts will be transformed so that we come to gain a clearer vision of what this will mean for our community.

Second, we’ll be confronted with the ways in which we are complacent.  In Mark, Jesus constantly calls religious authorities to account and he favors outsiders.  Jesus spends time with those that society considers of no account.  We might say – “hey, great!  That’s us!  We’re not the hoity toity of society and we’ve all left the comfort of the evangelical churches we could be part of.  We’re the ones who ‘get’ Jesus and what he’s all about.”

But beware.  That’s just what the disciples did in Mark.  They “got” Jesus in the beginning, but then they became complacent and Jesus begins to become a bit of a mystery to them.  They become confused and start to fight one another and can’t understand what he’s saying.  He ends up calling Peter “Satan,” and asks if they are the ones who have hardened hearts.

The lesson here is that we must not take Jesus lightly.  We must not take following Jesus lightly.  We can’t put our discipleship to Jesus on cruise control, or presume that we have an inside track with God to any extent.  We all need to live consciously.  We all need to make our Kingdom identities our fundamental identity, and act from it at point after point.

What will that mean for us? 

I can’t quite say, but it might mean that we end up responding to the constant calls for repentance in Mark in ways that we didn’t anticipate.  What relational dynamics need to be repented of?  What personal idolatries need to be identified and repented of?  What well-worn community divisions here at Midtown need to be identified and redeemed?

The form that Kingdom-oriented repentance takes may surprise us, but we know that any repentance we do will only fire up God’s presence among us and stir up his life in us.

I’m sure we’ll see more of that as we go along.

Third, we’ll talk lots about living in the Kingdom of God over against the Kingdom of this world.  Mark is written to encourage disciples to continue in faithfulness, to persevere in following Jesus despite persecution and conflict.  Throughout Mark, Jesus faces conflict at every point.  He is challenging religious authorities who have used their positions to accumulate even more power, exploiting those they are supposed to serve.  He also faces conflict with the powers of darkness, as he casts out demons and frees people from Satan’s grip.

Mark’s readers, of course, lived during the time of the Roman empire, and this provided a serious and immediate challenge to their Christian faith. 

How should we apply this dynamic in Mark?  What empire do we currently inhabit that provides pressure on our little community, on each of our walks in truth?  I think we’d be foolish to say that we live in an empire that provides persecution, even though some of us might believe that we’re persecuted for our faith in the public arena.  I hardly think that’s the case, but even if that were true, being thought lightly of by some television talking head isn’t the same as having your parents hauled off to be mauled by lions.

I think we ought to consider our situation within what one theologian calls the “empire of desire.”  In the ridiculously rich West, we currently inhabit an “empire of desire,” subject to a wide variety of pressures that call  on us to invest our lives, energies, money, fantasies, imaginations, and time involved in all sorts of pursuits that are very far from persecution, but just as threatening to Christian faith—perhaps even more so, because they’re so subtle.

In Mark 4, Jesus talks about how the word is broadcast like seed being sown in a field—the preaching of the Kingdom goes out and it finds a variety of soils—different kinds of hearts.  After telling the parable, he then gives the interpretation:

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable?  How then will you understand any parable?  The farmer sows the word.  Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown.  As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.  Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time.  When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.  Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.  Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown” (Mark 4:13-20).

Mark is written to a situation where people are being persecuted and the word is often snatched away by Satan immediately after hearing it, or because of persecution, they fall away.

But I think we ought to consider hearing Mark from the standpoint of the third soil and see the threat to our perseverance as the many other things that are available “out there” that draw out our hearts and lead us away from the simplicity of following Jesus.  And this following Jesus takes the form of faithfulness to one another and a commitment to creatively love one another and this neighbourhood in the name of Jesus.

All of us are stretched and stressed.  Most of us are part of the middle-class pursuit of establishing our identities through involvement in activities or climbing our career ladders.  We don’t live in an empire of persecution, but one that manipulates and enflames our desires into a frenzy so that we have chaotic and disordered lives—too busy to be Kingdom people.  We need to hear Mark so that we inhabit shalom and experience the rest and joy of the gospel along with our brothers and sisters in the community of faith. 

