Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 4 (conclusion)

Relational Harmony in Colossians

Bearing in mind our earlier quote from Grenz[1], we may surmise that the relational worldview/lens presupposes the following :

  • the triune God is the eternal fellowship of the Trinitarian members
  • God’s purpose for creation is that the world participate in “community.”
  • that God directs his program to the bringing about of community in the highest sense of the word—a redeemed people, living within a renewed creation, enjoying the presence of their God

Looking at Colossians as a whole through a relational lens, we can assume that what Paul proposes is intended to move the Colossian church into the future that God dreams for the world. We can also assume that what Paul critiques and condemns are elements that stand in opposition to God’s future.

Paul very clearly identifies one of these elements in 2:15…

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.[2]

But, what are these “powers and authorities” and how do they oppose God’s future? According to this reference, Christ is already triumphant over them, yet they still seem to loom menacingly. The first mention of these “powers” in Colossians comes a bit earlier in the letter. In 1:15-20, Paul mentions them in the form of a hymn…

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[3]

In establishing the supremacy of Christ, Paul points out that he is indeed “over” these “powers” and “authorities”. Oddly though, they apparently were created by him and he somehow holds them together. Stranger still, according to this passage, he is also reconciling them to himself. But, again we must ask, “What are they?” Walter Wink saves us from a dualistic wild goose chase by suggesting:

In the biblical view, the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional (Col. 1:15-20). Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government posses an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality. Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation, or the Mafia as having a spirituality, but they do. The New Testament uses the language of power at one point to the outer aspect, at another to the inner aspect, and yet again to both together. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.[4]

These “powers” are not merely physical entities, but neither are they merely spiritual entities. They are forces that move in opposition to the harmony and community God desires, and they are indeed powerful. But, as we have already noted, Paul says they have already been defeated on the cross and that they are being reconciled to God. If the problem is already taken care of, why does Paul even mention it to this group of believers, and why in this particular context? Wink provides a plausible explanation:

This is the goal: not only to become free from the Powers, but to free the Powers. Jesus came not just to reconcile people to God despite the Powers, but to reconcile the Powers themselves to God (Col. 1:20). We seek not only to break the idolatrous spells cast over people by the Powers, but to break the ability of the Powers to cast idolatrous spells. [5]

God’s agenda for his people is not one of escape. It is one of reconciliation, not only of themselves to God, but of all things to God and to each other through God. The people of God are to become agents of reconciliation in a fragmented world, bringing all things back into God’s harmony…even the powers and principalities that oppose it. Imagine the power of this idea to a small group of believers in a culture that was dominated by the ideology and military might of the Roman Empire!

It is exactly an ideology that Paul turns to next. In verse 8 he begins to call out a particular philosophy as an opponent of the Gospel. Speculations run rampant as to what the philosophy Paul is referring to actually was. The New Interpreter’s Bible cautions:

The very number and variety of proposed solutions to the identity of the philosophy should caution against any overly confident claims to reconstruct it. Although the writer’s prescription for curing the ailment he believed to be a threat to the well-being of his readers comes across reasonably clearly, the ailment itself defies any really accurate diagnosis. The writer had no reason for defining more exactly the teaching involved. He expects his readers to know perfectly well what he was talking about, and so he merely touches on some of its features, using some of its catchwords and slogans.[6]

The exact nature of the “philosophy” in question seems beyond our reach. Fortunately, the exact nature is irrelevant to our intent. We seek to identify what casts this philosophy as an opponent of God’s agenda and thereby a tool of the “powers”.

But, is philosophy itself the issue here? Is Paul implying that all philosophy is inherently human and flawed? N.T. Wright offers this helpful bit of insight:

The means by which young Christians might be snatched away is characterized as through hollow and deceptive philosophy. NIV well expresses the fact that Paul is not opposed to (what we would call) ‘philosophy’ in general: literally the word simply means ‘love of wisdom’. But this ‘love of wisdom’, like the fa├žade of a grand house which remains standing when the insides have been demolished promises much and gives nothing.[7]

So, philosophy itself is not the issue. At times it can even be quite helpful. This issue here appears to be the idolatrous nature of this philosophy. Peter Rollins explains:

Here Paul warns us to beware of human abstractions, which can so easily draw us into a conceptual prison. Indeed, it is precisely this idolatry that is denied by John when he writes that ‘you have never heard his voice nor seen his form [eidos]’’ and denied by Paul when he writes that Christians ‘walk by faith and not by sight [eidos]’. It is clear that John and Paul are not asserting that no encounter with God is possible, but rather that any encounter with the divine cannot be reduced to an idolatrous understanding.[8]

