Even in Christianity-soaked northern Indiana where I grew up several decades ago, there were cynics: those who gave wide berth to the church because, as they put it, “They’re just a bunch of hypocrites. Those people show up on Sunday, then forget about their religion the rest of the week.” Having been a pastor of two churches myself, I’ll side with the Christians on this one. I don’t think the blanket charge of hypocrisy is fair. But yes, there are those folks who preach one thing but do another.
One thing I wish is that Madison had defined "hypocrisy". Paul is talking about a person's actions being contrary to what they say they believe. Therefore I will use that concept to define hypocrisy. And using that definition, every human being is a hypocrite.
It seems to been an ancient problem as well. The apostle Paul spotted the hypocrites and comes down hard on them at the start of chapter two of his Letter to the Romans. The second chapter is the topic of this post—as we make our way through all 16 chapters of Romans—one post at a time.
Paul does indeed point out the hypocrisy of condemning another person for the same acts you yourself doing. But I think Madison misses Paul's larger point in this chapter.
“Why bother?” you may ask. Well, this epistle has been idealized and idolized forever by Christian scholars, who obsess about its potential for revealing the mind of the Almighty. Just scratch the surface—in fact they go far deeper than the surface—and the word of God is sure to come
seeping out. But Paul was a mediocre thinker and a bad theologian; couldn’t God have done better? There is so much bad stuff in the Bible, and it doesn’t hurt to keep pointing out that some of the most treasured Christian texts deserved to be sliced out. Thomas Jefferson took his scissors to the gospels to cut out the nonsense; I’m sure he would not have been kind to Romans.
I truly think this a worthwhile exercise to closely examine Paul's writing in Romans. But I disagree that Paul was a mediocre thinker and he was not a bad theologian. In order to demonstrate this, Madison has to show evidence in Romans. This he has failed to do so far. Might this be the post that shows Madison is right? Naaaaaaah.
Paul goes on this rant against hypocrites although he had never visited the congregation in Rome. Near the end of the letter, in chapter 16, he says “hi” to quite a few people whom he knows there, so maybe he had reports of unsavory conduct. In 1:11 he had written, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” Hence his strong words against hypocrisy; maybe he’s giving advance warning?
Advanced warning of what? Paul's point does not apply just to the church at Rome but to every person. The interesting thing is that it applies not just to them but to anyone at any time as well.
We can give him credit for impatience with hypocrisy, but then nasty Paul resumes the rant. God will run out of patience: “…for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does
evil” (vv.8-9). Wrath, fury, anguish, distress. Paul’s message here reminds us of John the Baptist’s severe words for the religious leaders who came out to hear him preach: “You brood of
vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? …even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10) Yes, there are Hallmark moments in Paul’s letters, but there is uncompressing [sic]
severity as well. Don’t get carried away bragging about a ‘god of love’ in the New Testament.
So, Madison give Paul credit because he does not like hypocrisy, but calls him "nasty" because Paul said that those who are selfish and doe evil are going to suffer? Huh? Whether you agree or not that God punishes bad people, I think everyone wants to see evil people be punished for the bad that they do especially when it is personally directed against us. How is this nasty or bad? If someone killed your child and laughed about it, would it be uncompromisingly severe for them to be punished for it? I don't think so. Paul is talking more about that. He's talking about everyone who has ever lied on you, stolen from you, and every other wrong befallen you. It goes both ways also. You deserve the same punishments for all the evil you have perpetrated against others. This is Paul's point.
Can It Be? A Hint at Secular Ethics?
Again,to his credit, Paul saw that being in God’s favor didn’t depend on being Jewish, i.e., in the company of those who had heard God’s law for centuries. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13). No matter who you are, you can qualify, and I find vv. 14-15 startling; did Paul really realize what he was saying: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…”Do instinctively…written on their hearts…their own conscience bears witness? Atheists who argue that we don’t need religion to behave morally embrace these very concepts.
I think this is where so many people get confused. Secular ethicists make a startling assumption that people are capable of fulfilling moral law. Paul's not arguing from that point of view. In order to be justified by law one has to obey it completely and faultlessly. He's not saying that the gentile that does the right thing without having the law is perfect.. He is only saying that he/she is better than the Jew in those areas where their consciences are aligned with God. but the jew who has the law that does not obey it. No where does Paul say that anyone is righteous by obeying the law and in Chapter 3, he goes into why no one is righteous.
