I have just finished reading Bruce Chilton’s remarkable “intellectual biography” of Paul of Tarsus, Rabbi Paul. Chilton’s wonderful book lays out the evolution of Paul’s thought, in both his letters and the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles. He shows how Paul, convinced that Jesus was not just a Jewish Messiah, but was the Cosmic Christ who redeemed all humanity, became ever more radical in his views, in spite of the cost in lost friendships and ostracism from the leaders of the fledgling Jesus movement.
Paul decided, based on his vision of the Risen Jesus, and his experience with Gentile believers that he had come to know, that the Bible’s clear prohibition against accepting non-Jews as religious equals, was simply wrong and that Jesus was “Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36) That phrase was coined, not by Paul, but by Peter, but as the New Testament illustrates, Peter didn’t quite believe it. Paul, however, did.
And that belief, radical and “unscriptural” as it was, caused Paul untold problems: “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
Now the spiritual heirs of Pauline “salvation by grace alone” have made another theological leap: homosexual people, in loving, faithful, committed relationships are as much a part of the divine purpose to create a redeemed humanity as are heterosexual people who are married to each other. It’s unscriptural. It challenges every notion of traditional morality. It’s utterly inconceivable to anyone who believes that the Bible’s sexual ethics are the norm for Christians (I dare say, even Paul). It’s going to cause those who accept it untold problems. But like Paul struggling against those he called “false apostles,” (2 Corinthians 11:13) the Episcopal and the Presbyterian Church in the USA have decided to be true to the Gospel and not the traditions of men.
In Columbus, today, the Episcopal House of Deputies (made up of lay and clergy delegates) voted not to impose a moratorium on the election of gay or lesbian people to the office of Bishop. At nearly the same moment in Birmingham, the Presbyterians voted to allow clergy to be ordained who are gay and otherwise qualified.
Each of these decisions will get lots of attention by those who would impose Levitical law upon a system of grace. Each of them, like Paul’s decision to welcome uncircumcised Gentiles into the full fellowship of the Church, will hasten the looming schism in each of these denominations. We may as well get it over with.
The Episcopal Church is now led by a woman, even though traditionalists point out that Jesus and his 12 apostles were all men. The traditionalists want to set limits on grace. The radical reformers want grace to abound. It’s going to hurt. Families and congregations will be broken up. Great and historic denominations may well founder on the shoals of legal machinations. The Anglican Communion, that great relic of the British Empire, will emerge as something entirely different than it is today. The Presbyterians will create yet another Reformed body.
But the Church will eventually accept this, as surely as it accepted the notion of unclean pagans in its midst. As Eugene Peterson puts in The Message:
“We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is. If they had, they wouldn’t have killed the Master of the God-designed life on a cross. That’s why we have this Scripture text:
No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love him.
But you’ve seen and heard it because God by his Spirit has brought it all out into the open before you.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
And the Spirit of God, said Jesus, blows where it will. Creating, renewing, and life-giving, still it blows like a cyclone. That’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest.