That Age-Old Story: Trying to Get Christians to Get Along

“Belonging to Jesus” doesn’t seem to help
Has Christianity ever been—as the old hymn puts it—“one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world”? Probably not. Even at the very beginning, the gospels provide hints of discord in the Jesus inner circle.

Wouldn’t it have been a privilege to be chosen by the messiah as a disciple? I guess it’s human nature to want more—which is what happens in a story that we find in Mark 10. It’s tempting to wonder if Jesus was all that great at choosing and training his closest colleagues. In Mark 10, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” Jesus pointed out that this wasn’t his decision, and the reaction of the other disciples was predictable: “Hearing this, the ten began to feel indignant with James and John.”

Fast-forward 20 or 25 years. In the opening of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses the disagreements he’s been hearing about. “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.” He wrote this to a congregation he was familiar with, but when he wrote later to the church at Rome—which he had not yet visited—he seems to have gotten wind of Christians not getting along.

In Romans 14, Paul coaches the folks in that church about resolving differences. This chapter is now the focus of our attention as I continue my tour of that letter. I have written about the previous 13 chapters in earlier posts, and will wrap up the series (chapters 15 and 16) before the end of the year.

We know next to nothing about the Christian congregation in Rome in the middle of the first century, i.e., who founded it and when—and the backgrounds of those who were members. Because the Letter to the Romans is revered by Christian theologians as a masterpiece (a sad commentary indeed on Christian thought), scholars have debated and written about these matters for years. The makeup of the Roman church was almost certainly a mix, pagans locally who had converted, as well as those from far away (yes, all roads led to Rome, and there was a lot of commerce from distant points), and Jews who had been won over to the new Christ cult.

With people of such diverse backgrounds, it’s not a surprise that there were disagreements about dietary laws and religious holidays. Indeed, Paul must have heard some pretty bad stuff—he reminded folks about God’s judgment (14:10):

“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

Paul weighed in with his opinion—that’s the thrust of chapter 14. He leans toward tolerance (v. 3): “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.”

Paul would have everyone remember that they all “belong to Christ”—and thus must have a care for one another. They must not be rigid in doing their own thing, if this would be destructive (vv 20-21):

“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.”

But Romans 14 provides more insight into Paul’s cult thinking. He is offering advice on how people should treat one another as fellow members of the cult. “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this reason too Christ died and came to life again in order that he might exercise Lordship over both the dead and the living” (vv. 7-8, Joseph Fitzmyer translation, Romans, 1993).

This is cult talk: Christ wants to exercise lordship over the living and the dead: think of yourself as being owned by Christ, “we belong to the Lord.” These words are a measure of how much Paul’s personality had been invaded and warped by his Christ hallucinations. And he wanted those whom he converted to share the delusion. It is never healthy to give in to cult propaganda about being owned by a god.

We don’t know if the folks in the Roman church heeded Paul, i.e., gave up despising each other. We have no evidence that his advice and bluster worked on the Christians in Corinth or Galatia; indeed we know that theological disputes only intensified in the years that followed.

A couple of more points to be made.

• There is such irony in his advice in verse 13, “…let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” Yet we can see what a judgmental bastard Paul was when we read Romans 1:28-32, in which he slams people whom he regards with contempt—and pronounces that they deserve to die. Nice guy. Always bear in mind that, for Paul, God’s default mood was wrath.

• In verse 14, Paul writes: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” More cult talk, of course—he is “persuaded in the Lord Jesus”—but why didn’t Paul quote Jesus and even Peter in this context? In Matthew 15:11 Jesus says, “ is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…” Surely Paul would have been simpatico as well with Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, in which God himself sets aside traditional dietary laws— “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet Paul neglects to mention these mighty authorities.

But the gospels and Acts had not been written yet, so we can’t fault Paul for this omission…or can we? He seems not to have cared at all about what Jesus and Peter said. This is a vexing problem that Christians should find disturbing. Stories about Jesus—his teaching, life, miracles, etc.—never reached Paul’s ears. He bragged about not getting his information about his lord from human sources; he hunted for that “information” in Old Testament texts, and relied on his own visions. He was a rogue apostle.

It is so easy to read Romans 14 and settle on the feel-good texts, e.g., verse 19, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual up-building.” Christopher Hitchens once said of another Paul feel-good text that it “shines out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.” The apostle Paul is usually salvaged for modern readers by averting the gaze, simply ignoring everything but “the good bits.” He had bad attitude, however, and was a master of sinister, bad theology. You don’t have be a Bible scholar to figure this out.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year b
y Tellectual Press.