But Paul is caught in a major contradiction here, because he really doesn’t mean what he says in verse 10, i.e., that glory, honor and peace are for everyone who does good. The heart of Pauline theology, so earnestly embraced by Luther, was justification by faith, as stated so bluntly by Paul in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” No amount of ‘doing good’ will do the trick. British scholar Michael Grant: “Paul commits flagrant self-contradictions, which caused
Augustine, among many others, the deepest anxiety.” (St. Paul, 1982, p. 6)
Paul is not caught up in a contradiction. The problem is that Madison does not understand what Paul said. He's not arguing that anyone is justified by the good that they do. He's pointing out that's it is better to follow the law than to disobey it but he doesn't argue that you just stop there. If he was suggesting that we all just obey the law, Romans would have been much shorter. I wonder if Madison has read chapter 3 yet because the rest of the letter is Paul explaining how he is not setting up a contradiction between faith and works. Madison seems to be getting ahead of Paul who has not even brought up "faith" yet. If you are gonna critique a man then at least follow his arguments more closely.
The Invasion-of-Privacy God
No surprise: personal monotheism is stated here with a vengeance. Paul is
confident that, on the Day of Judgment, “…God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (v. 16) God will judge your thoughts! The theologians who came up with this idea discovered the formula for terrorizing people. Jesus was in the same camp (at least as depicted by those who created the fictional Galilean peasant); he claimed that the hairs of our head are numbered—and the deity knows as well the thought-crimes inside our skulls: lust is the equivalent of adultery.
Exactly. This is why we know Paul is not arguing for Justification by works. WE all know not one us can be justified by those standards.
I once had a parishioner who was worried that people were watching her through the TV. Crazy, yes, but just drop the TV, and that’s what personal monotheism is: God is always watching you.
Given what's come out how the camera's on your phones, tablets, and game consoles (not to mention all the cameras in public) maybe she ain't that crazy.
Who thinks it’s cool to have cameras—installed by the state, our boss, landlord or a god—spying on us in our bedrooms and bathrooms—indeed, everywhere? And with the capacity for getting inside our heads. This evil theology should be off-putting to decent people. As for the folks who have lost their faith and mourn its passing, Christopher Hitchens asked why—why would you want it back? Personal monotheism is totalitarianism: you can’t even have ‘secret thoughts’ without God knowing. Heaven, Hitchens said, is a celestial North Korea. He couldn’t imagine anyone yearning for it.
The problem here is equivocation. God is more than right to expect us to act the way God says we should act. He is not another human being equal to us. How is it evil to recognize it. Sure you might not like it but not liking something does not make it evil. I don't like Brussels sprouts so does that mean you and all of humanity should call Brussels sprouts evil?! Who's crazy now?
Paul and Jesus should rub people the wrong way because they claimed to be on a first name basis with the Invasion-of-Privacy god. Beware all who position themselves this way—and posture accordingly. They rate themselves as supremely qualified to tell the rest of us what to do. As
we go through the Letter to the Romans we will see that Paul specializes in just that.
Paul did not rate himself better than anyone else. He once referred to himself as the "chief of sinners". He just said what had been revealed to him. As for Jesus he has every right. He is positioned above us. He is better than you and me. His more than qualified to tell us how to live and how to think. Her made you. You are accountable to him. So am I.
A Positive Note at the End
Paul had little patience with the notion of Chosen People. So being circumcised was irrelevant; this outward mark on the flesh counted for nothing: “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (v.29).
Praise is not the same as salvation. Notice that Paul did not say that such a person who is spiritually circumcised has earned salvation.If you think a person can earn salvation on the basis of their own merit that you completely misunderstood Paul.
A nice sentiment indeed—now if only Paul’s theology had not been excessively infused with magical thinking, i.e., the notion that believing that a holy man had risen from the dead was the key to winning eternal life.
The only way anyone could prove that Paul's theology is bad is to show that he was wrong about Jesus. Good luck with that. Otherwise, all Madison has managed to do is to show that he does not understand Romans 1 or 2 and that he does not like being held accountable for his sin - welcome to reality.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a
PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.
Keep paying for David Madison.
Debunking Christianity: Is the Church really filled with hypocrites? No.