This philosophy makes a conceptual idol of itself. It reduces God to a formula and the formula then necessarily becomes God. “Follow these observable rules and God has to take you,” it seductively offers. It was as attractive then as it is today. It renders Christianity as an individualistic enterprise and God as an abstract object simply to be appeased by rule keeping. The rules become the object of worship, and a judicial cataract forms over our eyes. Community becomes only important in so far as it keeps us following the rules and is commanded. This very quickly slides us, by necessity into dualism. Paul is apparently making a stand, at least in part, against the Gnostic or pre-Gnostic dualism inherent in this philosoply. Connecting 2:8 to it’s explaination in 2:16-23, Michael Wittmer observes:

…the Gnostic lifestyle appears to be eminently pious. What could be more spiritual than suppressing physical appetites in order to meditate on heavenly things? But Paul refuses to be fooled by appearances. He observes that these Gnostic rules and regulations have never helped anyone become more righteous. Only Jesus Christ, not self-imposed duties can restrain our evil lusts.[9]

Paul immediately seems to attack this (pre)Gnostic spirit/body dualism in 2:9 as he goes to great length to reinforce the physicality of Christ and remind them of his physical resurrection from the dead. Paul then juxtaposes this against the “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” rules of the dualistic philosophy thereby exposing it’s incompatibility with the Gospel. Wittmer rightly reminds us as he continues his thought:

Because Jesus Christ is the Creator of the physical world, his followers must celebrate, not condemn Creation.[10]

Then, as we enter chapter 3, we hit the first speed bump. Why, after devoting so much energy to arguing against a physical/spiritual dualism, does Paul begin the next paragraph with the following seemingly antithetical statement?

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your1 life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.[11]

To our eyes, he seems to be advocating what he was previously debating. The relational lens we’ve been trying on begins to cloud with a judicial and dualistic fog as we read the next few verses. The judicial spectacles we laid to the side begin to look very attractive again as we hear Paul say:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.[12]

We have been so conditioned by our modern, dualistic, judicial readings that we simply begin to think (with some relief), “Oh finally! Here’s our list of rules.” We must have misread chapter 2, we think to ourselves. We toss those novelty “relational” spectacles in the trash and nullify the part of the text that Paul seems to use to prevent exactly this kind of reading. But, need this be the case? What other light can chapter 3 be read in? Let’s give those relational lenses one more try and see if they can work here.

In their excellent book, Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat pick up this question and run with it:

Here is the classic paradox in Paul’s thought. Christ has already defeated the powers, but his reconciling rule has not yet been fully established in history. The purpose of this section of the letter to the Colossians is to help them navigate life in the dynamics of that “already and not yet.” Indeed, this already/not-yet that characterizes the unfinished story of Jesus also characterizes the unfinished story of his followers. They have already been raised with Christ, they have already died to the empire, but their life is hidden with Christ and has not yet been revealed.[13]

This is precisely the tension inherent in the life of one who is “in Christ.” We are to live out the reality of the kingdom of God in the midst of a world where God’s Kingdom is not yet fully realized. This tension is mirrored in our own lives. God, by his Grace declares that we are holy (though we are clearly not), and asks us to live into that reality, or, as Rob Bell puts it:

In these passages we are told who we are, now. The issue then isn’t my beating myself up over all the things I am not doing or the things I’m doing poorly; the issue is my learning who this person is who God keeps insisting I already am…This is an issue of identity. It is letting what God says about us shape what we believe about ourselves.[14]

This “already/not-yet” is the context of Grace. With this understanding in place, Walsh and Keesmaat dive into our actual question about Paul’s seemingly dualistic language of “seeking things above”:

Perhaps it means something like “Set your hearts on and allow your imagination to be liberated to comprehend Christ’s legitimate rule.” Maybe it also means something like “Allow your vision of life, your worldview, your most basic life orientation, to be directed by Christ’s heavenly rule at the right hand of God.” To use the language of the Gospels, perhaps it means “Strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33). Thus the passage sets us off on a direction that can lead us to it’s only conclusion. What begins with seeking things above ends with “and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17). Seeking that which is above is a matter not of becoming heavenly minded but allowing the liberating rule of Christ to transform every dimension of your life.[15]

