Were Jesus and Paul Hostile?

BM2Is religious hostility a problem to be overcome in our world? Deconstructionist theologian Brian McLaren thinks so. One need only browse the morning newspaper to see that he is right. The question is what to do about it. How, in particular, should we Christians think about the matter? Not surprisingly, the answer here depends on what we mean by ‘hostility’, and what we take its originating cause(s) to be. In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books, 2012), McLaren floats the idea that Christians who carve out their identity in opposition to non-Christian religions are actually part of the hostility problem. Thus certain changes are in order, including changes in bible doctrine. Unfortunately, there is a muddle.

I say this (albeit reluctantly) because while McLaren’s test for hostility is propositional—seeing “other faiths as wrong, false, or evil” (p. 69)–his definition of hostility is personal: having “the sense that the other is the enemy…[which] makes one unwilling to be a host” (p.19). It’s clearly a non sequitur. That I see other faiths as false hardly proves that I have a hostility problem. The fact is that every Christian must see non-Christian faiths as wrong or false, if she has even a shred of respect for the law of non-contradiction. It in no way follows that I thereby think you’re the enemy and won’t graciously host you for dinner.

But there is something else. If McLaren’s test is in order, Jesus and Paul turn out to be the paradigms of hostility. Just think, e.g., of what Jesus says to the Sadducees, who as you recall, “say that there is no resurrection, nor angels, nor spirit” (Acts 23:8). “You are wrong,” Jesus says, “because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Mt 22:29, emphasis added).” So Jesus thinks the Sadducees’ worldview is wrong, in which case he fails McLaren’s test, forcing us to classify him as a religious hostile. Hardly a befitting title for the Son of God who “committed no sin” (1 Pet 2:22).

Or consider the Athenians of Acts 17, who graciously “made space” for each religious group to worship its gods. They were so inclusive and hospitable that they even had altar space set aside “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23) lest any deity be excluded. What was the Apostle Paul’s response? Well, here’s what he didn’t say:

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. I compliment you on your hospitality and generous spaciousness. You seek to “build collaboration with people of all faith traditions, so all our faiths can keep growing and contributing to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven” (McLaren, p. 69).

What he says instead is decidedly “un-spacious”:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed (Acts 17:30-31).

Here’s what I know. If you’re ignorant, you need to repent, and you’re going to be judged, then (like it or not) you’re in the wrong. And that, in essence, is Paul’s message to the elders of “generous spaciousness” at Athens. There is simply no “space” in God’s economy for worshiping these other deities regardless of the venue (temple, church, lecture hall, or marketplace). It makes no difference.

It seems to me, therefore, that if the McLaren test yields the conclusion that Jesus and Paul were hostile, so much the worse for the test. (It’s not as though there was an argument given to establish its credentials anyway.) As for me and my house, we’re siding with Jesus and Paul on this one. As the Great Apostle bids us: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Sounds like good advice.

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