Monday, June 29, 2015

Paul vs. Jesus

Earlier today, I posted this to my Facebook account:
Made with the Bible app YouVersion. What interesting times we live in.
I posted it because, well, Paul doesn't mince words. American culture tends towards the milquetoast, especially when it comes towards criticizing someone else's behavior, but Paul was unabashed in his criticism of the church at Corinth.

Verses like this aren't very popular. It's not the warm, fuzzy face of Christianity. It warrants difficult decisions. It's problematic, especially in a world where we'd like to get along with people who we'd really like to reach with the gospel, and they don't appreciate all this talk about sexual immorality. "Why can't people be nice, like that Jesus was? Jesus loved everyone. He's the one Christians worship anyhow, right? Who cares about this Paul guy? " It's not a new criticism, but it does deserve consideration. Although as I see it, it's actually two different arguments that need to be addressed:
  • Shouldn't Jesus be given primacy over Paul?
  • Jesus loved the sinners in his midst; so why are Christians so hung up on sin?
"Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

The funny thing about this first argument isn't that it was addressed ages ago, but that it was Paul himself who did so. 
Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” or “I am with Cephas,” or “I am with Christ.” Is Christ divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Or were you in fact baptized in the name of Paul? . . . What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. . . . So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. - 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 3:5-7, 3:21-23
Paul was addressing divisions within the church at Corinth, but he certainly didn't understand himself  to have been preaching a different gospel than the one Jesus taught. Nor did the apostles who formed the church in Jerusalem and interacted with Paul frequently over the years.* Nor did the early churches which circulated copies of Paul's letters. Nor did the ecumenical councils which established the canon of the New Testament.

Ignoring any issues about authority or canonicity, was Paul actually being harsh where Jesus was lenient? Was he holding people to a higher standard than the actual Messiah? 

"And you are proud!"

Paul wasn't just addressing divisions and factions within the church of Corinth, but deep misunderstandings about sin and Christian living. 
It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? - 1 Corinthians 5:1-2
It's not clear from the text why they were proud of this; in 6:12, Paul addresses popular sayings of the Corinthians in an effort to correct them. It's plausible that the particular group being addressed here had a rather exaggerated sense of "Christian freedom" to the point that they were inviting scandal and celebrating their ability to sin so freely. 

In chapter 5, Paul is exhorting the church that letting sin fester in its midst is harmful. Like an infection, it can spread and cause misery throughout the entirety of the church. Thus, deliberate, ongoing, unrepentant sin shouldn't be tolerated in their midst, but be removed from fellowship.

To come back around to the argument at hand, people like to imagine that Jesus was not judgmental, not like this. Except:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. - Matthew 18:15-17
Paul is echoing Jesus's specific directive here. As he makes clear, he's already written to them about avoiding sexual immorality, and this scandal was apparently so notorious that word of it had spread to Paul from beyond the city of Corinth; it was likely part of the reason for division within the church. Jews did not associate with Gentiles, and tax collectors were seen as Roman sellouts, so Jesus was not advocating familial responses to fellows who refused to stop sinning. Jesus may have kept company with the disreputable, but the message here was clear: If someone within the church acts like someone outside the faith, you treat him like someone outside the faith. 

None of this is to say that the church which casts this fellow out is perfect. Both Paul and Jesus recognize the struggle with sin and temptation. Still, it is one thing to wrestle with sin, and another to wallow in it. 

Even so, perhaps Paul is still too harsh. After all, Jesus was silent on a number of subjects, and he didn't talk about sexual sin too frequently. He preached against divorce and adultery, but that was it, right? If Jesus isn't all hung up on sex, why should we let Paul get away with it?

The problem is, Jesus set a high bar for sexual sin.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. - Matthew 5:27-28
Jesus makes it clear in his teaching, it's not just about actions, but what is in the heart. It is, after all, "deceitful above all things." (Jeremiah 17:9)

Fine, but that's just for adultery. Did Jesus preach about any other forms of sexual sin? Yes, as it turns out:
Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person. . . .  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person." Matthew 15:10-11, 18-20
That term, sexual immorality, is one Paul uses as well. It is often translated as "fornication," understood as sex between unmarried individuals. 

As for other sexual sin, talk of homosexuality never appears in any of the gospels, it is true. A full explanation of why this is irrelevant is too much for this post; consider the arguments being addressed here, here, here, or here, just as a start. Suffice it to say that no first century Jew would have understood homosexuality as anything other than a sin due to Levitical teaching, and it would have gone against the entirety of a scriptural understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality as given by God; Jesus didn't preach about it much because his ministry focused almost entirely on Israel, where (presumably) homosexuality wasn't up for debate.

Jesus runs with a bad crowd

Even so, Jesus did hang out with sinners. It was a charge repeated by his critics multiple times. These weren't purely social visits, however. When Jesus taught, he called these people to repentance.
When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” - Mark 2: 16-17
We don't often know how these dinners with sinners played out, but we can assume Jesus did not treat the conversation lightly. Consider how things turned out for Zaccheus:
And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.” So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. And when the people saw it, they all complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:5-10
Compare that to the Pharisees. Jesus reserved some of his harshest language for these men. They were also called to repentance, but their response to Jesus was considerably less enthusiastic.

Paul the father

In the end, Paul didn't write the verse in question above, or any of the first letter to the church at Corinth, out of animus or hatred. He did so out of love.
 I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children. - 1 Corinthians 4:14
Paul loved the Corinthians, as he loved every church he planted or visited along his travels. He only wanted what was best for them. Knowing how destructive sin could be if left unchecked, he urged them to remove it and spare themselves any further consequences from sin.

Paul's advice is specifically for the church, too. Expanding the original quote:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you. - 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
In Matthew 18, Jesus makes clear that the course he is laying out is for those within the fellowship of the faithful. What would bringing the person to the church mean otherwise? The command is not to disassociate from sinners in the world; how else can we reach them? It is also not for those who struggle with their sins and temptations. Indeed, in the very same chapter, Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brethren not seven times, but seventy times seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

No, this advice is for the church in dealing with those who remain in sin, deliberately returning to it, celebrating it, exulting in it. It is for the church in addressing those in its midst who would put their sin on display for the world to see, refusing to turn from, apologize for, or make amends for it.
*I find it deeply amusing that Paul is often criticized as being too strict or harsh compared to Jesus, when Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem thought that Paul was too lenient. After all, he was baptizing all these Gentiles without first having them follow the Mosaic law. Quelle horreur!