The implication seems to be that rather than advocating the dualism he was refuting as recently as the previous verse, Paul is invoking the ideology of the Kingdom of God. The Colossians are trying to live out the reality of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a world that is still controlled by the Powers. When seen through this lens, Paul’s discourse progresses seamlessly from chapter 2 to chapter 3. Rather than giving the Colossians a different list of rules in chapter 3, Paul is explaining to them the praxis of their new reality. He seems to be saying, “This is what it looks like for people to live in God’s Kingdom, in the community he dreams of.” It’s not a matter of legalistic rule keeping, or whether the list of rules is lengthy or truncated. It’s a matter of relational fidelity to God and the community of God in midst of this “already/not-yet” world. Wittmer rightly points out that:

…despite our first impression, Paul is not advising the Colossian church to meditate on ethereal, “spiritual” realities. Instead, he is strongly urging them to stay involved in this planet, modeling such godly lives that they bring at least a corner of Christ’s heavenly kingdom to earth[16]

Finally, we hit our other speed bump in our relational reading. After listing the things we are supposed to “put do death”, Paul says that because of these things, the “wrath of God” is coming. Again, from our perspective this certainly seems to cast the passage in a judicial light. Andrew Perriman, however, offers this helpful insight

The warning about “wrath” must be taken very realistically. This is not a post mortem or mythical judgment. It constitutes and event or state of affairs that would come upon a nation or upon the world, to be experienced in a very concrete and distressing manner. To speak of the “wrath of God” is to identify the divine purpose behind natural or military disasters or political oppression; the punishment of wrongdoing by governing authorities is a characteristic means by which the “wrath of God” is executed…[17]

This is not to say that there will be no future judgment, however I do not believe that judgment is what Paul is referring to here. Paul seems to be referring to an imminent historical crisis (possibly an earthquake?). Biblically, judgment seems to be based not on rule-keeping or doctrinal correctness, but on relational and covenantal fidelity to God and the community of God.

In conclusion, looking at the text from a relational perspective, Paul seems to attack a philosophy of rule-keeping because of it’s inherent idolatry, it’s deceptive dualism and because it is an agent of the Powers that seek to undermine God’s future of ultimate harmony. Grace, then is not a shortening of the “rule list” or even the forgiveness for violations of a legal code, but rather the transcendence of the judicial construct all together. Those who are “in Christ” are in a covenant of relational fidelity with God and are thereby drafted as agents of reconciliation in the world. This fidelity exhibits itself in a way of life that seeks to live out the harmony of God’s Kingdom in the midst of a world where it is not yet fully realized. We live this way of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness in the face of the Powers…in the face of empires…and in the face of disaster. By faith, we commit ourselves to this already/not-yet reality of God because we, like Paul, believe that in the end there is love, perfect unity and the very peace of Christ without end.



[1] Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

[2] Today's New International Version Copyright © 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®, Zondervan

[3] Ibid

[4] Wink, Walter…Powers That Be, The. New York: Galilee Trade, 1999 pg. 24

[5] Ibid, pg. 199

[6] Lincoln, Andrew T…The Letter to the Colossians. New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000

[7] Wright, N. T…The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon. An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

[8] Rollins, Peter…How (not) To Speak Of God. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006 pg. 16

[9] Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven is a Place on Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, pg. 56-57

[10] Ibid

[11] Today's New International Version Copyright © 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®, Zondervan

[12] Ibid

[13] Keesmaat, Sylvia C and Walsh, Brian J…Colossians Remixed, Subverting the Empire. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2004 pg. 155

[14] Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

[15] Keesmaat, Sylvia C and Walsh, Brian J…Colossians Remixed, Subverting the Empire. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2004 pg. 155

[16] Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven is a Place on Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, pg. 64

[17] Perriman, Andrew…The Coming of the Son of Man. Waynesboro: Paternoster Press, 2005 pg. 118

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 3

Judicial Paradox in Colossians

One of the starkest examples of the paradox created by reading scripture through a judicial lens is found in the apparent dissonance between chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians. Early on in Col. 2:8, Paul begins to build his case:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. [1]

Paul follows this statement with an explanation of the deity of Christ and likens baptism to circumcision in that it removes the “sinful nature”. Then, he presses his case further in vs. 13-15, by stating:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.[2]

Having established his case Theologically, Paul exhorts the Colossian church not to be taken in by a few apparently syncretistic practices. To finish up the chapter, with great authority, Paul seems to drive the last nail in the coffin of works based righteousness/salvation in vs.20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!?” These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.[3]

Reading through the judicial lens, the dissonance begins almost immediately in Ch. 3. Paul moves immediately to telling his readers that because of all of this, we should set our hearts/minds on “things above” rather than earthly things, which would appear to give a nod in favor of the gnostic-style dualism he appeared to be arguing against in chapter 2. Mild dissonance quickly turns into full blown theological whiplash when we get to vs. 5-11:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.[4]

