Jesus Versus Paul
Jesus taught and preached almost exclusively about the
Kingdom of Heaven, with no emphasis on justification by
faith—the dominant theme of Paul’s letters. Kingdom theology
is a huge and largely abstract concept Jesus had to explain
through metaphor, in little stories we call parables. The
Jesus of the Gospels was fairly low on rules and regulations
and saved his harsh rhetoric for the religious leaders—the
Church Folk—of His day. He condemned a fig tree for being
unproductive, but gave virtually everyone He met an
opportunity for a better life by transforming their thinking
from the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul
preached Christ, but not the Kingdom so much as a theology
of personal salvation and a mechanism to achieve it: belief
in and acceptance of Jesus Christ by faith.
Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies
at North Park University, from a cover story in
Christianity Today (click to view):
I grew up with, on,
through, and in the apostle Paul. His letters were the heart
of our Bible. From the time I began paying attention to my
pastor's sermons, I can only recall sermons on 1
Corinthians—the whole book verse by verse, week by week—and
Ephesians. I don't recall a series on any of the Gospels or
Something was clearly happening to me. Formerly I had loved
Paul and thought with Paul. Then, when I encountered Jesus,
as if for the first time, I began learning to think with
Jesus. One of my colleagues occasionally suggested I was
getting too Jesus-centered and ignoring Paul. I'm not so
sure I was ignoring Paul; after all, I was teaching a few of
his letters on a regular basis. But I had unlearned how to
think in Pauline terms and was thinking only in the terms of
Jesus. Everything was kingdom-centered for me. And, truth be
told, I was so taken with Jesus' kingdom vision that reading
Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters.
Evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of
Jesus to Paul, and many today are choosing sides.
Paul’s letters—upon which most Christian church doctrine is
based—were grounded in specific issues, personalities and
places: challenges the Churches needed to overcome. When men
decided to include Paul’s letters as Holy Scripture (which I
believe would have gravely offended Paul because it
completely distorts their intent), those specific issues,
personalities, places and challenges became fixed as
unambiguous commandments from God Himself—a complete
distortion of Paul’s intent. As a result, the beauty and
simplicity of The Gospel became mired in those archaic
specifics along with it. Efforts by progressive ministers to
free Paul’s teaching from the literal time and culture in
which they were written are typically met with suspicion by
Our Black Church culture is largely an oral tradition, with
the great multitude of believers conducting little if any
research and study into theology but rather guiding their
lives by church tradition passed orally from one generation
to the next. A Church of Christ—not the denomination but a
church modeled literally after the Gospels and not
weighted down by the cultural accretions inhibiting Paul’s
letters—would seem radical if not apostate to us. Why?
Because none of the junk we’ve been dragging along with us
for a hundred years actually exists in the Gospels; they are
mostly artifacts from our improper approach to Paul.
We don’t know this because we don’t question our own
theology. We mostly sit and listen, accepting whatever the
pastor says and becoming violently oppressive of any
theological thought that challenges our tradition. Why?
Because we don’t know any better and we don’t want to
know any better. We don’t read, we don’t study. We don’t
question. Neither do many if not most black pastors, who
live their entire pastoral careers running in circles, their
Sunday experiences essentially reruns of The Price Is
Right; rubbing their bellies, cashing their checks,
content to perpetuate the honorable vocation of baptizing
and burying without ever once asking themselves is any of
this actually what Christ had in mind?
My former lead pastor, Eric Mason, put it this way:
Paul was not intending to be the chief
architect of Christian theology. He was hoping to spread the
gospel (which he defined very simply) to as many people as
he could before the return of Christ or his own death.
Certainly Jesus was the center of Paul’s Gospel. Jesus was
the center of Jesus’ Gospel. However Jesus is sometimes not
the center of the church’s Gospel. The “unfathomable waste
of money and resources” is only a part of the problem as you
point out. Rather, it is our obsession with soteriology (the
doctrine of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology as applied
to the nature and structure of the Christian Church) over
discipleship with Jesus as the center of our lives.
