Gentile Christian Liberty and Promise
(One Wesleyan's Perspective)
And with a special reference in the appendix to slavery, abortion, the status of women and homosexuality.
by Philip McPherson Rudisill
(a Wesleyan Christian)
November 18, 2002
and edited several times since.
One of the more startling teachings of the Christian faith is the moral and loving connotation of its principles, as opposed to the (rarely excepted) materialism of the Jewish context (external holiness) from which the Christian faith arose. We see this in several areas: Jesus' refusal to limit his aid to his Jewish wards,* ** which limitation was required by the rules of Jewish materialism, e.g., a prohibition on work on the Sabbath; and Paul's outright deprecation of that same materialism (such as circumcision).
* See Matthew 8:5-13 where Jesus heals the sick servant of a Roman Centurion.
** I am taken with the apparent, but never explicitly expressed, orientation of Jesus, namely that he is the king of the Jews incognito, as it were. Consistent with this thesis he roams about helping his fellow Jews in whatever way he can. The epitome of this help is his willingness (no resistance) to take the place of Barabbas on the executioner's cross and to die while giving comfort to thieves who were very much of the ilk of his own betrayer, Judas, whom he deliberately had allowed into his circle of disciples, perhaps in order to make the point: no willing Jew may be excluded.***
*** Continuing this for a moment more, what then alienated Jesus from so many of his fellow Jews, and especially from the leaders and those who were able to consider things more objectively, was his refusal to love the Jews because they were Jews, but rather only because they were people, i.e., while he accepted his charge as savior of the sons of Israel/Jacob, he kept in mind that he was doing what he did as savior of the sons/children of Adam. This was simply unacceptable to the leadership of the Jews for rather obvious reasons. A clue is given in the fact that the gentiles (the Roman governor Pilate) alone were the ones to see clearly enough to denominate him: King of the Jews (at his execution).
In the following I seek to make the logic of this scheme plain and concise.
1. Liberty From Scriptural Law Per Paul
It is the clear teaching of Paul, the universally recognized apostle to the gentiles (and personally called by the Risen Lord Jesus and accepted by the Apostles), that if anyone refrain from (or engage in) some activity solely because he thinks it is prohibited (or required) by scriptural law, then that man is a Jew (in a technical sense) and must conform to the entire law of scripture.* Accordingly if a Christian refuses to engage in murder, for example; or refuses to make a commitment in a possible homosexual relationship solely because of what seems to be a scriptural injunction against such,** then that Christian (if a man) must send for a Rabbi and seek ritual circumcision, etc.(and this per Galatians generally and also Romans 14 and other passages).** ***
* The original context was an attempt by some Jewish Christians to require all Christians (including gentiles) to be circumcised in order to be pleasing to God (see Acts 15).
** The Christian is subject to the law of neighborly love (and where all people count as neighbors) by viture of his conversion, and concludes from that law that it is unloving to murder and acts accordingly. Regarding more on this and homosexuality see Section 4 below.
*** According to Immanuel Kant, Christianity is the only moral religion in the history of the world. What he means is that the Christian is not subject to any external dictation (by priest, church or scripture), for the moral law (essentially the love of neighbor, and with all people counted as neighbors) is sufficient for all actions which are pleasing to God (along with the requirement that all individuals are expected to do all that they can before anticipating any aid of God). See Kant's Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason, and especially the General Remarks to Part 1, Paragraph 8.4, beginning on or near page 53.
2. Liberty Per Jesus
This teaching is thoroughly consistent with the characterization of the God-pleasing person on the part of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 7:12), namely: that we are to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated by that neighbor, and not as Paul or Jesus or even God might want, but as each of us would want.*
* It is clear from the Christian scriptures that such conduct of loving one's neighbor is precisely what Paul and Jesus and God want from all Christians. And see Paul's assertion of this freedom in Romans 14:4.
Furthermore, Jesus made it plain per Luke 10:25-37 that the term "neighbor" actually included all people.
3. Human Knowledge Of Right And Wrong Equal To That Of God
Further evidence of the human's capacity to make moral judgments* is given in Genesis 3:22 where God Himself observes that the human is equal to God with regard to the understanding of good and evil.** And this is confirmed by the Lord Jesus in Luke 12:13-15 concerning a dispute between two brothers.
* However, it might be questionable as to whether we also possessed the capacity to conform to the requirements of the Golden Rule. This is treated in No. 5 below.
** It is worth noting that two people might disagree with regard to the understanding of the effects of some action, but need not for that reason be thought to differ with regard to the principle of action, i.e., in this case the sincere intention to love their neighbor (see Romans 14:14-23). The presumption here is that the two would unify their actions, per the same Golden Rule, once they have unified their grasp of causes, i.e., in the area of understanding/science, which is a function of experience and experimentation, e.g., in the diagnosis of illness and dispensing of medicine. See especially Appendix below.
