Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections: Reasons for Romans

Happy Memorial Day! Gratitude to all those who have served the United States in its armed forces...

This concludes the first chapter of my second Paul book. For the last section of this chapter, follow this link.

For several years I have heard great pathos in Romans 15:23, where Paul mentions in passing that he had no more room to minister in the eastern Mediterranean. We like to think of Paul as this great hero missionary whose ministries were all a great success, but it seems like sometimes it could have gone either way at the time. The hindsight of history is often clear. Our experience of things in the moment often is not.

It is amazing that Paul does not seem to have given up, even to the end. Despite set backs, he kept moving on. It does seem that he learned to move on the hard way in a few cases. In our sense of things, it was the Romans that moved Paul on from Ephesus. In our reconstruction, Paul left Corinth without everyone there won over to him.

These two lessons are so obvious and yet so incredibly hard to accept. First, we will never win everyone over to our sense of God's will and plan, no matter how hard we try or how eloquently we argue. Dale Carnegie once put it in this way, "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still." The second is that there is a time to move on. It can be as simple as "agreeing to disagree" or as hard as "wiping the dust off your feet." But there is a time to give up and move on.

Sometimes we think the early church was completely unified. Acts contributes to this perception because part of its purpose seems to be to show that Christians are not troublemakers but a peaceful, unified community. And indeed, this is how we are supposed to be. This message is God's word to us from Acts. But it is not always the case and was not always the case in the early church. In reality it had factions with distinct ideologies that were as different from each other as some denominations differ from each other.

On some points, Paul and his opponents genuinely disagreed. They taught what they believed in their communities and Paul taught his understanding in his communities. On other points, his opponents skewed his position to suit their goal of discrediting him. Perhaps they thought they understood him. Perhaps they intentionally skewed his thinking. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference.

But the same lessons apply as above. We hope simply to agree to disagree and remain brothers and sisters in Christ. Our disagreements can devolve into calling each other "false brothers" as well, as Paul thought of some of his enemies in the church. Paul and Barnabas wisely went their separate ways and, surely, wished Godspeed to each other.

With those who maligned Paul maliciously, he did his best to protect his assemblies from their influence. Early on at Antioch, he seems to have argued with them face to face (Gal. 2:11-14). But at some point he must have realized that trying to convince them was a waste of time. He got to the Galatians after they were already partially persuaded. He writes the Philippians before they got there (3:2-3, 17-19). And most of Romans is a defense of his understanding of the gospel, to prepare the way for him.

And so there is a point where we have to leave all such things in God's hands. It is, after all, not about us winning an argument or about everyone seeing that we are right. God can take care of such things. If we are right, God will make this clear in the end. If we are not, God will make it clear to us in the end.

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