Last week, in dealing with Paul’s call to “not be conformed” to the ways of this world, I wrote a post that invited us to think less about the “thou shalt nots” and more about the “thou shalts.” That post received some good traction on Facebook because it resonated with people’s unfortunate experiences with the modern day Church of Paul. In doing some reading on the history of the Church of England last night, I learned that this really isn’t all that new. In describing the rising tide of Puritanism during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), Moorman noted that the draw to the Puritan way of thinking was natural after the rapid changes of the first half of the 16th century.
There is no doubt that, to a large number of people the Puritan way of life held out great attractions. In a period of considerable confusion, Calvinism provided a clear-cut and authoritative system both of thought and of governance which gave a sense of security. To many people the attitude of the government seemed deplorably vague and ambiguous. It seemed to be ‘halting between two opinions,’ unable which to accept and what policy to follow. After a generation of rapid changes, people felt lost and insecure. (A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed.)
I tend to think that this was the cause of the mega-church movement in the latter part of the 20th century as well. Following the 2nd World War, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement, Americans were in need of some stability and so they sought out churches that were Reformed and Calvinist, eager to know precisely what the rules were. This lead, in my opinion, to the rise of Pauliantiy as the national religion of the United States. Rather than focusing on the Red Letters in their pew Bibles, members of these churches focused on the morality codes that Paul had tried to impose on the fledgling churches in Asia Minor. They refused to let women preach and got strict about human sexuality.
As I’ve grown out of that tradition, I’ve been grumpy about Paul for the last 10 years or so, forgetting that it really wasn’t Paul I was mad at, but a particular interpretation of Paul. In fact, Paul wasn’t just about “thou shalt nots.” This week’s lesson from Romans 12 is full of “thou shalt” moral teaching that sounds an awful lot like what Jesus was concerned about during his time on earth: Love one another, show honor, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of others, show hospitality, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, live peaceably with all, and overcome evil with good.
This is, of course, not any easy religion to practice. Loving and serving and caring and blessing is a whole lot harder than judging and cursing and bitching and moaning. We can barely pull it off for ourselves, let alone those we love, and “God forbid” our enemies. But alas, the claim of Christ on our lives is a call to loving service for the whole world, even a rapidly changing world that we would like, more than anything, to pull under control. So to make amends for my decade long discomfort with Paul, I’m taking on a new mantra for life and taking it directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.