Why Divide and Conquer Won’t Work

battle map
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/thqinsider/5471549614/">THQ Insider</a>

Galatians 2:6-10

Moreover, those so-called leaders – I say so-called, because I don’t care what they really are, and God doesn’t make distinctions – they didn’t add conditions to my endorsement. Instead, when they saw my mission was to take the Jesus story to the heathen, just as Peter’s mission was to Jews, and that Jesus was working through Peter’s efforts with Jews and also through mine with pagans, and when James and Cephas and John, who everyone agreed were the “pillars of the church” gave their okay, they gave Barnabas and me their endorsement to go to the heathen, while they tended to the Jews. The only thing they wanted was for us to take care of the poor, which I readily agreed to do.

It’s a simple plan. Paul goes to convert the pagans, and Peter (with the old guard in Jerusalem) takes care of the Jews. You do your thing, we’ll do ours. Maybe we can get together and talk about how it’s going every couple years, but otherwise we’ll just stay out of each others’ way.

The fly in the ointment is that little side remark about “God doesn’t make distinctions.” Paul means it as a backhanded insult to the Jerusalem leaders, who Paul sees as having gone back on the deal. But Paul says more than he knows. It’s the reason a deal to parcel out different kinds of folks as being the exclusive domain of a certain faction just won’t work. As much as Paul opposes adherence to “Law,” this deal merely legislates that certain people are fair game and others are off limits. It’s no better than any other kind of competitive “empire building.” It’s the first church arms race, and Paul is determined to win it.

If God doesn’t make distinctions, though, you can’t expect people to follow that God from different walks of life, and remain only theologically, theoretically equal. At some point they have to mix in real life. And if Jesus is really about setting people free, you can’t build a Jesus movement on the assumption that people are pawns that can be shuffled around on a denominational battle map. You have to treat them like – well, people.

The same is true for any strategy to grow a movement. Those who insist that the only way forward is “divide and conquer,” will eventually end up divided against themselves.

Jesus Misrepresented

angry man face
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/breatheindigital/4704953402/">Ryan Hyde</a>

Galatians 2:1-5

After 14 years I went back to Jerusalem, along with Barnabas and Titus. I went up because I’d seen another vision. In a private meeting with the leadership there, I laid out the story as I tell it to the heathen. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t, and hadn’t been, barking up the wrong tree. They didn’t force Titus, a Greek, to be circumcised, and he was right there. Even then, though, some moles had already snuck in, fake Christians who were spying on us, trying to undermine the freedom Jesus gave us, trying to re-enslave us. We didn’t give them even an inch, we didn’t flinch. It was all to ensure you’d always have the whole truth of Jesus’ story.

After 14 years of things not working, Paul “sees the light” again, and decides it’s time to get an endorsement from the people who have some credibility in the movement. But Paul still wants their endorsement on his terms. As Paul tells it, he was able to make his case, but not without some opposition right from the start. And, in his recollection of it here, he’s quick to attribute the most sinister motives to those with whom he disagrees.

There are two sides to any story, of course. Every couple years (on average), when I was a pastor, someone would come into my office wanting me to endorse “a ministry I have a vision for.” Sometimes, it was a cold call. Sometimes, it was someone who had been coming to worship for a couple of weeks and staying to bend the ears of anyone and everyone who would listen at coffee hour. It got to where I could see it coming – “This guy,” (it was almost always a guy, but there were a few women, too), “is going to be in my office in a day or two to tell me he’s got God’s plan for how I can do my ministry.” I’m sure they walked away from my office telling people I was the anti-Christ, too. There was even one guy who told me I was the anti-Christ before he left.

Paul came away with a limited endorsement, and they didn’t push the circumcision issue. (Could it have been a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”) Endorsement doesn’t imply mutual understanding, though. Clearly, those of a “traditional” mind in Jerusalem were not as willing to give the issue a pass as Paul thought. Nor has Paul really understood that their endorsement was not a blank check.

At the root of the division and ill-will, is a fundamental difference about what Jesus really represents. It’s quickly becoming such a stark difference that Paul’s religion and that of the Jerusalem church are already two different religions, each claiming to have a monopoly on the truth, each with it’s own set of rules and requirements. Already, on both sides, turning Jesus’ movement into a religion is a disaster.