Paul’s focus on soteriology and ecclesiology make for
terrific fodder in the church today. He was a marvelous
evangelist and tremendously good at adapting to his context
to share the Gospel of Christ. We are not so good. Rather,
by canonizing letters to 2000-year old communities
struggling with real human issues, we often canonize
ecclesiology and tradition, two things that certainly have
no business being canonized.
The Kingdom is hard to get into (see camels and needles).
Also, we love to talk about sanctification rather than
focusing on the justification of the believer. What is and
isn’t a sin for this or for that or for all believers is
just enough of a Farmville-like theological labyrinth that
good men and women are often lost in it. We also love to
condemn others more than we love to abide in Him (see camels
and gnats and splinters and logs).
Paul was all about helping his people negotiate the
trappings of their society to focus on the pure life of God.
[Philippians 4:8, Almost all of Corinthians, etc.] Spiritual
leaders like yourself are called to do the same. And you are
called to help the church negotiate the trappings of this
material, Western culture (see true religion ala James).
The empirical evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not
tongues, not supernatural gifts. It is humility. Where Christ’s
Spirit abound, so do those qualities, those Spiritual Gifts Paul
enumerates in Galatians 5.
“The Church should look like Jesus,” Warren said. But how
literally should we take that statement? Does his
church look like Jesus? How many people could have been fed with the
millions spent to build Saddleback? Or Lakewood Church? Or
Second Baptist Church Houston, TX? Or any of these other Mega Campuses? I imagine,
were Jesus to inspect those facilities, His first thought might be
how many beds they could fit in there to house the homeless and how
many meals they could buy with the millions stored in the treasury.
Jesus was a practical person whose consistent message was compassion
for the poor. The Gospels are very specific—and they’re
right there, just read them. They provide absolutely no foundation
for the lunatic psychotic narcissism that all but defines our
tradition, or our unfathomable waste of money and resources.
What we do is, at best, a distortion of Paul. The Church, both white
and black, looks to Paul and not Christ to do dumb things: to
condemn, to oppress. We dig up some Old Testament scripture—
something fulfilled by the Passion of The Christ and, therefore, no
longer in effect—or we skip ahead to Paul. Why? Because we’re
trying to do something Christ Himself never provided a model for.
We’ve decided, in our own heads, in our own righteousness, that we
know better; that we can and should fill in the blanks of Christ’s
ministry and devise practical appliances that are, in and of
themselves, violations not only of Christ’s teachings but of His
witness (His personal example). Finding no model for what we want to
do in Christ Himself, we therefore look back or skip ahead to
discover other models for our platform.
It’s possible I’m missing something. I mean, I’m not the brightest
guy in the world. As always, I welcome comment,
feedback and views
and, as always, most of you will remain silent. I’m just baffled by
what we do and not surprised at the changing face of church—white
and black—from Christ’s example of personal ministry to these
increasingly huge worshiptainment chantitoriums where we sit
anonymously in the dark repeating banal choruses until we're
mesmerized while watching religion up there on the JumboTron.
Jesus Outranks Paul
It deeply troubles me that I have to preach this, to actually say
this out loud. Beloved: Jesus Outranks Paul. By his own testimony,
Paul was a deeply flawed and imperfect individual. Yet, this is our
practice: modeling ourselves after imperfection rather than
perfection. Why? Because Paul had rules while Jesus had a
less-structured and more individually-focused ministry. We often
cannot find scripture in the Gospels to back our play when we’re
trying to hate or oppress people, so we go back to Moses or skip
ahead to Paul.
But Jesus outranks Paul. He really does. The Gospels lack the
detailed structure we see in Acts or in Paul’s letters, which posits
the question: is all of that structure really necessary? The
church’s hierarchy has been, from the very beginning, antrichrist.
Don’t look at Paul; look to Jesus, to the Gospels, wherein the
disciples attempted to form a hierarchy. What was Jesus’ response?
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came
to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 They
said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and
the other on Your left, in Your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them,
“You do not know what you ask.”
42 “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over
them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to
become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you
desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of
Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a
ransom for many.” —Mark 10:35-37, 42-45
It utterly baffles me as to why any of us actually consider what we
do as something that honors Christ or even represents Him in
anything other than a superficial way. Warren is right: the Church
should look like Jesus. It does not. It horrifies me that none of
us seem to notice.
Christopher J. Priest
1 January 2016
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