Doesn’t this sound like works-based righteousness? If this is a judicial document, hasn’t Paul flip-flopped? Did Paul just contradict himself? By engaging in a bit of mental gymnastics, the dissonance can be diminished, but (in my opinion) it comes at great cost. For example, one might say “chapter 2 is about externals and chapter 3 is about internals.” Others may suggest, “In chapter 2, Paul is arguing against philosophy itself, which is human and therefore inherently flawed and against particular Jewish and Gentile traditions. On the other hand,” our hypothetical friends continue, “Chapter 3 is talking about the laws of God rather than the laws of man, and Paul’s critique from Chapter 2 does not apply. It is not a critique of a judicial understanding per se, just of man’s judicial constructs in these matters.” Viewing Scripture through our judicial lens, demands that we find a way to mute or neuter part of this text in order to disarm the apparent contradiction. A respectable example of this point of view comes from David E. Garland:

Since Christians have been released from the rulers’ and powers’ slavery, why would they even consider giving these powers new life by submitting to their irksome and irrelevant taboos? Baptism into Christ means death to their dominion, though this reality does not mean that we are now free of all rules. In the context, the rules cited are those that belong to this unspiritual world and would cut one off from Christ. The Colossians still live in the world, but the do not need to live as if the powers had any control over them, and they do not need to give any regard to their rules.[5] (*emphasis mine)

This view enables Garland to avoid dissonance when he reaches chapter 3. He seems to recognize how some people might get tripped up, but uses his previously stated wisdom to avoid the trap. He continues:

The restrictions listed earlier, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (2:21), were a futile attempt to protect one’s members from sin’s domination; but such efforts failed to get at the problem’s root, the inner cravings and obsessions. It did not even scratch the surface of the problem.”[6]

This approach does indeed sound quite reasonable. The problem is that Garland appears to slide into a form of dualism to preserve the integrity of his judicial lens.

I have no desire make a “straw man” of the judicial lens or to critique brilliant theologians like Garland. Rather, I have briefly mentioned the judicial lens and pointed towards what I consider unnecessary and possibly unhealthy dissonance. From this point on, we will explore this passage through a relational lens and let it stand on its own merit.



[1] Today's New International Version Copyright © 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®, Zondervan

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Garland, David E…NIV Application Commentary: Colossians/Philemon, The. Grand Rapids, Zondervan 1998 pg.183

[6] Ibid. pg. 203

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 2

Cultural, Judicial & Relational Readings

Brian McLaren suggests several “compliments that modern Christians tried to pay to the Bible that may have actually done it violence and distorted the way we view scripture. Among them, he suggests:

We compared the Bible to things we value highly. Think encyclopedias (books with answers to everything), blueprints (how-to manuals), scientific formulae (universal laws), constitutions and annotated codes (rule books), and the like…[1]

McLaren goes on to propose:

We presented the Bible as a repository of sacred propositions and abstractions. Which was natural, for we were moderns—children of the 18th century enlightenment—so we loved abstractions and propositions. Our sermons tended to exegete texts in such a way that stories, poetry, and biography (among other features of the Bible)—the “chaff” were sifted out, while the “wheat” of doctrines were saved…[2]

In his typically simple, self-deprecating and endearing (if overly parenthetical) style, McLaren points to one of the key issues here. With good intentions, we constructed our own distortion-inducing, culturally-influenced lenses. The problem however, is not that our interpretations are influenced by our culture. It’s that, in good “modern” form, they claim not to be. As Rob Bell puts it:

The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture and background or issues into it and come out with a “pure” or “exact” meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy. [3]

