Paul the Idol

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan went out to him. (Matthew 3:5)

One of the church-y things churches sometimes talk about (because church-y people like to make up new words) is being “attractional” vs “missional.” Sometimes it feels like there is a kind of tension between the idea of focusing on faithfully worshiping God as a community centered in a place, open to outsiders coming to that place if they want to join―being “attractional”―and the idea of leaving the four walls of the church building to get out there in the community and do good things and perhaps (depending on the kind of church) evangelize―being “missional.”

If we want to try to fit John the Baptist into one of these categories, I suppose it would be attractional. His life and words and actions presented themselves as a weird sort of attraction out in the wilderness, and people from everywhere―the bustling capital city to small villages and remote rural areas―went out to him. “All Judea and all the region along the Jordan” may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but that must have been what it felt like. John didn’t travel from place to place to preach; he just stuck by the river and let people come to him. Lots of people.

When I think about all these people going out to John, I think about the contrast between John and Paul―Paul being the dude who traveled all around the Roman Empire to plant and help lead a bunch of new churches in a bunch of different cities, and in the process ended up writing a lot of the New Testament. And I think about how, at least in some Christian circles, people tend to look to Paul as an example of a good Christian life.

Sometimes people say and/or think things along these lines:

Look at Paul’s life! Paul got out there. He was so bold and courageous in traveling to all those different places to talk about Jesus and invite people to be Christians. He was on FIRE. If each of us mustered up a tenth of his energy for evangelism and missions, locally and globally, think what we could do! So many people would commit their lives to Jesus. So many people might join our church.

This kind of thing is not totally bad. After all, love Paul or hate him, it would be hard to argue that Paul was anything but a remarkable person who was deeply passionate about God. But when we talk about Paul as if everyone should be like him, it can easily turn into an odd sort of idolatry―an idolatry of someone who was, in the end, just a human like the rest of us, with his own unique personality, strengths, weaknesses, and sense of calling from God.

Paul went to meet people in their different cities. People came from their different cities to meet John. Thinking about this helps me remember that Paul’s style of life and ministry was and is by no means the only way to be faithful to God.

I even wonder if what Paul did might have made more sense in the context of Paul’s first-century world, when Christianity was an entirely new thing―a previously unheard-of way of life that many people embraced immediately when they saw it, because it was clearly good and different and promising. These days, I suspect that my friends who are not Christians are just glad I’m not interested in holding up anti-gay signs or campaigning for Trump 2020.

A lot of people, at least in the US, have so many assumptions about the God of Jesus―assumptions which are usually, unfortunately, quite fairly earned by Christians―and have had so many negative experiences with Christianity. Jumping from friendship to friendship and community to community in a frenetic effort to tell as many people as possible about Jesus may have made sense for Paul, but I wonder if the default now should involve staying in a community, staying in friendships, getting to know real people and letting them get to know the real us, investing deeply in a neighborhood and city, and letting God do what God does―bringing healing and hope and mercy and grace, in and around us, in God’s time. This might not look particularly “missional” in the Paul-like sense, but it is good.

John the Baptist did not make any effort to do the Paul-like thing of becoming all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22). He was completely himself, boldly himself. He ate weird stuff (see the previous post), said harsh-sounding things, told everyone they needed to repent, and preached out in the wilderness by the river, letting people come to him if they were interested. John was an all-around seeker-unfriendly, not-exactly-“missional,” kind of person.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all be more like John and less like Paul. John was also a unique human with a unique kind of calling. I wonder, instead, if there are ways we might better honor the unique callings, gifts, personalities, passions, and styles that we see in one another. I wonder how we might learn to notice and fight against our tendencies to hold up any human life―that of Paul, or John the Baptist, or any other pastors, missionaries, or mentors we might look up to―as the way to live a good Christian life.

I wonder how we might better see, acknowledge, and be grateful for the people we know who, like Paul in his travels, are excited about visiting new places and talking with new people and starting new things―and how we might do the same for people who, like John the Baptist by the river, do one thing that they feel God has given them to do, in one place―and how we might do the same for the billion people who wrestle with God and faith and the Christian story in a billion different complex and beautiful ways, ways that don’t look much like either Paul or John.

May John’s example inspire us this Advent season to ditch any efforts to make anyone, including ourselves, more like Paul or anyone else, rather than more fully the person God made them to be. May John inspire us to see God in one another in new ways.

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