Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A vote for ethics

I raised a question a couple of weeks ago that I never really addressed. Which is more important, theology or ethics? In other words, which is more revealing of our spiritual state, what we believe or how we behave? My vote goes for ethics. Theology matters only to the extent that it informs the way we live. Or as Wendell Berry puts it , "you don't believe anything until you believe it with your whole body." I love that old man. True belief is a matter of what you do with your body, not what you think with your brain.

This conundrum wreaked all kind of havoc in the early church. It is especially evident in the relationship of two of the pillars. There is at best a creative tension between Paul and James. One is preaching that salvation comes by faith, while the other insists that faith without works is dead. Go read Acts 15 and 21. Then read Galatians 1 and 2. Though these elder statesmen of the Jesus movement clearly revered each other, the incongruities of their respective messages helped define the first 25 years of Christianity.

First there's James, otherwise known as the brother of Jesus. Although he was not among the original 12, it's apparent that he had ascended the ranks in the Jerusalem church within a few years of Pentecost. In fact, the aforementioned chapters in Acts and Galatians portray even Peter and Paul as deferring to his leadership. By all accounts of church history, James remained a devout Jew. It's even possible that he was a Nazarite ( no bath, no shave, no meat ). James was a Jew who led a Jewish church. He was considered righteous even by his adversaries. He was put to death by the same sad souls who did in his brother. How did James view the Jewish Law? As a joyful obligation for Jews, and a blessed option for God-fearing Gentiles. Note: the Law that James and other Jewish Christians ascribed to was not the Law of the scribes and Pharisees. His was a radical interpretation of the Law set forth by his Lord and brother. It was a Law based on purity of intent and compassion. It was not based on religious zeal and scrupulosity.

Then there's Paul. Paul viewed the Law as a blessed option for Jews, and as utterly pointless for Gentiles. As an ambassador for Christ to the non-Jewish world, Paul felt compelled to strip the Gospel of any undue cultural trappings. Kind of difficult seeing as how Jesus lived his whole life as an observant Jew. How does Paul write 13 letters to Christians and not make one mention of the earthly life of Jesus? That was not his concern. His concern was preaching salvation by faith alone based on the atoning death and Resurrection of Jesus. Let me say this...there's a long line of folks waiting to lambaste Paul for un-Jewishing the Gospel. I don't want to be in that line. At its best, Paul's message depicts an unbiased, all-powerful God with a diverse group of redeemed followers. Without Paul, we may have little clue of the eternal Christ. But taken on its own, his message can also give rise to a generic, three day Gospel that leaves us all worked-up over eternity but secretly wondering what to do in the meantime. Those who want to, can assume that Paul's command to believe in the empty grave relieves us of Jesus' command to take up our cross and deny ourselves.

Ironically, there may have been little difference in how these two actually lived. Acts 21 even has Paul undergoing a thoroughly Jewish purification rite at the behest of James. But can there be any doubt that there was some significant divergence in their preaching? I love James, but I'm not against Paul. My concern is that the church today is dominated by Paul's emphasis on right belief, while James is relegated to the shadowy regions of church history. I guess we're lucky we have him at all, seeing as how Martin Luther seemed hell-bent on striking him from the record.

My point? It matters how we live. My take is that an ounce of ethics is worth a pound of theology. Faith without works is a fat man eating a fifty-dollar steak while preaching on the wages of sin to a starving child.

1 comment:

Dustin said...

I see both sides in Paul's life too. He called out Peter for not treating the Gentiles fairly. Reminded people to help the poor. It seems to me that he preached salvation by faith but he also showed fruit in his ministry by the works that he did. Just wanted to point that out. I love what you are bringing out. I love what David Platt said in his new book Radical Together "The Gospel that saves us from work saves us to work."

Good thoughts. Keep it coming. I might have to start blogging against. You inspire me. :)