That is the only way we’ll be the kind of community that is good news for this neighborhood.

Mark is a trouble-making Gospel.  Jesus is always stirring the pot and going after anyone and everyone who is complacent.  But he always does so in order that he might bring people into Gospel pathways.  It’ll be interesting to see what sort of trouble Mark stirs up in our community – all with the purpose of God redeeming us for the glory of King Jesus.

O God, make speed to save us.  O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Paul’s Gospel Ministry

In Rom. 1:13-15 Paul tells the Roman Christians of his long-held desire to visit them.  He uses two expressions to speak of his ministry that are often misunderstood because of narrowed conceptions of the Christian gospel.  I’ll quote here the NIV and CEB translations of these verses and highlight these expressions.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.  I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.  That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome (NIV).

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I planned to visit you many times, although I have been prevented from coming until now.  I want to harvest some fruit among you, just as I have done among the other Gentiles.  I have a responsibility both to Greeks and to those who don’t speak Greek, both to the wise and to the foolish.  That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome (CEB).

Paul is not here referring to what many of us imagine when we think of “the gospel.”  When Paul says that he wants to obtain “some fruit” among the Romans he isn’t saying that when he’s there he hopes to go street preaching.  And by “preaching the gospel” to them, he does not mean that many of them are unconverted and that he plans to hold some evangelistic services during his visit.  He is not thinking of the “Romans Road,” four spiritual laws, or giving his testimony with a seamless transition to an invitation at the end.

Paul’s conception of the gospel is larger, grander, more comprehensive, and more robust than that.  It is not merely the tidy and simple message that gets one into the Christian faith.

According to Paul’s gospel conception, God is at work to restore creation.  The powers of Sin, Death, and the Flesh have hijacked God’s good world and are at work corrupting and perverting everything.  But God has acted decisively and in power to break the enslaving and oppressive grip of the powers of evil over his world and has begun to reclaim and renew everything.

In Christ and by his Spirit, God is transforming creation, redeeming humans, and healing relationships.  God is at work to restore all of creation to flourishing for the glory of his name through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit.

When Paul hears about the conflicts in the Roman fellowships while in Corinth, therefore, he thinks in holistic gospel terms.  The fruit that Paul wants to obtain among them is reconciliation between Christian sisters and brothers.  Paul writes a pastoral letter exhorting them to be reconciled and urging them toward unity as the restored people of God. 

Such conflict-resolution is gospel ministry.  That is the fruit that Paul wants to obtain among them—reconciliation and restoration.

If he were to travel to Rome, Paul would not necessarily want to “preach the gospel” to them.  By εὐαγγελίσασθαι in v. 15 Paul signals that he wants to “gospelize” them during his visit.  He wants to see the gospel at work among them, which will involve God’s transforming power working to unite them more fruitfully and effectively for their shared joy to the glory of God (cf. Rom. 15:5-7).

When Paul thinks of “the gospel,” he has this larger reality in view—the resurrection power of God invading and transforming creation in Christ and by God’s Spirit.  It involves healing human hearts, mending relationships, renewing communities—whatever is involved in restoring creation to its flourishing for the glory of God.

Gospel ministry, therefore, has many contours and takes many shapes, just as the gospel speaks many voices and meets and transforms any and every situation.

John Stott

Scot McKnight cites lessons that can be learned from John Stott’s exemplary life and ministry.

See also the piece in Christianity Today, this tribute from The Bible Society (UK), and the obituary in The Guardian, which, according to Steve Walton, was the paper Stott read.

Barbarism Begins At Home

That’s the name of a great song from The Smiths and it’s the theme of Russell Jacoby’s second chapter in his book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present.  I found it strikingly instructive, or at least illustrative, of fundamentalist and evangelical in-fighting.

Jacoby notes that throughout history civil wars have been more barbaric than wars against outsiders.  Confounding all reason, neighbors and kinsmen turn on one another in such ways that they do not when it comes to interstate conflicts.

Jacoby cites a passage from Thucydides, writing about the Peloponnesian War, in which Greek fought Greek.

