Jesus is Just Alright

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Listen to “Jesus Is Just Alright” by Fred Smith

 

In the last few years I have been paying closer attention to some deep shifts affecting the church. It’s easy for Boomers to label Millennials 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, frankly, disturbing.

One of these is the growing attraction to selected teachings of Jesus and an increased questioning for 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 divisive.

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 leaders.

You can see why it is far easier to attract unbelievers and adversaries with Jesus.

Second, I believe there is widespread fascination with people starting movements rather than those assigned the task of slowly building an organization after the movement has begun and the founder departed. 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.”

Routinizing Charisma

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.

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 any 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 of Jesus, there would be no forgiveness for sin. 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.

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Showing 16 comments
  • Avatar
    David Spence
    Reply

    So much symbolism in the icon you chose—Jesus walking on random and irregular smooth stones while Paul is on a geometrically ordered pavement. Yes we need the complementarity of all the voices in whole counsel of the Scriptures.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      That seems to be the way both of them approached their work. Jesus went from town to town with no apparent plan until he “set his face toward Jerusalem.” Paul always had a plan. That said, I never saw the symbolism until you mentioned it!

  • Avatar
    Walter Hansen
    Reply

    Yes, I agree. There’s a great difference in context and method, but no essential dissonance between the message of Jesus and Paul. David Wenham, Did Paul Get Jesus Right? The Gospel According to Paul, is an excellent resource for this conversation.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Walter. I’ll check in with David Wenham’s work.

  • Avatar
    David E Stravers
    Reply

    I recommend N.T. Wright: Paul, a Biography. Paul’s theology was practical, Jesus-centered, and extremely relevant for lifestyles of his day.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Dave. Yes, he is definitely the go to source for Paul!

  • Avatar
    John Huffman
    Reply

    Fred, in my estimation an outstanding blog and most insightful responses from our mutual friends David and Walter! You have hit the nerve!! I have dealt with this all my life as a publicly identified evangelical pastor in the PCUSA. So that argument is not unfamiliar to me. I distinctly remember a 1980 session meeting in my second year at St. Andrew’s, Newport Beach, in which an elder spoke up firmly saying, “The problem with you John is that you believe in the legalistic theology of Paul but many of us believe in the loving, grace filled theology of Jesus.” That actually became a break-though moment as it demanded, at the governance level, an honest theological discussion that positively marked the future of this local church and my 32 years ministry here. But this Jesus vrs Paul dynamic now is quietly and perhaps in some cases somewhat innocently impacting our American evangelical movement. Some of this conversation resembles the theological discussions of 19th Century New England in the emergence of Transcendentalism, Unitarianism and “example of Jesus” liberal Protestantism. I am afraid that a significant cross-section of the so-called American evangelical movement in its: dumbing down of theological educational requirements; preoccupation with an unhealthy political alliance with Trumpism; and a defensive resistance to the healthier aspects of multi-culturalism is producing a Millennial generation that concludes that we don’t need to take the theology of our parents that seriously as they observe the cognitive dissonance we model between what we say we believe and how we act on it. Not only is it falsely calling for a return to Jesus only (and I ask what Jesus?) but it is in my estimation causing the growth of a de facto soteriological universalism void of the rugged theological discussion that marked the conversations of previous generations that wrestled with what has enormous implications for biblical authority, evangelism and world missions.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I had considered not posting this one thinking it would be too narrow and sound like finger pointing but I am concerned about all the people emphasizing their own versions of what Jesus would do and leaving Paul behind as obsolete or a victim of his culture. Times change but the human heart does not. I just talked to Peggy Wehmeyer in Dallas and she has been on three zoom calls this week with N.T. Wright. I told her not to share the blog with him! I love social media when it connects us like this.

  • Avatar
    John Thomas
    Reply

    One of the finest, most insightful pieces I have read in a while. Thank-you for your insights.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. I don’t want to be too hard on Millennials. This shift is not restricted to them by any means.

  • Avatar
    Jeff Kahler
    Reply

    Fred,
    What a great read. As an old boomer, I have been struggling to understand Paul for over 40 years. You are so correct that without Paul, the church would have been lost in theological confusion, but I am also afraid that we are often victims to seeking too many theological answers. It feels like I spent the first 20 years of my faith collecting answers and then the next 20 years of my faith discarding them so that it has become much simpler. We want answers to everything. We expect too much from a few words. Words translated over language, time and culture. The central themes of our faith are repeated over and over by Jesus, Paul and the other writers so that we don’t miss the big picture. Yet there are many “oddball” statements and situations in the scripturas that I scratch my head over. I’m ok to just say I don’t understand Paul when he makes what I consider to be a morality offensive statement like “women should be silent”, because it is not a theme in scripture and in the life of Jesus. Paul wrote some of the most beautiful and amazing words ever written, but I still have to interpret everything he says thought the lens of the character of God. Jesus, being God himself is my best teacher and example of what God is. So Paul is important to me, but our Faith is based on Jesus.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      It’s a struggle for all of us, I think. How can the “eating and drinking, come to save sinners” passages be consistent with Paul’s moral strictness in his letters – at least selective strictness? It’s likely the same with any of the Epistles – James, Peter and John. Different personalities and perspectives but we all come back to the few commands of Jesus – love of God and love of each other. It is played out in ten thousand ways to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins.

    • Avatar
      Robert Murchison
      Reply

      The age old paradox of grace and truth.

  • Avatar
    Ann Christie
    Reply

    2 Peter 1:20,21 tells us that all Scripture was given to us by men moved by the Holy Spirit spoken from God. That includes all of Paul’s
    writings which are Scripture to us. The Bible is God’s Word given to us by the Holy Spirit.
    If you are not born again, you will not understand the Word of God for you do not have the Holy Spirit living within you to give you understanding.

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