Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shut your mouth...

Paul taught his disciples to shut up about the moral decay in their culture.

The story of the riot in Ephesus: In Ephesus Paul finds disciples who are eager to learn, they receive Christ and are baptized. Paul speaks publicly and from house to house, night and day making disciples and sending them out for perhaps three years . The city is shaken to its foundations as great numbers of people believe and join Paul in the work of making disciples. Many of them burned their books of magic and abandoned idol worship. From Ephesus Paul was able to direct a great disciple making movement and churches were founded in cities for up to 100 miles around. Ephesus rapidly became the leading center of the Christian world. In all respects Paul had a successful public ministry in Ephesus.

But the idol makers, seeing a decline in their business, incite an immense mob to riot against Paul and these new churches. They chant their slogan, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” over and over as they drag leaders of the church into a giant arena filled to capacity with idol worshipers. The Mayor then steps in and disbands the crowd by saying “You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess.” The crowd leaves because no one in the crowd can argue with the Mayor’s points.

It is important here to look carefully at what the Mayor said. The words “robbed temples” are the Greek word hierosylos and it means stealer of things from a temple, or one who desecrates and commits sacrilege. The word blaspheme is the Greek word blasphēmeō and it means: to insult, slander, curse, to use malicious talk, or defamation of character. The Mayor challenges the mob to bring one witness who has heard the disciples of the way say anything negative about Artemis, or one person who has witnessed them desecrate an idol. No one from this massive crowd has any evidence that Paul or his fellow Christians have said or done anything slanderous to the local religious traditions.

We know Paul was not shy about his beliefs. All of the evidence tells us that Paul was at the center of this movement writing letters and teaching in public places. Paul is training and sending others out to speak for Christians as well. Scholars believe that several of Paul’s epistles, including a letter to the church at Corinth, were written and sent while Paul was in Ephesus. In many of Paul’s other ministry journeys he is recorded as giving speeches to large crowds. Paul is even anxious to get in front of this huge mob to speak to them.

Paul is not vague, but also not confrontational, about the difference in idol worship and worship of the one true God. In the letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “An idol is nothing at all in the world” he goes on to call them “so called gods.” He does not call on the Corinthian disciples to publically criticize the idol worshipers. In fact, Paul talks about them eating food sacrificed to idols in the idol’s temple. He does not chastise them for associating with the idol worshipers, it even seems expected that they would be in close contact with nonbelievers and new believers. At Mars Hill, Paul uses the idols of the local populace and even quotes one of their poets. He then turns these things on their head to teach the crowd about Yahweh but, he never once insults these cultural icons.

We know that Paul was not quiet about his beliefs regarding idols and idol worship. We know Paul had tremendous influence. We know there were thousands of Christians in and around Ephesus who had regular contact with the Ephesian people. Despite all of this, no one can recall a single time the Church was disrespectful or publically ridiculed the pagan worshipers. Paul never called on the church to make signs and form a protest line at a concert or speech. Paul never called on the church to stage a book burning. Paul never instructed the disciples of the way to pester and ridicule their friends, family and coworkers about the decline of their culture. Paul does not instruct the church to endorse a particular political party or candidate.

Paul is an excellent example of how Christians should carry on in the face of cultural resistance. He knew that to engage in hierosylos and blasphēmeō damages one’s witness. Because we have failed to listen to Paul, the world today knows more about what the church is against than what it is for. How then should we conduct ourselves in a culture of moral decline and idol worship? What should be the churches public response to having less of a cultural influence than other religious traditions or new age spiritual practices? We must find ways to lead people into experiencing redemption in Christ that don’t involve a bullhorn. We must find ways of helping broken lost people find redemptive love without shame and condemnation. We must live amongst the people of our culture and love them as Jesus loves them.