The Shortest Way is the Hardest One

long stone walkway
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/laprimadonna/3728917188/">Patrik Jones</a>

Galatians 1:13-24

Certainly, you’ve heard about my past, how in Judaism I hunted down the church and tried to annihilate it. I was so dedicated to my ancestral religion that I excelled way beyond my peers. But, God had marked me before birth. So, when God deigned to grant me a vision of God’s son and called me to tell the heathen about him, I didn’t consult with anyone. I didn’t go ask the Apostles in Jerusalem, even though they were Apostles before I was. Instead, I went immediately to Arabia, and then to Damascus.

After three years I went to Jerusalem to see Cephas. I stayed with him 15 days, but aside from James, Jesus’s brother, I didn’t see any of the others. I swear to God, I’m not lying about any of this!

After that I went to Syria and Cilicia. I’d never met any of the Christians in Judea personally. All they knew was what they heard about the guy who’d been hunting us is now promoting the movement he once tried to wipe out. So on my account they thanked God.

While the book of Acts reports in great detail the famous “three missionary journeys of Paul,” we only find out here that between that “Damascus Road” vision and his actual arrival in Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) there was a three-year missionary journey to Arabia. Then, after that first meeting with Peter in Jerusalem (unreported in Acts) another 14 year tour of Syria and Cilicia (Modern Turkey, around the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea).

On these two missionary journeys, Paul has very little to say, other than that this was the segue from his “former life” and the rest of the New Testament, nothing at all. Probably because these first two unreported missionary journeys were complete failures. There is, for those 17 years in all, nothing to report, except that everyone else is thankful Paul is no longer trying to hunt them down.

That Paul spent 17 years as a failure may at first come to many as a shock. It may be disappointing to realize that someone so greatly remembered had so many years of nothing to show for his efforts. But success always looks inevitable when it finally happens. The vast majority of the time, the real story is that people who are great successes spent years of not being successful. Some die as failures before the world realizes posthumously the significance of their work. It doesn’t take much to find a pretty long list of superstars and millionaires who spent time in homeless shelters.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that even long years of hard work are going to pay off in the end. Not everybody lives happily ever after. Sometimes, as in Paul’s case, it requires finally changing some things about what you’re doing. What is certain is that overnight successes seldom are really overnight. You have to put in the time, push through the resistance. Like the virtuoso who was asked how to get to Carnegie Hall said, “Practice, practice, practice.” There are no shortcuts.

The rock-bottom truth is that if you believe in something as much as Paul did, you’re not really looking for short and easy. If you believe in something the way Paul does, you’re working hard trying to get it right. That’s the only way it will ever really be great.

A Vision from God

man walking into vortex
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/6431002755/">Hartwig HKD</a>

Galatians 1:10-12

┬áSo, whose approval do you think I’m looking for: people’s or God’s? Do I sound like I’m trying to win a popularity contest? If I were trying to suck up to people, I wouldn’t be working for Jesus, would I? Friends, I want you to know that the story of Jesus I tell doesn’t come from other people. I didn’t get it from some storyteller who taught it to me. I got it in a vision, straight from Jesus himself.

I admit that when someone tells me he or she has had a vision from God, my first impulse is to be a little bit skeptical – no very skeptical. The problem with visions from God is that they’re impossible to confirm or deny. There’s no proof one way or the other. All you have to go on is what the person who claims the vision says. Even if that person is someone you like and generally have a high regard for, you still might wonder if their “vision” is a sign that they’re coming unhinged. Should you be concerned for them?

Still, you can’t disprove it either. Nor should you try. I’d suggest that the basis for buying someone’s claim about a vision from God (or any kind of vision, for that matter) is by watching to see if it makes any real difference in the life of the person who had it. Do they change their course of action. Do they take action change their life’s trajectory? Do they change their priorities? Do they focus in a way they hadn’t before?

In other words, even though you can’t duplicate their experience, or experience it vicariously through them, or see exactly what they saw, do they live as if what they saw was really real? If they do, then even if the way they describe it seems far-fetched, there’s probably something to it. Otherwise, take it with a grain of salt.

Paul may not have been perfect. He may not have been always able to implement things in an ideal way. He may have been abrasive. He may even have had some of the details wrong. And he was a terrible theologian. But what he says he saw changed his life. There was something to it, and his passion for it changed the world – maybe not precisely the way Jesus had in mind, and probably beyond what even Paul himself had in mind – and he pursued it without regard for what anyone else thought of it.

For better or worse, and probably both better and worse, Paul was, if nothing else, a visionary. Like all visionaries (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Adolf Hitler, John Kennedy, George Washington, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein – the list goes on) he’s not perfect. Visionary does not imply “good.” What makes them visionaries isn’t their goodness or perfection, it’s their vision that leaves the world a different place, for good or ill or both, behind them.)