“There was death in every shape and form,” writes Thucydides.  “People went to every extreme and beyond it.  There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples and butchered on the very altars.”  Families turned on families.  “Blood ties became more foreign than factional ones.”  Loyalty to the faction overrode loyalty to family members who became the enemy.

For Thucydides the “passions of civil war” leave no room for compromise.  The impulse of revenge undermines reconciliation.  “Personal ambition” and “violent fanaticism” drive the conflict.  “The victims [members of the anti-Athenian faction] were accused of conspiring to overthrow democracy, but in fact men were often killed on grounds of personal hatred or else by their debtors because of the money they owed.”  The Venetian ambassador’s report on the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre two thousand years later used almost the same words.  The crowd had no mercy, he wrote in 1572.  “If one man hated another because of some argument or lawsuit, all he had to say was ‘This man is Huguenot’ and he was immediately killed.  (That happened to many Catholics.)”  Such is civil dissension across the millennia.  Hatreds and grudges often overwhelm principles and politics (p. 42).

Having seen doctrinal controversies and church splits up close, I’m amazed by how many of them begin with petty grievances, jealousies, or long-held grudges against others.

I’m also struck by how the tribalism of contemporary American evangelicalism has led to the employment of such vicious rhetoric to speak of fellow Christians.  Confessing evangelical people will say things on blogs and in print about other Christians that I suspect they would not say about others in public.

One other passage in Jacoby struck me.  He uses psychoanalytic descriptive tools here and there to great effect, as he does in speaking of the Balkan conflicts leading up to the first world war.

The two Balkan wars might be considered a short course in the dialectic of violence.  The attack on the outsider makes way for the attack on the insider.  To use psychoanalytic logic, first the father is overthrown, and then the brothers turn on one another (p. 38).

Many others have noted how it is that the fundamentalist-liberal controversies in the early part of the last century fostered an ethos of conflict and contentiousness.  One of the banner Bible texts in those days was Jude 3—“always contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints.”

The culture of conflict took such hold, however, that fundamentalists and later evangelicals never cultivated alternative ways of imagining Christian existence.  “Godliness” meant fighting.  People who expressed a desire to defend the faith and fight against heretics were promoted, sent off to seminary, and installed in pulpits.

The problem, however, was that having separated from liberals, there was no one left to fight but one another.  The smallest differences in doctrinal articulation or worship style became the theaters of never-ending conflict.  The roots of the tribalism of which Mickey Maudlin speaks go back at least a century and even deeper into the history of human behavior.

Faith & Obedience

Paul frames his letter to the Romans with his apostolic mission—to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations, acting as an agent of God’s restoration of the nations (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

One of the most damaging aspects of an evangelical vision of the Christian gospel is the bifurcation between faith and obedience.  Paul saw these as nearly synonymous, but in the wake of the Reformation, they have been set in opposition, a move with disastrous consequences for Christian discipleship and for interpreting Paul.

Evangelicals often imagine that when Paul commends faith, he is endorsing human passive reception or human inaction.

Obedience, on the other hand, is human action or human intentionality.  It is something of which we ought to be suspicious, since it is outward and can be wrongly motivated.  Obedience is okay when it is driven by faith, but if it isn’t, mere obedience can easily turn into legalism.

A further problem some Christians see with obedience is that it can run the risk of marginalizing God.  We imagine that the soteriological stage is something like a zero-sum game, so that to allow any place for human action involves the marginalizing of divine action to some extent, however small.  The sum total of acting—divine and human—must add up to one hundred percent.  Any human acting, therefore, gets in the way of God’s saving action in human affairs, minimizing God’s stage presence to whatever extent.

This conception of things is mistaken.

Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world.  Paul imagines the contrast differently.  On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act.  This is faith and it is also obedience.

On the other, there is holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way.  This is unfaithfulness and it is also disobedience.

Alternatively, we can put the contrast in these terms: there are actions and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power (faith/obedience).  On the other hand, there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize God’s presence and power (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

There is human action that invites and allows God to act and for God to be seen to be working (faith/obedience), and there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, exercises exploitative power over others, and ends up not allowing God to act and to be seen (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

One great example of this is the theme of cruciformity in Paul’s letters.  Far from endorsing passivity as the mode of life that allows God’s glory to be seen, Paul calls for cross-shaped behaviors and patterns of conduct as the mode of life whereby the resurrection power of God is unleashed.

Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by our Reformation heritage—or perhaps by gnosticized or pietistic (per)versions of it.  Paul does not upbraid Israel for acting, but for acting wrongly, for failing to be faithful to their vocation as a light to the nations.  And Paul does not find that the Mosaic Law is deficient because it endorses human action whereas the gospel calls for passive reception.  This is a misreading of a number of passages in Paul, not least Galatians 3:11-12.

Pistis (“faith” or “faithfulness”), in its various forms, typically occurs in Pauline contexts that speak of the holistic human response to God, including inner confidence or trust and demonstrated loyalty through actions, speech, and renewed patterns of relating to others.

Some scholars (and many others) are hesitant to recognize the holistic character of pistis.  One senses the constant anxiety of losing ground gained by the Reformation as if allowing the term to speak of the holistic human response to God somehow marginalizes God’s action in salvation or opens the door to legalism or works of merit.  This is unhelpful in the extreme.

The “works” / “faith” distinction in Paul’s letters is not one between human action and human passivity, and Paul envisions no dichotomy at all between faith and obedience.  These wrong distinctions skew Paul’s discussions when it comes to the robust human activity involved in faith.

Paul nowhere endorses passive reception when it comes to human faith, but envisions faith as creative, redemptive, and God-empowered action.

Paul & The Mission of God

As I mentioned the other day, readers of Romans may be tempted to race through the letter introduction in an effort to get to the really good stuff.  After all, it’s just a bunch of preliminary material to get out of the way before diving into the deep theology, right? 

Resist that temptation!  The introduction is indeed important and likely contains a précis of the entire letter, if not other notes Paul considers vital to his communication with the Roman church.

In Romans 1:5, Paul situates his apostleship in direct continuity with the mission of God to redeem the nations for the glory of his name.

through [Jesus Christ our Lord] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for his name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:5-6).

This statement about his apostleship is not just a throwaway line for Paul.  He repeats this idea in Rom. 16:26, so it functions as a frame for the entire letter.

[my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ] has been made known to all the nations, unto the obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen (Rom. 16:25-27).

Paul’s mission to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations is in direct continuity with God’s aim to redeem the nations since the call of Abraham.

God’s original intention according to Genesis 1-2 was for humanity to spread out and fill the entire creation.  Humanity was to fill a role called “the image of God.”  This meant that humans were to represent the life and character of the Creator God on earth.  They were to subdue creation on God’s behalf, bringing about its flourishing and overseeing the spread of shalom throughout the whole earth.

And they were to relate to one another in imitation of God’s own intra-Trinitarian relations.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit form an eternal community of mutual delight, humans were to delight in one another and to enjoy being delighted in by one another.

God’s intentions are subverted as humanity becomes “in the image” of creation, doing the bidding of the serpent rather than subduing it in obedience to God’s command.  The unfolding story of Genesis 3-11 is the pervasive spread of Sin and Death and the subsequent degradation of humanity.

God makes his initial move to begin reclaiming creation and humanity by calling Abraham.  Abraham is chosen to be blessed by God and to be the agent whereby all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3).

God later calls Israel out of Egypt and appoints them as a “light to the nations” and a “kingdom of priests.”  Their identity as God’s elect includes a vocation to teach the nations to worship the one true God, the God of Israel.  God’s intention in calling Israel was to restore and reclaim the nations of the earth so that the whole earth was filled with the knowledge of God.

Israel failed, however, imagining that God had chosen them instead of the nations.  They cut themselves off from the nations, refusing their vocation and compromising their identity as God’s chosen.

Despite Israel’s failure, God is still committed to his mission—both to restore the nations and to restore Israel.  God sends Jesus to call Israel to renewed faithfulness to its identity and mission to be a light to the nations.

The mission of God throughout Scripture shapes the identity and vocation of the church—God’s chosen people through whom God is seeking to restore the nations.

This mission also shapes Paul’s apostleship.  He is an agent of God’s mission to reclaim the nations of the earth so that the worship of the one true God will be universal.

