On “Lawlessness” and Understanding

The Gospel for Jews and Greeks

Todd Brewer / 2.17.20

The counter-cultural, revolutionary nature of Christianity is en vogue at the moment, and understandably so. The world is not the Gospel; its claims and promises are, in the words of David Zahl, “seculosities” that we can’t help but uncritically accept. We swim amid an ocean of competing ideologies. Part of the appeal of Christianity is to provide a guiding north star to assess our relation to the world. The trouble is that everyone tends to assume that their assessment of what ails the world is correct and the culture they grew up with is normative. Christianity and one’s native culture become intertwined and indistinguishable, whether it be the gospel of inclusion or family values, personal fulfillment or the free market.

If Christian history is any guide, it shows that the bounds of Christianity are not nearly as strict as the culture warriors of our day would have you believe. Christianity has a lot to say about ethical behavior, to be sure, but it’s not exhaustive. The movement founded by Jesus isn’t a totalitarian religion or even one that is terribly prescriptive. Jesus had a great deal to say about money, but he wasn’t all that interested in debates about dating vs. courtship, whether monarchy or democracy is better, how to organize corporate worship, or how often you should bathe… the list goes on. Instead, Jesus subverted the religious establishment by crossing the conventional lines of clean and unclean and preaching freedom to the captives. For his part, Paul received the baton of freedom and ran with it.

Diaspora Jews, like Paul, were well acquainted with the complexities of negotiating Roman culture, but his ministry as an apostle of Christ changed his calculation entirely. I often wonder just how “lawless” Paul actually was when he was with Gentiles. Did he enter every town looking for the best pepperoni pizza? Or was pork the bridge too far for him? Would he have gone to the gladiator games with his buddies Marcus and Lucius? Did he go to the Roman bath houses and debate with the (naked) locals? Probably. Indeed, in contrast to the more culturally normative Law of Moses, Paul became “lawless” to the “lawless” Gentiles in order to win them to Christ (1 Cor. 9:22).

Christianity spread to the Gentiles without requiring them to become law-abiding Jews, whether this be circumcision, food laws, or festival celebrations. And this momentous decision creates what we might call a secular social space and enabled Christianity to spread to other cultures precisely by refusing to establish any standardized cultural expression – yes, even aliens can become Christians. This affords, if not blesses, a variety of social forms that still exist within the bounds of Christian thought. For example, is it permissible for Christians to drink alcohol? Answers to this question abound, depending on one’s context. Christians in Muslim majority countries tend to be far more conservative on this issue than the beloved Martin Luther (to say the least).

As outlined by missiologist Andrew Walls, Christianity births and subsumes new modes of thought with remarkable ease, all the while remaining recognizably Christ-like (to varying degrees!). We are different, but simultaneously held together by the creeds and our common reception of the unconditional grace of God. In this, there is freedom to live as a Greek among the Greeks and inhabit one’s culture with a clear conscience. So by all means – ride your Peloton, pledge your allegiance to the flag, and pay your union dues! But the freedom of Christianity regarding culture cuts both ways. The missionary David Livingstone infamously got this wrong by equating Christianity with “Englishness.” If it can adapt itself to any culture, then this creates space for cultural critique, as no single cultural enmeshment with Christianity is normative.

Christianity is a universal faith with wide local variation, but the internet has made our world feel smaller and far less local. When two communities come in contact with one another, conflict inevitably ensues. How should teetotalers relate to imbibers (and vice versa)? Christian socialists to free market conservatives? Is Harry Potter evil? Should Christians be vegans or omnivores?

Such conflict of cultures is precisely the issue facing the church in chapter 14 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The church seemed to be split into two factions, the “weak” vegans and the “strong” omnivores, over a variety of intertwined ethical issues. The “strong” appeared to the “weak” to be too Roman, too ethically lax, and the “weak” were horrified by their conduct. While Paul identified himself with the “strong,” he refused to arbitrate their dispute. Instead, he surprisingly affirmed both the “weak” and the “strong” for their piety and condemned both groups for their rancor and judgment of the other. Paul tries not to get them to agree, but to disagree with charity and civility. The mere existence of division is a cause for self-examination before God. As Karl Barth wrote in his commentary:

The ‘Pauline’ Christian does not complain of those who hold opinions differing from his own, nor does he abuse them; rather he stands behind them sympathetically asking them questions. He has discovered that he is his own worst enemy long before he has experience the hostility of others … So fundamentally does he presume the One in the other, that the other must be permitted to follow his own road to the end. (p. 506)

When it comes to some of the most divisive issues of today there is little charity or listening, and less appreciation for the complex enmeshment of Christianity and culture. On any given hot-button topic, both sides believe they are free from the charge of cultural corruption of the Gospel. God is on their side and the other is controlled by the powers of evil. So we sound the apocalyptic alarm bells at every news story we don’t like. We can’t even watch the Super Bowl halftime show without freaking out at each other. I imagine that the brother of Jesus would have been aghast to learn that Paul frequented the Roman bathhouses of Corinth, just as a defense of gun rights would horrify most Mainline Protestants. Particularly as the presidential election cycle is now in full swing, the danger of believing your answer is the only answer is at an all time high. Even so, we will do well to remember that there are Christians on many sides of the debate, men and women whose reception of the Gospel has produced different viewpoints than we might hold. We’d do better to remember that God is probably more interested in how you treat your neighbor than your latest outrage over the news cycle.

The plurality of cultures that span Christianity and our increasing awareness of them should not spur us to shout anathemas, but kneel in humility before the Lord to whom who we all give account. Jesus was a revolutionary precisely because he believed that God’s grace transcends cultures and is given to all people, whether they be a tax collector, Caesar, Pharisee, fisherman, “weak,” or “strong.” Christ died for Jews and Greeks, capitalists and socialists, vegans and omnivores, the poor and the rich, and yes, even you and me.