“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever” opined the famous French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. American society today seems to have taken him at his word. We are told to dream big, take chances, and make our mark on the world. To be remembered in posterity, “write something worth reading or do something worth writing about” wrote Benjamin Franklin. We are even told to misbehave, “Well behaved women seldom make history (Laurel Thatcher Urich).” It is as if 100,000 of us were standing in a stadium screaming to be heard, and spending our lives trying to be distinctive enough to feel important.
Sometimes the Christian community looks little different. In his book You Are Special, Max Lucado writes of a village of little wooden people called wemmicks who spend their days putting stars or dots on each other, stars for doing something that they like and dots for doing something that they don’t. The best had special awards (a sequel, Best of All) and perhaps even monuments to be widely known and remembered. These fictional children’s stories describe an all too common trap into which even followers of Jesus fall.
In the time of Paul, the Christian community was a small part of a large and powerful pagan Roman society. Some Christians were prominent, but to be a Christian sometimes meant to be persecuted – a big downside to seeking the limelight. Paul himself did not seek personal glory. The miraculous powers that he sometimes wielded were not his own, and he could not even use them to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He traveled from community to community preaching Christ resurrected in the synagogues and later in the churches. He taught in prominent places such as the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) in Athens, but anyone with something to say could enter the discussion. Paul never wrote about how he wished to be remembered, and it is not clear that he expected to find his name in history.
Paul did, however, have an expectation for how Christians would live in society as individuals and as a group.
- Christians would live a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
- The believing community would require work from their members, and those who were able to work but refused to do so would not be supported by the community (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
- Males and females would treat each other well, as would people of different ages (1 Timothy 5:1-3).
- Families would consist of multiple generations caring for each other in every way they could (1 Timothy 5:8).
- Younger men and women would marry, have children, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).
- Everyone would contribute what efforts they could to the group. Even older and infirm widows would serve the community (1 Timothy 5:10). There was no period of life in which a person did not work.
- Families would take care of their aged and infirm members first, only receiving help from the community when needed (1 Timothy 5:16).
- The community of Christians would honor their Christian leaders. This includes paying them a fair wage (1 Corinthians 9:9-14).
- Believers would pray for their leaders and government, and that they live quiet and peaceful lives in the greater society (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We are not to speak evil of others (Titus 3:1-2).
- Men and women would have different roles in the church (1 Timothy 2:8-15). Different age groups would also have differing, but equally important, roles and tasks (Titus 2:1-7).
- Christian leaders and their wives would be subject to high standards of conduct and appearance (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
- Every follower of Jesus would be godly, contented, and not greedy (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
- As individuals and as a community, Christians would constantly live in such a way as to avoid just accusation from those outside the community (Titus 2:8). The Apostle Peter agrees with Paul in that we glory God in our lives so that outsiders may be saved (1 Peter 2:12-15).
Paul says far more about the Christian community, and about the structure and government of the local church, in his letters. He says little about how people outside the church should behave or should live in their communities. The Apostle’s instructions to Christian men and women in different contexts (families and churches) do not necessarily apply to those outside the family of believers. Also, Paul says nothing about the structure of government outside the church. Paul was not a political activist.
Much of Paul’s vision for the early church is anathema to non-believers, and even some believers, today. Some of it, such people argue, was specific to that place and does not apply in the 21st century. These arguments are beyond the scope of this article. They are also beside the point.
Napoleon believed that glory was fleeting, but obscurity was forever. He lived his life, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying nations to gain earthly, mortal glory. The Emperor of France spent his years doing what logically followed his beliefs. If we believe as Napoleon as a society and as a church, we will live like Napoleon.
Paul knew that while mortal glory is fleeting, immortal glory lasts forever. He lived his life not to be in some history book, but to be raised from death with Christ (Philippians 3:8-10). Paul killed no one and destroyed nothing. After coming to know Christ, he gave each moment of his earthly sojourn so that everyone might know Him. If we believe like Paul as a society, and especially as a church, we will live like Paul.