I can still recall my frazzled shock when my good friend and fellow (at the time) seminarian told me, “You know, we’re called to judge people.” Though I was internally thrown by his statement, I did my best to keep from giving away my astonishment.
“But Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, lest you be judged,’” I replied, citing Matthew 7:1.
“Sure,” he said, “but Paul says differently.” He gave, as his proof, 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul instructs the congregation to judge one of their own who has been acting so egregiously that he cannot remain part of the community of Christ.
If you’ve ever had a bone to pick with Paul, this is likely one of them. On this point in particular, he seems to pronounce a way of life completely contrary with what we see in Jesus. On the one hand, we have Jesus, the one who ate and drank with sinners, while on the other we’ve got mean old Paul scrambling about making sure everybody’s got their doctrine right. Jesus spurns judgement; Paul relishes in it.
Briefly, the Jesus side of the argument. To put it bluntly, Jesus’ entire life was about judgement. His life itself was a judgement. Again and again, his actions, his parables and his instructions say one thing: the central gathering point for the people of God is me. If you’re with me, you’re in. If you’re against me, you’re out.
It just so happens that the ones who came running to rally around Jesus and his message were those cast out by first century Jewish society. That probably shouldn’t surprise us, though.
Anyway, on to Paul. Was he really so welcoming? Well, of course, you don’t have to look too deeply into his story to realize that his outlook was exceptionally generous.
Chief among Paul’s concerns were the social barriers he recognized throughout the Roman Empire: Jews reviled Gentiles and vice-versa; social classes were more distinctly felt than today (they had real live slavery); gender wars raged (and we thought these were new problems). Into this milieu Paul has a single pronouncement: Jesus is Lord over all. In other words, the only thing that really matters is Jesus and a person’s allegiance to him.
In any era, Galatians 3:28 is astonishing in its liberality, but especially in his own day: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In Paul’s world, this hits particularly close to home in the Jew-Gentile divide. Since their inception, the Israelites had seen themselves as definitively separate from the nations that surrounded them. An entire code of laws ensured their differences, from their person and place of worship, to the food they ate, to a particularly intimate mark placed on the men. For 1500 years, the Jews knew they were the people of God because of the myriad details that demonstrated their difference from the pagan peoples around them.
Suddenly, the cross. And Paul finds himself traveling throughout the cosmopolitan Mediterranean declaring that all are welcome in this family. All have access to join these saved people of God. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with where you worship or what you eat or whether a certain appendage has been altered.
If anyone fought to include wide and wild cultures in the rescued family of God, it was most certainly Paul.