And it is vital to this mission that there be a flourishing community in Rome of followers of Jesus made up of Jew and gentile who regard each other as siblings in God’s global family in Christ.

Introducing Paul to the Romans

Romans contains quite a long letter opening.  Though it’s a bit artificial, we can say that the opening consists of 1:1-15, since Paul transitions abruptly into what appears to be the first major section of his letter in 1:16.  It’s tempting to regard a letter opening as relatively less important than the letter itself, and this is especially the case with Romans.  Some feel that this is just the fluffy stuff at the beginning—let’s move on and get to the meat, the theology of the letter!  That’s a poor reading strategy, however, and misses quite a lot.

Paul writes to a church he has never visited, so his pastoral approach is diplomatic.  He rhetorically establishes a relationship of mutuality with the Roman Christians.  He is not an imperious apostle talking down to them, issuing commands and edicts.  His carefully crafted rhetoric sets him alongside them, putting him in a position to bless them and be blessed by them.  He creates this mutuality in at least two ways.

First, Paul and the Romans share in the call of God.  Paul is not an apostle because of his credentials or his giftedness or because of anything else special about him.  He was “called” (v. 1), just as those in Rome were “called to be saints” (v. 7).

Second, Paul expresses his longing to come to Rome to bless and be blessed.

I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine (Rom. 1:11-12, CEB).

This is not a one-way relationship with Paul the instructor and the Romans the clueless ones in need of being set right.  This is not a lopsided power arrangement.  Paul’s ministry posture is one of mutuality. 

This is Trinitarian-shaped ministry, the sort of relational dynamic that flows from the gospel that aims to restore what was corrupted at the Fall.

Human relationships were designed to imitate the perichoretic dynamics within the Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit forming an eternal community of mutual delight.  Humans were created for this very same mutuality—to be known and to know, to delight in others and be delighted in by others.

God’s original design for humanity shapes Paul’s approach to ministry.  He encounters the Romans as a servant (v. 1), as one who longs to bless and be blessed.

This is, of course, the very same mutuality that Paul wants to see effected in the Roman fellowships.  He wants to see rival groups in Rome come to regard each other genuinely as siblings in God’s new family in Christ.

What are the implications for contemporary ministry?

Violence Against Those Nearest

Contemporary evangelicalism has a strong divisive and contentious streak and some evangelicals feel no compunction over employing violent rhetoric against fellow evangelicals.  In an effort to get something of a handle on these dynamics I picked up Russell Jacoby’s very interesting book Bloodlust.  It’s a highly readable essay on the fratricidal roots of violence.  He notes that throughout history church authorities were most vicious and unspeakably barbaric toward those nearest to them (fellow Christians) rather than those of other religions (Jews and Muslims).

In the midst of a discussion of Michael Servetus, he writes:

It is easy to forget that the religious violence of the sixteenth century, and that of the Inquisition that preceded and succeeded it, pitted Christian against Christian.  “From the beginning,” writes a historian of religion, “Christianity was distinctive among religions in its tendency to demonize its enemies, especially one type: the enemy within the fold.”  . . .  Small distinctions are what engender the hatred (p. 20).


The Corinthianization of American Evangelicalism

Mickey Maudlin, Rob Bell’s editor for his book, Love Wins, wrote about his experience with Bell and his thoughts on the responses to its publication.

He states that:

As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.”

I think Maudlin is spot-on.  Evangelicalism has come to resemble the Corinthian church.  They had broken into factions and were squabbling among themselves.  Paul says this in 1 Cor. 1:10-13:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

The message of the cross rebukes such tribalizing practices.  It is because of God’s own mercy that they are in Christ:

It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

They ought to celebrate their renewed identity in Christ rather than break up into factions oriented around the big “personalities” in the early church.  Paul says that this is worldliness in 1 Cor. 2:1-4:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

He also warns them that tribalism is eschatologically precarious.  God takes the unity of his people seriously and will destroy the divisive person:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

Paul concludes this section condemning tribalism:

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

They are to make use of all available teachers to grow in Christ, but their boast is to be in God alone who has snatched them out of darkness and united them to Christ.