4. Paul's Assumptions And Abbreviations
It is only an apparent conflict with this principle that Paul often makes a (Golden-Rule-based) derivation of action which is so plain to him and to his readers that he dispenses with the logic, and simply pronounces the action as though it were original, e.g., murderers have no place in the kingdom of God. But this is merely brevity, for he could supply the actual derivation upon demand at any time, e.g., would you want someone to murder you? etc. Thus the universality of the Lord's requirement in Matthew 7:12 is thoroughly honored by Paul, i.e., each person must make his own derivation (from the Golden Rule) and indeed in good conscience (Romans 2:14-16, and 14:22).*
* Paul's derivation of his condemnation of same-sex sex as well as women and men flaunting their hair is cultural and no longer applicable. It was assumed, and at the time it was likely accurate, that such people could not have the mark of acceptability to God, namely a loving heart, but instead were rebellious, just as left-handed people were once considered rebellious. See the appendix below for an extended discussion of this.
5. Coming To Love One's Neighbor Naturally
Now (as an avowed Wesleyan) I assert (and here I think I remain in the company of Paul) that even though we have this divinely asserted capacity to judge good and evil (at least with regard to our own intentions), we do not naturally have the capacity to conform to our own derived and self-demanded actions of love cheerfully and willingly (for a cost is involved). But since it is impossible to please God (or anyone else for that matter) with a reluctant heart, and since the love-with-abandon that characterizes, and is required by, the Spirit of Christ (to be pleasing to God) cannot arise naturally, we would be lost except for the fact that Christ died for us as sinners. For if we will simply believe that God loves us as he showed us with Jesus taking the place of Barabbas, (where "Barabbas" = x = any sinner = myself) and be willing voluntarily to open ourselves to his grace (as did Abraham, our spiritual father and model) and love as best we can on our own, then God will provide us (though perhaps only gradually) with the required, eager and willing heart, and we will actually become new creatures, not only in mind, but also in the flesh, such that we will find it progressively easier to love all persons as we love ourselves, i.e., in conformity with the requirements of the Christian faith; that is: we shall begin to love naturally as is required in order to please God.*
* For Wesley this transformation toward and into perfection in love is precisely what is promised in the Gospel and so, according to him, our own experience here, i.e., growing in love, is an even greater proof of the validity of the Gospels than all that tradition and scholarship can provide us. See also Wesleyan theology, presented very briefly.
6. Coming To Love God Naturally
And finally (to cap what essentially, I think, can be denominated a Wesleyan/Franciscan edifice of faith and love) we can easily understand that once we find that we are in fact becoming new creatures, i.e., as we progress toward this greater and easier love (which is called sanctification*), we will find ourselves also loving God in responsive conformity with the first of the Two Great Commandments; but now in true freedom and God-induced spontaneity; loving God as the one who first loved us, and indeed who pursues us down the byways of our lives and who never wants to let us go; and whereby then we are able to
* Complete sanctification/holiness is the promise of the Gospels according to Wesleyan and other Christians and means a state where evil and selfish and sinful thoughts never even arise again. It is promised to occur at some point (and maybe only a few moments) before death. It is upon complete sanctification that a person becomes fit to commune and live in heaven with God forever.
** Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be".
For Paul there is a single law for the gentile Christian and that is the law of love. There is an implied condition here and that is to utilize ones best understanding as to what is helpful and hurtful to the human condition in applying the principle of love. This is what Paul did and this is what he expected the Christian to do. Thus we can share the same principle and spirit of love with Paul and still vary from him according to our respective and sincere understanding of what is hurtful and healthy.
Let us now examine some specific situations where Pauls understanding varies from our own and where as a result our actions also vary today from his in his time.
For Paul (especially as a Jew) it was both natural and a law of God for all sex to be heterosexual. In the Roman world it was quite common for male citizens who owned slaves not only to have a wife, but to also utilize attractive male slaves of a young age as sexual playmates. Accordingly Paul saw such Romans as abandoning their natural sexuality (for the opposite sex) for something unnatural and depraved (for the same sex) and in this wise becoming rebellious against the law of God and despicable in the eyes of decent people. As a result he condemned such "unnatural and depraved" activities and lumped these people in with murderers and adulterers and fornicators and liars, etc., and just as we also would likely have understood and done at that time.
Today, while we still have pedophiles (straight and gay) who take advantage of kids for sexual pleasure and thus are criminal (just as Paul viewed them),* the vast majority of homosexuals are naturally attracted to their own sex (and also are not pedophiles) and, therefore, are not rebellious against God's Law of Nature, and thus morally are no more different from heterosexuals than left-handers are from right-handers.** And so the homosexual needs salvation as a person just like anyone else, but not as a homosexual.
