Setting: A modern-day university classroom. Answering questions is Paul the Apostle, mysteriously appearing in 21st century, about the first century and his opinion of the church today.
Christine: So, I was wondering, Paul, if you were familiar between the differences between Protestants and Catholics.
Paul: Yes. The professor I have been staying with gave me a history of Christianity to read. (He shakes his head). Unbelievable.
Christine: You mean the wars, the injustices that Christians have done?
Paul: All of it. Remember, in the first century, we were just a tiny group—less than a minority, even among the devout Jews. What is called “Christianity” expanded from that group but became much more—and much less—than we could have ever imagined.
Christine: How do you mean, “much less”?
Paul: Well, the church, the gathering of God’s people, was all about Jesus. But the church today—the church throughout the last two thousand years, seems to be about something different.
Christine: But all we talk about is Jesus—his work, his person, his life…
Paul: And you have missed the main point, it seems. Christianity was never a philosophical position. It was never about ontological reality.
Paul: I know, I know. It IS a philosophical position—one that is quite different than many philosophies that exist today. Honestly, in the ancient days, paganism was never as pagan as the belief systems that exist today. If anyone believed such heresies, they kept quiet about it. Of course, if they did express their opinion that Caesar wasn’t really, ontologically, a god, then they would be killed, and that certainly quieted such philosophies down. Atheism was a crime punishable by death, you know.
Christine: Yes. Christians were called atheists for a time.
Paul: (Thinking for a minute.) Yes. I can see why that is.
Christine: But you were saying that we have less Jesus than in your day. I just can’t see that it is true.
Paul: Well, we didn’t talk less about Jesus than you. But we understood him differently. Jesus today is the same as God the Father—and let’s not quibble about Trinitarianism, I’m not qualified to talk about that. But for us, Jesus was the best expression of God the Father. Not the only one, you understand. All the angels, and even the demons, expressed something about the Spirit world that God the Father created. But Jesus was the one who initiated the war in the heavenly places that we were all participating in. Jesus declared that the way of mercy was a better expression of the Father than the way of judgment. And that only those who lived the way of mercy and purity and peace, as Jesus did, would be able to stand in the day of judgment. Very few Christians talk about the day of judgment or the war in the heavenly places any more.
Christine: Okay… but I’d like to get back to my question.
Christine: In your opinion as a first century apostle, which is more accurate—the Protestant church or the Catholic church?
Paul: (Pausing and then chuckling) What a question. Honestly, from my perspective, I can hardly see the difference between them.
Christine: But… the pope… the Eucharist… the saints… the prayers…
Paul: Yes, I am sure that these are significant issues. But none of them are essential. None of them get to the heart of the gospel—the lordship and lifestyle of Jesus. And neither church really comes at the gospel from the perspective of us who lived and died for it in the first century.
Christine: (sneering, disgusted) I knew you couldn’t be the true apostle.
Paul: (smiling) And why do you say that?
Christine: Because you don’t affirm the apostolic doctrine of the church!
Paul: And which church is that?
Christine: The holy, apostolic church, of course.
Paul: Well, no, I do believe I am expressing the original doctrine of the church. The doctrine of Jesus. That is the only doctrine that counts, you know. All other doctrines apart from what Jesus taught are secondary, items to be disagreed about. When we gathered together in our ekklesia, every day of the week, the most important thing we did was to quote Jesus, and to discuss what that meant for us. Today you have sermons, but they aren’t the same thing of what we had. We were the school of Jesus, and we all listened to Jesus’ word and discussed it among ourselves. It was through Jesus that the rest of Scriptures were opened to us and we understood them. It was through Jesus—his life and his word—that our lives were opened and we understood what we have done and were to do. It was through this teaching of Jesus that we understood the life that God wanted us to live. And so all things were centered on what Jesus did and said. Yes, we expressed our personal opinions, and we certainly had heated arguments about things that Jesus did not say. And sometimes we disagreed about what Jesus really meant in a particular teaching. But it was okay, because the rest of the world didn’t have what we had—they didn’t have Jesus. All of these arguments between your denominations are just like the disagreements we had in our churches, except taken to a large scale. And these arguments of yours have replaced the central aspect of the early church—Jesus.
Christine: But, again, we do talk about Jesus. All the time. We take in Jesus in every mass.
Paul: And you walk out of your mass, or worship service, or liturgy, no different. In the early church, we knew our lifestyles were corrupt, and we were looking to be sanctified, to be made holy. We looked to Jesus to be made pure. And how did we look at Jesus? By recounting what he did or said. The words of the Spirit were significant to us, and a part of our lives, but they were all based on the words and life of Jesus. The only Jesus that you have today is the four gospels. And you look at these gospels as something equal to or less than the rest of Scripture. But it was the center of what we understood to be truth. For you, the center of truth is the tradition that your church holds. Whatever your particular doctrinal distinctives you have—that is the basis of your existence. You have taken what is insignificant, and made it the center. The mass isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. The liturgy isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. Speaking in tongues isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. Peacemaking isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. Singing worship to Jesus isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. Your eschatology isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. The pope isn’t Jesus. The gospel is. This doesn’t mean that these other things aren’t important. They are. They are what make up a rich life in the Spirit, to allow different people to share what they have received in the Spirit. But you cannot take these things you have received from the Spirit and replace it as your center. The gospel of Jesus is the center.
Don: Well, Christine left, but I still have a couple questions before we move on to another subject. Are there denominational distinctives that you particularly appreciate?
Paul: Of course. Going to an Orthodox or Catholic service does make me feel at home, because the form of worship is similar to what we had in our churches. And the Messianic Synagogue is also very homey. The Pentecostals are a bit wild for my taste—more reminiscent of a Bacchanalia than a Christian service—but despite my personal opinion their point of view of the spiritual world interacting with today’s world is very much like our point of view. And the healings are wonderful—just how we apostles would go out on the street and heal. The Mennonites and Catholics are great deacons, serving the poor and outcast at great sacrifice to themselves. The Holiness churches do focus on purity, which is good, but they sometimes fall into the errors of judgmentalism or in thinking that the Spirit might somehow just visit purity upon them.
Don: One last thing, Paul. In your opinion, do you think that the denominations are being too divisive?
Paul: Sometimes. For most—not all, but most—denominational distinctives I have the following principles, which I also gave the gatherings in Rome. They had a similar problem—they had many house gatherings, many of which disagreed with other gatherings. So I told them to have their differences of opinion, as long as they did not disagree with the clear teaching of Jesus. There were only two qualifications: First, don’t judge each other. You can disagree with them, but don’t claim that they are less of a believer in Jesus than you. Secondly, don’t use your freedom to exercise your distinctive as an excuse to cause another to sin. If you speak in tongues and you think every spiritual Christian should speak in tongues you might encourage another believer to be deceptive and fake speaking in tongues when they don’t have the gift. Or you might have the freedom to drink, but another brother does not and you encourage them to drink when they shouldn’t. Let other people live in their Spirit-given distinctives.
Don: But what is the difference between a distinctive and a gospel truth?
Paul: Jesus is the arbiter. Look at the gospels and see what He says. He is the only Truth. One other thing. What the Evangelicals have done in getting different denominational groups together to worship the same Lord. That should be pursued—it is what we often did in cities that had many different house groups, gather together to pray on occasion.