For weeks now, I’ve been teaching verse by verse through the book of 1 Thessalonians on Sunday mornings. Last week and this week, we hit the hinge between the last verse of 1 Thessalonians and the opening lines of 2 Thessalonians.
Biblical scholars are divided about whether the Apostle Paul actually wrote 2 Thessalonians or whether someone else later wrote it in his name. If it’s the latter, the other writer did a supreme job of imitating the great apostle in key phrases — critics of Pauline authorship would say too good a job. But that’s all beside the point to what I’m after today. (I just want my biblical scholar friends to understand that I’m aware of the authorship question and not stop reading already.)
Here’s how 1 Thessalonian ends: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
Here’s 2 Thessalonians begins: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
There’s a pattern here: Every one of the Pauline epistles begins with some variation of a call for grace to you, and every Pauline epistle ends with some variation of a prayer for grace and peace to be with you.
“Grace” and “peace” appear to be important words, key ideas, essential doctrines to Paul as he encouraged the early church. These phrases are so common that we might rightly ask whether they are mere toss-away lines, like we might blithely toss out a “Have a blessed day!” or a “Glad to see you!”
Someone in my class today said maybe Paul was like a good Southerner who might say, “Well, bless her heart,” meaning something quite opposite of the words spoken.
I don’t think either of these alternative views are right, because the dual ideas of grace and peace permeate Paul’s writings and echo the spirit of Jesus himself, who always was speaking peace and demonstrating grace. And because these are very specific words. A compelling case could be made that these words and phrases summarize Paul’s missionary intent.
The word translated into English as “grace” is the Greek word charis, which literally means grace or kindness or a gift of blessing or gratitude. The word translated into English as “peace” is the Greek word eirene, which means peace or peace of mind, exemption from the ravages and havoc of war, tranquility.
The Greek eirene is equivalent to the Latin word pax, which should be an easily identified word for anyone who has studied world history. Any high school student should know about the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome” that lasted 200 years and unified the vast domain that came to be known as the Roman Empire.
“History shows that ‘peace’ and ’empire’ seldom go together well.”
Pay attention to that key word — “empire.” History shows that “peace” and “empire” seldom go together well.
The irony of all this is illustrated well in the current Apple TV series “Foundation” based on the novels of Isaac Asimov. In this fantasy world, a cloned multigenerational dynasty has been ruling for centuries and the god-like ruler is named “Empire.” His younger and older versions (perpetually cloned to grow and age in real life) are named “Dawn” and “Dusk.” Truly, old age never sets on this perpetual “Empire.” If only the Roman Caesars had known of genetic cloning!
Scholar Arnaldo Momigliano has explained that the Romans regarded peace, “not as an absence of war, but the rare situation which existed when all opponents had been beaten down and lost the ability to resist.”
And scholar Walter Goffart has written that the Cambridge Ancient History calls the years of the Pax Romana “The Imperial Peace” but he declares, “Peace is not what one finds in its pages.”
The Apostle Paul knew that peace could not come through warfare and imperialism because he, himself, had suffered the consequences of such. As had his people. Jesus clearly taught that peace was not to be found on the tip of a sword, because he refused to allow his disciples to form a rag-tag army and commanded Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Ironically, much ancient and classic Christian art portrays Paul with a sword, which is a reference to his teaching about putting on the “full armor of God” and the belief that he died by the sword.)
John Piper, the controversial Calvinist pastor and author, writing on the website of the organization he founded called Desiring God, joins in declaring that the New Testament should lead us to pursue grace and peace. He quotes the Apostle Peter who “says explicitly that grace and peace are going to come ‘in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.’”
Piper summarizes: “In other words, not only am I praying for grace and peace to increase, I am writing a letter to give knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ as kindling for the fire of this increase. God always has more grace and more peace for you to experience. He has appointed that you experience it ‘in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.’ He has inspired Scripture to bring you this multiplied grace and peace.”
