Opinion Columns & Blogs

Choose: Paul or James

What a choice for our early Christians! Both Paul and James claim to have the message of Jesus, but only one can be correct. Paul says we don’t need the Torah (Rom. 3:20); James says we need to keep every single law in the Torah (James 2:10). Paul says faith will save us without works as it did for Abraham (Rom. 4:30), but James insists that Abraham was justified by his works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24) And so, the fight goes on.

Which one is right? I guess it depends where you live. If you live in Jerusalem and attend synagogue on the Sabbath and the High Holy days, and listen to James tell stories about his brother Jesus in Nazareth, you will stay with James. But if you live in Galatia and grew up on stories of Greek gods and one day hear this charismatic and convincing preacher named Paul, announcing a new, more powerful god named Christos, you’ll run away with Paul.

But what if you’re just traveling through Jerusalem on your way to Antioch? You’re neither Jewish nor Greek, and you hear the commotion. Four men are arguing; it’s one against three. The loud one’s name is Paul. He’s shouting at a tall man named James who is trying respectfully to respond. Behind James are Peter and John who remain relatively quiet (Galatians 2). The fight might sound something like this:

James,” Paul would be screaming, “it means nothing to me that you’re the brother of Jesus” (Gal. 2:6). You may have lived with him in Nazareth but I heard him speak to me in a vision and I can tell you we will never convert thousands of Greeks and Romans if you insist on circumcision and kosher food. Can’t you understand that? My converts are disgusted with that stuff; I’m teaching them the value of believing in the Lord Jesus without the Torah.”

“Paul,” James would respond very calmly, “who is this Lord Jesus without the Torah? Nobody I know. If you’re talking about my brother, he would be horrified to hear what you’re saying; he loved the Torah.”

I think it would continue for hours and no agreement would ever be reached (contrary to what Paul blatantly claims in Gal. 2:9). You have to decide for yourself which one of these two men to follow. Do you want to follow a Jesus who insisted on Jewish laws and restrictions to get you into heaven, or a Christos who offered salvation by faith alone?

If you like the comfort and security of authoritative management versus the sometimes-shaky uncertainty of freedom, you’ll stay with James. The Jewish followers of James in Jerusalem had Yom Kippur when all the sins of the past year would be burned away in the temple sacrifice. Today, Catholics can return to the “state of grace” if they repent and confess their sins to a priest.

But Paul’s followers didn’t have that kind of certainty, except in the certainty of their faith. To be saved they couldn’t latch onto concrete acts to perform and ritualized words to pronounce and a printed text to read. “If salvation (righteousness) comes through the Torah, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21), Paul shouted, and he went on to say, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith — apart from works of the Torah.” Believe and you will be saved. A Catholic priest named Father Martin Luther revived this theology in the year 1517 and millions of Protestants have followed his lead ever since.

Christians are separated today for the same reason they were separated 10 years after Jesus died: faith vs. authority. Protestants, following Paul, rejected the authoritative power of Jewish law. Catholics, on the other hand, following the lead of James whose belief came through the Torah, cling to their pope.

The Greek word, Katholic, was coined in the second century to identify the “universal” nature of the church, a church that is the same all over the world. I’m afraid it never was.