Paul & Unbelievers

In a number of passages in his letters, Paul casts non-Christians (or, humanity outside of Christ) in pretty dark terms.  Just read Romans 1:18-3:21, or Ephesians 2:1-3 and 4:17-19.

When Paul writes to his churches about life outside the Kingdom of God community, he puts it in terms of idolatry, alienation from God, enmity with God, subjection to Sin and Death, and eventual judgment and eternal destruction.

Pretty severe.

Here’s my question: are such passages meant to inform how Christians regard non-Christians?  Should they shape the way we relate to them?

The question is complicated by Paul’s exhortation to his churches to “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders, redeeming the time. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6).

Paul imagines churches treating outsiders with kindness and consideration, being wise so that their presence is gracious and their speech is reasonable.

Might it be that the passages darkly portraying life outside of Christ are directed toward some other end than informing churches how to regard non-Christians?

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Paul & Unbelievers

  1. Michael Pahl

    Tim, does it make a difference that at least some of these sorts of passages are “This is what you were,” and not “This is what they are”? Even when they seem to be more along the lines of the latter, rhetorically I wonder if they function more along the lines of the former. This could mean they are intended to shape the readers’ perception of themselves more than their perception of those outside the church. It also could suggest a somewhat positive approach to those outside the church, as in “They, too, are not beyond the reach of God’s grace in Christ.”

    1. timgombis

      You’re trackin’, Michael! It does indeed seem that the rhetoric in many of these passages is directed toward the believers to whom he’s writing. Each passage must be taken on its own, of course, but I do think it’s a mistake to theologize about “the ideal unbeliever” from these sorts of passages. And I’d see Paul hinting at a more gracious and positive approach to outsiders.

  2. Tommy Graves

    It has always been my impression that Christians (i.e. the Church) are never to condemn unbelievers for their sins, but we are to judge those within the Church. If that’s the case, perhaps we should look at these dark passages as a way to see what it looks like when a Christian is going astray, moving away from God, etc.

    That is, we should cognitively understand the sinful posture of an unbeliever, but that understanding should only influence our actions within the Church. Am I off base?

    1. timgombis

      It does seem that this is Paul’s rhetorical intention quite often. He portrays the sorts of dynamics that are out there in the present evil age, outside the church, in order to shape Christian behaviors as an alternative sort of community.

  3. Gary T. Meadors

    1 Cor 5 give an important perspective … you cannot isolate yourself from “sinners” unless you want to leave the world! Paul’s speech about the “pre-Christ” life seems “idealized” (albeit in the opposite direction)…it can be that bad. On the other hand, virtue lists are idealized in the right direction (albeit seldom lived up to). Perhaps the prominent virtue/vice lists in the era can help us see the use of Paul’s statements.

    It would have been nice if Paul would have said, “Y’all know, I have these pagan buddies that act better than you do!” (Rom 2 might actually do a bit of this when Paul uses Gentiles to shame Jews). But he didn’t make it that easy for us.

    1 Cor 5:9ff. : 9 I wrote unto you in my epistle to have no company with fornicators; 10 not at all meaning with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world: 11 but as it is, I wrote unto you not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one no, not to eat. 12 For what have I to do with judging them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? 13 But them that are without God judgeth. Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.

  4. Laurence Angell

    Any chance that some of Paul’s comments are prosopopoeia? Some well known commentators think for sure that Romans 1:18 to 3:21 contain lots of prosopopoeia (also bits of Galatians) and that he is presenting an argument from more than one or two or more sides. It sure does clear up some of the rather outlandish statements he makes which have caused me and others to be confused sometimes.

    1. timgombis

      There are bits of that in Romans, like in Romans 7, but I’m not convinced it’s there in Rom. 1:18-3:21. But I’m also convinced that Paul isn’t necessarily diagnosing the sins of outsiders. His main rhetorical point is to note that idolatrous perversion is the history of BOTH groups in the Roman community. They’re judging one another and trying to get a leg up on one another, but they both share a rebellious past and God has been merciful to both. Therefore, they need to get along.

      So, just to say that this troubling passage doesn’t need to inform how Christians regard outsiders, necessarily.

      1. Laurence Angell

        One well known author with several books to her credit has commented on Romans 1:18-32 that Paul was aware that many in his audience were slaves or former slaves (40% of Rome’s population were slaves). Some of these slaves had been sexually abused by their owners and that is why Paul puts his comments about sex so early in the letter. He not only thinks that idolatry is the BIG sin, but that it leads to the perversions he writes about. But I do like your comments and look forward to reading them. Your columns cause me to think!!

  5. Brad

    I think Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17 is helpful here. I think we can recognize the need for all people for salvation in Christ and yet also acknowledge as Paul says in verse 27 that He is not far from any one of us. We can even recognize that God sometimes speaks to people through non-Christian traditions. I think Paul is acknowledging this in his reference to the altar to an unknown god in Athens. It is also important to bear in mind that we Christians also surely get some things very wrong sometimes before we judge others outside of our tradition.
    1 Peter 3:15-16 is also helpful here. Although Paul didn’t write it, Silas may have been involved in it’s composition. Plus it’s just such sound advice: “If someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.”

  6. Greg

    Thanks for this, Tim. In my opinion, this is one of the most vital issues facing the church, given all of the public internet forums for “taking a stand against sin.” Now that we have reached “the end of Christendom,” our theological tradition is not big enough to address the world in which we evangelicals now find ourselves. “We’re either FOR sin or we’re AGAINST it.” So we lash out, some in order to “justify themselves,” and some because they actually think that is the faithful way to “take a stand for God.”

    And thanks to Gary for that 1 Corinthians text (KJV or not). I had forgotten about that one. It’s a humdinger.

    1. timgombis

      Well said, Greg. I do think that constructing all unbelievers as God-hating idolaters reinforces such postures of “talking stands” and “letting others know clearly where I’m at.” There’s nothing there that’s redemptive, either for Christians or non-Christians.

  7. Joel

    If we accept the pastorals as authentic (which I honestly don’t know enough about to take a strong stand on), then he seems to hold up pagan care for family as the minimum for how believers should care for theirs – “anyone who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever.”

    Some people interpret “worse than an unbeliever” as a sort of anathema, but I think that’s taking it out of context.

  8. Jaime

    I think we need to keep in mind Paul’s Kingdom focus. Those negative passages are not at all meant to be slur’s on the citizens of the kingdom of darkness, but they are meant to portray how wicked are the powers and authorities of the kingdom of darkness who keep people in such conditions. Just as many people today feel sorry for the citizens of North Korea, feeling a sense of compassion and sympathy for their plight, while still condemning the antics of its leader(s). That’s how I have interpreted those passages for awhile, ever since I started focusing more on a Kingdom of God/Heaven centered reading of the NT.

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