* We also, and in a like way, condemn the domination sort of same-sex sex which is found in prisons today, where the stronger straight or gay men will force weaker men to serve them sexually. And the same thing happens also in the women's prisons. This may be natural and expected, but it is neither right nor acceptable, i.e., a clear violation of the Golden Rule of love.
** Throughout much of recorded history left-handers have been thought to be rebellious, and the Latin word for left-hander is the root of the modern English word sinister. Even philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century considered all people to be right-handed by nature, and the openly left-handers were no more normal than cross-eyed people.*** This will have been the view of most people at the time of Paul, and probably even of Paul himself. In many places in the contemporary world children are still not allowed to write with their left hands. We might add that in order to be rebellious in this regard someone would deliberately write with their left-hand (or engage in same-sex sex) for the very reason that it were prohibited.
*** See Kant's Regions, page 40.
Paul, as most of the world to even very recent times, will have considered women to be weaker than men mentally and emotionally and thus needing a male shepherd to guide them through life for their own good and the common good. Accordingly Paul instructed women to be obedient to their husbands and for husbands to love and care for their wives much as the women were to guide the children. The women, for example, were not to be active in church discussions and were to keep their hair covered. Paul utilized the analogy of Christ being the head of man and man being the head of women.
Today, while there may very well be a complementary makeup between men and women, nevertheless women are considered to be equal to men before God and the law, and are not under the supervision and guardianship of men. And under no circumstances may a woman be forced to act against her will. Instead of Paul's Christ-rules-the-man-and-man-rules-the-woman analogy, the analogy for us today might better be expressed as a trinity of equal spirits, the two members of a marriage joined with the spirit of Jesus.
The economic system in Pauls day called for slaves. Although Paul will most certainly not have approved of slavery, nevertheless, since he considered the return of Christ to be imminent, he did not work for the liberation of slaves. Generally he called on people to remain in whatever condition they were in when called to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:24). He even encouraged an escaped slave to return to his master on one occasion (Philemon). Specifically he called on Christian slaves to serve their masters well and with love, and also called on Christian masters to be good to their slaves, i.e., all in accordance with the law of love.
Today we have a different take on the timing of the return of Christ and we do condemn slavery. And Paul would most certainly be one with us in this regard now.
In a more humorous vein, Paul and most people in antiquity will most likely have thought that the earth were flat and that the sky were an upside down metallic bowl (the firmament) with a spectacular light show and, accordingly, would have warned people going on long voyages, and pray for them, that they not come to the edge of the earth and fall off.
Today we know this was merely the way people thought and understood at that time. And while we pray for people who are making voyages, we no longer worry about them falling off the edge of the earth.
The modern Christian is one with St. Paul in principle and spirit (the rule of love) and differs only in the understanding of what is medicine and poison, helpful and hurtful. In this way there is a complete unity of Paul and the modern Christian.
Good and Evil are a function of the principle of action and not the understanding.
To accentuate this point we will consider the case of Don Quixote. This man is insane and thinks that a windmill is a evil giant in disguise. Consistent with his principle of helping people and with his (insane) understanding of the evil giant in disguise, he risks his own life in attacking the windmill. In his judgement (per Romans 14:4) the Don will be judged per his understanding, and will not be held accountable for any intention to injure the property of another. Accordingly we can see that we are one in principle with the good Don with regard to doing good, and vary only in our understanding of windmills and evil giants. And it points out again that good and evil are independent of a person's sanity, and judgements of what is morally right are always based upon a person's sincere understanding of what is hurtful and what is helpful.
Two Additional Matters
St. Paul, modifying slightly the words of Jesus, permitted divorce, but not remarriage. Today this seems extreme to many Christians who feel that many people get married before they are ready and before they have fully comprehended the personality of the other partner and the challenges in the marriage. These Christians want to take this into consideration and permit a "second chance." And at the same time, it is generally understood that the purpose of marriage is to unify two persons into a single unit such that all talents are shared without hesitation. Divorce is detrimental to this purpose and so some Christians are strictly against divorce and remarriage. Here again Christians can be on different sides of the debate and with all following a single principle of action (love) and possessing different understanding of what is best for people.
As a final note we might consider the subject of abortion. Here again there can be a unity of principle and a divergence of understanding. When does the soul enter into or become a human? Is it when the sperm and egg unite? or is with the first breath of air into the lungs? of upon consciousness? I don't know and I think it is still undecided and unknown at this date. Accordingly two different Christians here can act in terms of the same principle of universal love and yet with different understandings and come to different conclusions with respect to the rank of a fetus and to abortion.