The interesting thing is that the Bible never claims to be agenda or perspective free or even that it somehow stands outside of cultural influence. To the contrary, its variety of authors, literary styles and genres virtually shout the opposite (not to mention the occasional nature of the epistles and the multiple perspectives given by the gospels). What it does claim to be is “inspired”. The Bible speaks of itself as being inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, which apparently does not wipe it clean of perspectives, culture, and agendas. Under the banner of the modern ethos, we tried to read the Bible as if it were a modern text applying interpretive criteria to it that seem nonsensical when we consider that the text is located in the time and culture in which it was actually written. In true modern fashion, we turned it into a judicial treatise written primarily to individuals. Thus, it was cast as a book of laws/rules to be followed in order to save individuals from Hell. This judicial reading mines the text for the rules. We get tripped up a bit when we see the rules against legalism…so we propose a form of grace that is little more than a new legalism with a shorter list of rules that “really count.” This foundation becomes shaky when we consider that the Bible is a communal book. It is written primarily to groups of people. Most of the NT documents are actually addressed to communities and most of the pronouns used in the text are plural. It becomes shakier still when we consider that it is quite difficult to impose the judicial reading we have become accustomed to, when there appears to be no real concept of Hell as punishment for breaking the “law” (or as afterlife as a motivation for keeping it) in the OT narrative. The NT does indeed seem to point to an afterlife and to different experiences of/in that afterlife based on the way this present life is lived. However, it seems to come out of a different construct all together. Stanley Grenz defines this alternate construct as follows:

We may summarize God’s intention for the world by employing the term “community.” Just as the triune God is the eternal fellowship of the Trinitarian members, so also God’s purpose for creation is that the world participate in “community.” …Taken as a whole the Bible asserts that God directs his program to the bringing about of community in the highest sense of the word—a redeemed people, living within a renewed creation, enjoying the presence of their God.[4]

Thus, with Grenz and many others, I’d like to suggest a different lens. While the judicial lens most of us have become accustomed to does seem to simplify some things, it complicates and distorts others beyond recognition (a situation that is further complicated by the modern notion that it isn’t a lens at all). Instead, I propose a relational lens or, stated differently, a relational reading of Scripture (and the world). As we will see, the contrast between these two views is striking.



[1] Campolo, Tony and McLaren, Brian D…Adventures In Missing The Point. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003

[2] Ibid

[3] Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

[4] Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 1

I love M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. My first exposure to this brilliant filmmaker’s work came while discussing his film, “The 6th Sense” with a group of friends. They assumed I had seen the movie and revealed the surprise ending. I was pretty irritated because it was an innovative twist and I would have really enjoyed being surprised in the same way that they had been. Even so, I told no one and watched the movie with my wife and some of our friends some time later. None of them had seen it and (unlike me) they had managed to avoid learning about the twist at the end. The experience was fascinating. Shyamalan has become famous for revealing something in the last few minutes of his movies that actually changes how the viewer sees and interprets the film itself. While watching “The 6th Sense”, my wife and friends would interpret things one way, and I, (already knowing the ending), would interpret them another. I noticed things they didn’t notice. They locked in on details that I knew to be inconsequential. We were viewing the same film, but through different lenses.

As strange as it may sound, one of the most hotly debated and even divisive issues among Christians is the subject of grace. On one end of the spectrum are those who believe that God’s grace saves us completely and our works, actions, or behavior have nothing to do with obtaining or maintaining our salvation. On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find those who believe that our works, actions and behavior qualify us for God’s grace. Moreover, these things can disqualify us from His grace at any moment. To make things even more difficult, those on both ends of the spectrum (and everyone in between) can point to scriptures that do indeed seem to validate their contradictory cases. I believe that, much like Shyamalan’s movie, the problem may lie in the lenses that we are looking at scripture through to start with. Is it possible that that no one on “the spectrum” has a “right” answer because it’s the wrong spectrum all together?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Philemon: Paul's continuing decosntruction of the "other"

Paul apparently had a significant relationship with Philemon, and it can be assumed from the letter that Philemon held Paul in high enough regard that Paul could just order him to do something and it would be done. Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave who crossed paths with Paul and became a follower of Christ. Paul apparently convinced Onesimus that he should return to Philemon and Colossae ( a very risky move), and he does so with this letter in hand. Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the most personal. However, it is not addressed only to Philemon. It can be assumed that it would we read to his faith community. Paul seems to assume that this is a community decision and not Philemon’s decision alone. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul lays out a version of his household code (a slightly truncated version of the one he lays out in Ephesians), and as can be expected, he lays it out his normal reciprocal and subtly subversive way. However, in his letter to Philemon, he seems to take it further. He seems to want Philemon, who has the right to even kill his runaway slave (property) if he wishes, to welcome him as a brother. He seems to want Philemon to see Onesimus in the same light as he would view Paul. He is not simply seeking to protect Onesimus’ life, nor is he simply seeking to restore the relationship to it’s former condition. What he subtly implies about the slave/master relationship in Colossians, he virtually shouts in Philemon. He wants Onesimus to be welcomed back as a fellow man (quite a step up for “property”), as a brother, and as a partner. So, what does this mean for us today? What Paul hints at elsewhere, he makes quite clear here: In Christ, no one is “less than”.