The Christian Community in Society

“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.

  1. Christians would live a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
  2. 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).
  3. Males and females would treat each other well, as would people of different ages (1 Timothy 5:1-3).
  4. Families would consist of multiple generations caring for each other in every way they could (1 Timothy 5:8).
  5. Younger men and women would marry, have children, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).
  6. 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.
  7. Families would take care of their aged and infirm members first, only receiving help from the community when needed (1 Timothy 5:16).
  8. The community of Christians would honor their Christian leaders. This includes paying them a fair wage (1 Corinthians 9:9-14).      
  9. 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).
  10. 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).
  11. Christian leaders and their wives would be subject to high standards of conduct and appearance (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
  12. Every follower of Jesus would be godly, contented, and not greedy (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
  13. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Do We Hate Our Bodies?

The other day I read an article written by a hospice chaplain from South Carolina entitled “What the dying really regret.” The author interviewed an elderly woman who was dying of cancer, who said:

“I know I’m supposed to hate my body…Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick…But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?” Kerry Egan, CNN, 17 Oct 2014

The author concluded that the dying regret losing their bodies, and that makes the fact that society teaches us to hate our bodies all the sadder. Bodies decay over time; my grandmother memorably said that she felt like an 18 year old girl in an 80 year old body, but they are still the only thing that connects us to the material world.

Do people hate their bodies? Sometimes, yes. As a sports medicine physician I take care of anorexic athletes, thus far all female, in their teens and twenties, who perceive themselves as fat though they are wasting away. As a family medicine physician I have treated obesity in thousands of patients, including counseling them on how not to hate themselves for their weight. As a preventive medicine physician I have dealt with the larger problem of populations, whole groups of people, abusing their bodies and living unhealthy lifestyles in part to compensate for self-dissatisfaction. As a Christian minister I have counseled people who struggled with terrible feelings of inferiority, in part because of the look of their bodies.

Are people taught by society to hate their bodies? Often, yes. Advertisers use all of the formidable tools of psychology and manipulation to convince people that they are inadequate so that those people will buy their product in the (ultimately vain) hope of becoming adequate. The messages are compelling;

  1. You won’t find love in the world because you teeth aren’t white enough, so buy this product.
  2. You can’t be happy because your hair is too gray so buy this product
  3. Your will never be healthy and will die young because your body is too fat so buy this product.
  4. Look at the phenomenally beautiful woman (who is a genetic rarity, eats nearly nothing, works out constantly, and has an army of people to help with her hair, makeup and clothes) in this picture (which has been airbrushed and edited to eliminate any flaw)! Why can’t you look like her?

In the past this drum beat came to us through radio, television and print media but since we did not have these with us constantly, we had a respite from the message. Now with smart phones and other portable devices, we have no relief from hearing all that is wrong with us, physically and in every other way.

Other people, often trying to make themselves feel better about their bodies, denigrate ours. The interviewee referred to men and women alike telling her, with and without words, and even with and without meaning to, that her body was bad. From trade in jade and silk between Europe and China in 2000 BC to modern body shaping underwear, fortunes have been made selling people things to try to make them more beautiful.

Sometimes even the church teaches people to hate their bodies. In Romans 7, Paul anguished about the sin in his own life, discussing the fact that sin is present in his flesh. He concluded with the statement “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death (V24)?” The obvious conclusion is that the physical body is wicked and the spirit is good. Since we should hate sin, we should hate our bodies.

However obvious, this conclusion is absolutely wrong, rooted more in Platonic dualism and in Gnostic hatred of the material world than in Christianity. Furthermore it is not at all what Paul meant. The Hebrews recognized that God created the universe, including our bodies, and that His creation was good. They had a healthy respect for the body and had no concept of a disembodied life after death as the later Greeks did. Beginning around the time of Daniel, Jewish thought included bodily resurrection from the dead, not ghosts floating around the universe forever.

As heir to this heritage, Paul had the highest regard for the human body. He called it the temple of the Holy Spirit and taught his students to honor it (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Paul told his disciple Timothy that though not as valuable as godliness, physical exercise was profitable (1 Timothy 4:8). His statements in Romans 7 were not that the material body was wicked, because the body was as much a victim of sin as was all creation (Romans 8:19-23). Rather, Paul wanted to be delivered from sin. If the body was the source of sin, the most effective (and macabre) way to deal with sin in life was to eliminate the body. The Bible never teaches this.

Another common misconception is that Christianity teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies because sexuality is wicked and their body might cause someone else to sin. First, sexuality was created by God and nothing that He made is evil. Second, the entire Biblical book of Song of Solomon is devoted to romantic love, the courtship and married life of a young couple. The book glorifies human love in the context of a man and woman married for life. Only outside this context does Scripture discourage sexuality. Third, when a man looks at a woman and lusts after her, that sin is his, not hers. However if the woman dresses immodestly because she wants to provoke envious or lustful thoughts in others, that sin is hers. The key is for men and women to dress in a way that pleases themselves while being more concerned with others’ needs than with his/her own, and being more interested in personal character than in physical appearance.

The body is our connection to the natural world, the place where we laugh, love, and live. It enables us to feel cool breezes on hot days, embrace our families and friends, taste delicious foods, and smell fragrant flowers. The body allows us to think, to speak, to work, and to serve God and others in the world; doing His work so that others may know Him. God made creation for His glory, for our care and for our enjoyment, and He gave us bodies to be a part of it. Someday we will lose our earthly bodies, and then regain them, clothed in glory and incorruptible, in the new earth.

Though advertisers will continue to tell us that we are never good enough, and some other people will forever try to build themselves up at our expense, our Creator tells us that He loves us infinitely as we are, regardless of how we look and what we can or cannot do. The Church can never teach its members to hate the body, and each pastor, leader and teacher must have the right understanding. If we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor, we can do no less.