Thursday, December 08, 2005

Paul: The First Liberal Christian Theologian

After leaving the ministry, I developed a certain disdain for the writings of Paul. Any progressive will tell you, Paul represents what’s wrong with the modern Christian church. After all, most theologians agree that Paul’s writing forms the foundation for the rigid legalism native to the evangelical wing of the Christian church. However, I recently set out to read each of Paul’s letters in an attempt to decipher his true message.

What I found may shock many. You see, outside of Jesus, Paul may well be the most liberal Christian to ever walk the face of the Earth.

I aim not to debate the divinity of Paul’s work, but rather examine his writing in its’ proper context. With that said, begin with the premise that Paul’s letters represent a collection of writings from one man to a group of people, similar to a pastor writing his or her church. Decades after the death of Christ, the early Christian church struggles to take hold in Asia and Europe. Paul never met Jesus, never talked to Jesus, but His life impacted Paul’s life in a way only a “born again Christian” can understand.

Paul dedicates his life to establishing the Christian church and ensuring that the early Christians have the nurturing necessary to survive in the face of harsh persecution.

You see, Paul advocates a religion-free religion, based on a personal relationship with God. Allow me to quote from Romans 14:13-23:

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If you brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by me.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he east, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

I share this passage not to illustrate a strict Christian diet, but to expose a sense of moral relativism in Paul’s writing. Paul urges the Romans to not focus on establishing a Christian community based on legalism (whether or not someone was sinning was between that person and God and not to be defined by neither man nor book), but encourages them to instead focus on their own personal relationships with Christ and to build a Christian community that would support one another in their faith walk. I think verse 19 sums it up perfectly, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul tackles numerous difficult issues such as “justification,” “righteousness,” “grace,” and how Christ’s sacrifice freed us from “the Law.” In fact, Paul points out that, due to “original sin,” “the Law” served as a stumbling block for the Jews. Paul realized that the Romans would be tempted to establish a Christian community like the Jewish community, steep in rigid legalism that no one would be able to abide. Instead, Paul reveals the true beauty of Christ’s love—a love that transforms the heart and mind and controls our thoughts and actions.


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