The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


June 21, 2023

Just Jesus

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In the last few years I have been paying closer attention to shifts affecting the American church. It’s too easy for older believers to look at another generation and say, “They’ll come around when they have a few more years of life under their belt,” but the truth is while a number of these changes are welcome, there are some that are fundamental and, honestly, concerning.

One is the growing attraction to selected teachings of Jesus and an increased questioning of or even discounting those of the Apostle Paul. For a number of reasons, there is a widening divide between the influence of Jesus and that of Paul among Christians today.

First, Jesus is perceived as more accepting and kind than Paul. The words of Jesus welcoming all those with burdens, inviting children, breaking obsolete rules and eating with sinners are gracious and comforting. His compassion for the lost and broken draws us to him. And in spite of Paul’s well-known proclamation that there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” nobody knows what to do with Paul’s categorical stance on issues that create the impression he is absolutist, fixed and unequivocal – and he is. This leads some to believe that Jesus is irenic and Paul is combative. Jesus is hospitable and Paul is doctrinaire.

Instead of being recognized for the innovative iconoclast he was, Paul is now judged by many as one of the original “culture warriors” fighting against change and seeing imagined opponents behind every tree. Sam Altman at Y Combinator says, “the founders who do best are very paranoid, very full of existential crises.” On the other hand, Jesus is seen to be inclusive, loving and embracing of those whose behavior was considered immoral, scandalous and condemned by religious hypocrisy. You can see why it is far easier to attract unbelievers and adversaries with Jesus.

Second, I believe there is widespread fascination with people who start movements rather than those who are left with the task of slowly building an organization after the movement has begun. The character of Jayber Crow in Wendell Berry’s novel of the same name says it this way: “As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”

While that is appealing and the focus of Jesus clearly includes releasing followers from the heavy burden of traditional rules of the past, Paul’s task is to bring order not only to how we think and believe as individuals, but to the body of Christ. Paul was not a random choice.  He was anointed not just to proclaim God’s name to the Gentiles but to build the foundations of the church that did not yet exist.

So much of Paul’s challenge was, in sociologist Max Weber’s words, “routinizing charisma” and establishing roles and structures necessary for the early church to survive. But we don’t see him that way now. I hear people speak of the passages he wrote about the qualifications and responsibilities of elders and deacons as synonymous with bureaucracy and control.  And Paul’s interest in the development of theology is, sadly, sometimes dismissed as academic and bookish – even tedious and petty.

Finally, I think the broad association of the word “love” with Jesus has more appeal to many who are weary of the rancor and infighting in the church. However, there are times when “love” sounds more like Rodney King’s famous plea, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  The full meaning Paul intended has been diluted. For some, it is difficult to believe the same person who wrote Romans 1 also dictated 1 Corinthians 13. In a world of simple images, there is little patience for complexity and personalities like Paul’s that cannot be reduced and labeled neatly.

Having said all this, I do not believe there is dissonance between the message and life of Jesus and that of Paul. Clearly, their roles were different but their mission was the same. Without the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus there would be no forgiveness for sin or hope for eternal life. Without the doctrine of Paul there would likely be no lasting Church. Creating a rift between them will cause serious and lasting harm.

I have been around long enough to know this is often how change works and I also know the pendulum needs to swing hard the other way at times. But let’s not force an “either/or” choice. We need both.

Art by Fiona Francois

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