Read 1 Thessalonians 2 here.
OK, I’ll admit that it didn’t take me too long to get worked up about something while reading the Bible; a scant ten verses in, and I’ve already found a popular Christian belief that I feel damages American society. Living your life as if Jesus were coming back in your lifetime leaves very little incentive for improving things for the next generation.
I think this kind of thinking really took off in the 1960s. With all the social change, students fighting policemen in the streets, the Vietnam War, the drug culture – many felt the ‘end of days’ had arrived. Folks like my parents got into a church and dug in hard, preparing for what would surely be the ‘coming calamity’ they had heard about when they were children. You can’t really blame people who live in difficult times of change to believe the worst might happen; it’s just that, contrary to what my parents thought back then, contrary to what Paul believed nearly two thousand years earlier – Jesus just didn’t come back. My take is that we need to operate our civic institutions under the assumption that he never will.
Paul begins the second chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians by talking about his prior ministry there – his good results, how he was mistreated by the authorities there, how he preached to please God and not men. Then he seems to insinuate that – even though neither he nor Silas nor Timothy availed themselves of financial support from the Thessalonians – as apostles, they had every right to do so. I admire the fact that they worked to support themselves; I’m a little concerned that they seem to be saying it would be acceptable for ministers to live off of the good will of the people they are nurturing.
Now I know this is the way of things, and always has been – that preachers, prophets, and priests make a living from preaching, prophesying, and – what is it priests do? (Insert punchline here.) But I can’t help but think of all the fat-cat church leaders out there, making their fortunes off of the donations of grandmas on fixed incomes, and desperate, jobless folks trying to send in ‘seed money’ or hoping they can ‘cast their bread upon the water’. (Those of you attending an American church know what these phrases mean – I’ll explain in a later post to the rest of you – apologies for now.)
If you follow the American Secularist Facebook page (and you should if you want to know about my posts the minute they are posted, plus enjoy links to other articles I’m reading on a daily basis), you’ll already know about the latest of a long line of stories of financial abuse within the church, the TBN scandal. It seems to me that Paul didn’t really know what he was starting here by justifying the idea of ministers making a living from their flocks. The enormous wealth these shysters take in is completely tax-free; is it time for a change? Comments on a previous blog of mine seem to indicate that at least some people think so.
But this isn’t the only problematic teaching I find in this chapter; verses 14-16 give a glimpse into what would become full-blown anti-Semitism by the 4th century, and would last for centuries more. Notice it isn’t the Roman government that killed Jesus, nor is it the Devil, or, in this verse at least, part of God’s great plan. It was the Jews. And their actions are deserving of God’s wrath – pretty strong words.
A final disconcerting idea in this chapter isn’t nearly as troubling as anti-Semitism, but it is troubling, nonetheless. In verses 17-18, Paul writes “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” Ok, what bothers me here might be hard to see; it’s subtle, but bear with me. Paul says that he wanted to do something – not God wanted him to do something or the Holy Spirit prompted him to do something – but Satan blocked it. This is an interesting way of talking, if you think about it. Why not say, “I wanted to come, but I wasn’t able to,” or “circumstances prevented me,” or my favorite, “I was detained by a subsequent engagement.”
No, Satan opposed MY will – a very developed sense of ego on the part of Paul, don’t you think? This strain of thinking so permeates the day-to-day talk of Christian folk, that it’s easy to dismiss the audacious pride contained therein. Satan made me lose my house. The Devil tried to take away my job. Or, even more mundane, Satan created a traffic jam to make me late; the Devil made it rain during my beach vacation. It’s nonsense – but a very ‘me’ generation sort of nonsense, that seems to say whatever I want must be the will of God, and if you want something different, you are obviously in league with Beelzebub.
My problem with this kind of thinking – whether I’m criticizing it from a Christian point of view or a secular one – is that it makes a demi-god out of the individual believer. Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, spoke of this on Dylan Ratigan’s show a day or two ago. He said that a popular but polarizing concept in American churches today is that “whatever is coming out of my own soul must be the voice of God.” I don’t have to tell you how this is playing out in American politics. The GOP (God’s Own Party, apparently) want to run the country a certain way and, by golly, Satan (the Democrats) are blocking the way.
So, 1 Thessalonians 2 is a troubling little chapter – justification for fleecing the flock, good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, and a little bit of self-aggrandizement thrown in for good measure. God
bless help us.