The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. -- Romans 14:22
Paul is writing this advice to the Romans. In this letter, his last, he expresses the culmination in his understanding after years of preaching the gospel message. He is not settling disputes between members like he has done in so many of his previous letters. He is not answering specific questions about women, offices in the church, or life after death. His message is much simpler: God justifies those who put their trust in him. Simply place your trust in God, believe, and God will lead you along the way you need to go.
In these words above, Paul tells us to focus on our personal relationship with God. We don't need to judge anyone's beliefs but our own; nor do we need to be convicted by anyone's judgment but our own as we live in relationship with God. For, ultimately, essentially, our relationship with God is a personal one. Through the study of scripture, through prayer, through living in community, and listening to God's Holy Spirit as it speaks to us, we grow and learn what it means to be a child of God.
Luther, who highly valued Paul's letter to the Romans, first coined the phrase "the priesthood of all believers" to highlight this insight, and to differentiate it from the prevailing attitude of the priesthood of a chosen few. Luther trusted that people of average intelligence would be able to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. People did not need to be told what to believe by the Church, or anyone else.
The result of such individualism, of course, is that we will come to different conclusions, about God, about Jesus, about a whole multitude of things, than our neighbor. For, not only is the Bible, our foundational source of information about our God, full of contradictions, but our experiences of God vary from our neighbors' experiences. And there is the rub.
For how do we love our neighbor who does not see God the same way we do?
Historically, our answer has been to judge the other wrong and separate ourselves from them, if not worse. Luther's stance may not have started the divisions (there were divisions before Luther), but it did give Christians even greater impetus to separate over differing beliefs. And so churches, Protestant churches especially, have continually divided over differing beliefs, especially over differing interpretations of the Bible. At last count there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations. Is the inevitable result of this attitude to someday have millions of churches of one member only?
How and why did this become the appropriate response to different understandings?
Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith became confused with belief. Our individual beliefs about God, Jesus, and a multitude of other things, came to represent our faith in God. Trust in God's righteousness was replaced with our righteousness before God. Even after Luther. This righteousness was not dependent on works so much, anymore, but it became dependent upon our beliefs -- not our faith.
But this isn't the example Jesus gave us. Rich and poor, learned and unlearned, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, Pharisees and tax collectors, women and men -- you name it -- all followed Jesus. Did all these people think the same way about anything? They certainly didn't think the same way about God. But they all had one thing in common. They all believed in, or came to believe in, God. As Jesus continually told them: their faith made them well. They just needed to trust in a loving, forgiving God. Jesus cut threw all the arguments and sectarianism to what was really important: love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Period.
Dear God, thank you for your wonderful message. And thank you for the example of Jesus. In the words of St. Anthony: "Please grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, Lord, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee." Love always, Pam