This very same dynamic thrives among evangelicals today and it is a sign of evangelicalism’s worldliness.  We identify ourselves as “fans” of our favorite authors and play them off against each other.  According to Paul, such practices are only found among immature, worldly, fleshly people who do not understand the mind of Christ.

There’s much more to say about tribalism, but in looking for a Pauline precedent, this dynamic can only be associated with the worldliness of the Corinthian church.

Was Paul a Doctrinal Watchdog?

Next to Jude’s plea to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), contemporary doctrinal watchdogs appeal to Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14) to endorse their confrontational style, caustic manner, and pugilistic rhetoric. 

I’ve heard this question many times: How can it be that the same Paul who urges his communities to be unified and to treat one another with grace would go after Peter in such a confrontational way in Antioch?  And does this episode justify the conduct of those today who call out other Christians, condemning them for what they perceive as doctrinal deviation?  Aren’t they just following Paul’s example?

There’s much to say about this, but here are just a few thoughts about Paul’s confrontation of Peter.

First, Paul confronted Peter over a perversion of the very core of the gospel.  By his actions, Peter was sending the signal to the gentiles in the Antioch church that they could not be part of the people of God unless they converted to Judaism.  Peter was breaking up the body of Christ and putting those for whom Christ died outside the bounds of God’s salvation.

Peter did not get a formula wrong.  There was no confusion over doctrinal definitions.  He did not ask to revisit a settled dogmatic concept.  He did not question a received interpretation of a passage.  Paul and Peter did not disagree as to the relative emphasis of divine initiative and human responsibility.

Peter’s actions sent a direct message to Christians sitting right there in Antioch that they were outside the faith because they didn’t share his ethnic identity.  That’s why Paul confronted Peter.

There were significant differences between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders (Peter, James, and John) over ministry style, strategy, and even doctrinal emphases.  All of this was tolerable in the early church.  None of these things were the issue.  Paul did not stand for Peter’s flinching in the face of political pressure to claim implicitly that these gentile Christians were outside the faith.

Rembrandt, Two Old Men Disputing (St. Peter and St. Paul), 1628

We need to keep this in mind in our day.  Evangelicals need to learn to appreciate a breadth of ministry styles, mission strategies, and doctrinal formulations.  Orthodoxy is far larger than some of our doctrinal watchdogs realize.

Second, we don’t know the tone of Paul’s confrontation.  Are we reading too much Hollywood action hero into the passage when we see Paul standing up dramatically, music swelling to a crescendo, camera angle catching the shadows across Paul’s chiseled jaw as he kicks aside his chair and challenges Peter to a fight: “You wanna go!?”

It’s interesting that Luke doesn’t record anything about this event in Acts.  Maybe that’s because it was actually a far more subdued confrontation than we imagine.  Perhaps Paul carefully and graciously called the issue out and forcefully but kindly made sure that things were set right with as little disruption as possible.

We can’t say for sure that this is how things went, but can we be so certain that it was otherwise?  Did Paul really confront Peter violently, compromising his command to orient one’s conversation by grace?

Third, Paul’s aim in his confrontation is instructive.  Read Gal. 2:11 a few times.  Why does Paul confront Peter?  Grammatically, why does he do it?  “Because he stood condemned.”  According to Paul’s testimony, Paul confronts him in order to rescue Peter from the status of condemnation.  Peter has got it dramatically wrong because he’s been intimidated by the visitors from Jerusalem and Paul aims to rescue him from his error.

Paul’s desire to see Peter redeemed is quite instructive.  Is this the aim of our contemporary watchdogs?  Are they truly out to do good to others and to the Christian church?  Perhaps they feel that their rhetorical violence is redemptive.  That is simply a failure to think as a Christian.

There’s a way of addressing others that doesn’t demonize them or put them in a place of condemnation.  There’s a way of approaching issues that opens up pathways of redemption and doesn’t consign others to judgment.

All this is to say that we are not on good footing when we appeal to Paul’s supposed example in order to avoid obeying his clear words to treat others with grace and kindness. 

I’m not convinced that Paul was really the church’s first doctrinal watchdog.