Why is it, then, that Piper advocates one of the meanest, most oppressive varieties of Christian theology let loose in America today?
Like this from 2016: “God does not punish innocent children for the sins of guilty parents. There are no innocent children. (Deuteronomy 5:9; Ezekiel 18:20).”
Or this from 2015: The Bible says there are men who rape (Genesis 34) and women who seduce (Genesis 39:7). United in sin, distinct in form.”
Or his 2012 column about God bringing judgment through a tornado: “This is a word to those of us who sit safely in Minneapolis or Hollywood and survey the desolation of Maryville and Henryville. ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”
This is the same pastor who believes inspired Scripture will bring you “multiplied grace and peace.”
Then there’s Piper’s even harsher friend on the Calvinist Christian circuit, John MacArthur. MacArthur, you may recall, is the pastor who defied government orders against large indoor gatherings amid COVID and then sued the state and country for infringing on his “religious liberty” while spreading COVID among his staff and people.
He’s also the guy who told Beth Moore to “go home” rather than teach the Bible to men. He’s against women in any leadership role, against LGBTQ persons, doesn’t believe in separation of church and state and denied that COVID is a pandemic in a short-but-effective cutdown: “There is no pandemic.”
Guess what’s the name of MacArthur’s Los Angeles church where he’s served 50 years? That’s right: Grace Community Church. Guess what’s the name of his radio program and podcast? You guessed it: “Grace to You.”
All across American Christianity today, we see and hear angry pastors wrapping themselves up in terms like “grace” and “peace” when they seem to be disconnected from both.
“All across American Christianity today, we see and hear angry pastors wrapping themselves up in terms like ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ when they seem to be disconnected from both.”
The young angry Calvinists on Twitter are the worst. I’ve written about them before. But here’s a recent example. Last week BNG ran a news story about the very conservative Southern Baptist pastor James Merritt who tweeted a simple affirmation of his son, Johnathan Merritt, preaching a sermon at a New York City church.
The angry men of the Conservative Baptist Network immediately lost their minds over this, posted a formal denunciation of James Merritt for saying a nice word about his gay son preaching a sermon about heaven, and called on him to be excommunicated. Not for affirming same-sex relations, not for advocating for the LGBTQ community but instead merely for cautiously affirming his gay son the Sunday before Thanksgiving. You just can’t get much meaner than that.
Our BNG story was headlined: “Conservative Baptist Network Launches Attack on James Merritt for Saying Something Nice About His Son.” One of the TheoBros on Twitter posted our link (thanks for the referral, dude!) with what he thought was a better headline followed by a smart-aleck comment: “Conservative Baptist Network calls pastor to account for affirming the preaching of an unrepentant homosexual. (There, fixed it for you.)”
Where is the grace or peace in that? Where is the grace and peace in any of the Christian leaders who have endorsed locking immigrant children in cages, ripping immigrant children from their mothers, forcing victims of rape and incest to bear the children of violence, denying foster care responsibilities to gay persons, denying the reality of racism in American history and demanding that all public schools adhere to their limited and approved reading list?
There is neither grace nor peace in this form of Christianity. There is neither grace nor peace in these self-righteous leaders of fundamentalism.
While claiming to be literal readers of the Bible, they ignore one of the key teachings of the New Testament: The church is to be known for bringing grace and peace, not warfare and strife.
Maybe they need to go back and reread Romans 12:14-21:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It is the height of hypocrisy to stand in a pulpit and pretend to preach the good news of the gospel, the hope of Christmas, while being so mean in your theology and rhetoric that it would make the Pharisees blush.
This Christmas, if you’re going to preach about the peace of Bethlehem or the grace of God’s provision through Jesus, check first to see if the peace you have in mind can only be enforced at the tip of a sword.
Or will a review of your life and attitudes be like that of the history of the Pax Romana: “Peace is not what one finds in its pages.”
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He’s been an adult Sunday school teacher for the better part of 35 years, usually teaching through books of the Bible almost as slowly as W.A. Criswell.
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