Religion April 2009

One World, Under God

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?

Some other Jewish followers of Jesus wanted, like Paul, to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. But many of them insisted that to qualify for Christ’s saving grace, Gentiles had to abide by Jewish law, the Torah, which enjoined strict dietary rules and, for males, circumcision. In the days before modern anesthesia, requiring men to have penis surgery before they could join a religion fell under the rubric of disincentive.

Paul grasped the importance of such barriers to entry. So far as Gentiles were concerned, he jettisoned most of the Jewish dietary code and, with special emphasis, the circumcision mandate. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Paul was so intent on dropping the circumcision barrier that when he argued with fellow Jesus followers over this issue, his sense of brotherly love sometimes deserted him. In his letter to the Galatians, he expressed the wish that those who preached mandatory circumcision would “castrate themselves!”

There is little doubt about Paul’s strategic wisdom. Many religions of the day, including some of the Greco-Roman “mystery religions,” were open to people of varied ethnicities. But these movements tended to have hurdles to membership, including financial ones, such as priests who charged initiation fees. Christian churches enjoyed a competitive edge by having no such financial barriers, and Paul kept the edge sharp by making sure these barriers weren’t replaced by others.

But even as Paul diluted the role of Jewish ritual in his variant of the Jesus movement, he had no desire to sever the movement from Judaism. According to the book of Acts, when he came to a city and set out to recruit people, he sometimes started his preaching at the local synagogue. Indeed, according to Acts, some of Paul’s most important early recruits were Jews. And, even as Paul chafed at the rejection of his doctrines by some Jews within the Jesus movement (to say nothing of Jews outside the Jesus movement), he continued to seek rapprochement, hoping to preserve a broad base. So an interethnic symbiosis persisted and colored Paul’s writing. Hence the phrase neither Greek nor Jew, with its enduring connotations of ethnic egalitarianism.

Other features of Paul’s business model pushed even more powerfully toward interethnic bonding. They revolve around the traits Paul sought in his most important recruits, whether Jews or Gentiles, and his strategy of recruitment. And they explain how he wound up preaching not just interethnic tolerance or even amity, but interethnic brotherhood, interethnic love.


In ancient times, as now, one prerequisite for setting up a franchising operation was finding people to run the franchises. Not just anyone would do. Christianity is famous for welcoming the poor and powerless into its congregations, but to run the congregations, Paul needed people of higher social position. For one thing, these people needed to provide a meeting place. Though historians speak of early “churches” in various cities, there seem to have been no buildings dedicated to Christian worship. Borrowed homes and meeting halls were the initial infrastructure. The book of Acts suggests that Paul’s founding of Christian congregations depended heavily on, as Wayne Meeks put it in The First Urban Christians, “the patronage of officials and well-to-do householders.”

There is a telling episode from Paul’s ministry in Philippi, a city in the Roman province of Macedonia. Paul and his companions start speaking with women gathered at a river outside the city’s gates. Acts reports: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God [that is, a Jew], was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia—the first known European convert to what would later be called Christianity—began her service to the church by recruiting her “household,” which almost certainly included not just her family, but servants and maybe slaves. And her service didn’t end there. The author of Acts writes, “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” Then, apparently, they prevailed upon her; Lydia’s home became the meeting place of the local Christian congregation.

To find people like Lydia, Paul had to move in relatively affluent circles. The “purple cloth” Lydia sold was a pricey fabric, made with a rare dye. Her clientele was wealthy, and she had the resources to have traveled to Macedonia from her home in Asia Minor. She was the ancient equivalent of someone who today makes a transatlantic or transpacific flight in business class.

From Paul’s point of view, the advantage of preaching to business class went beyond the fact that people who fly business class have resources. There’s also the fact that people who fly, fly—that is, they’re in motion. To judge by the book of Acts, many of Paul’s early Christian associates were, like him, travelers. As Meeks has noted, “much of the mission” of establishing and sustaining Christian congregations “was carried out by people who were traveling for other reasons.”

There were at least two ways that bodies in motion could be harnessed. First, in an age when there was no public postal service, they could carry letters to distant churches. Second, they might even be able to found distant congregations.

Consider Aquila and Priscilla, husband and wife. According to Acts, when Paul went from Athens to Corinth and first encountered them, they had just moved to Corinth from Rome. Among the things they had in common with Paul was their vocation. “Because he was of the same trade,” reports Acts, “he stayed with them, and they worked together.” Aquila and Priscilla then became key Pauline missionaries, moving to Ephesus and founding a church in their home.

The trade Paul shared with them, tentmaking, was an opportune profession for someone who wanted to mingle with the commercial class. In those days tents weren’t recreational. They were used by affluent travelers to avoid staying in inns, which were prone to vermin and vice. Tents were, in short, standard equipment for those who flew business class. Indeed, tents were, in a sense, business class. In making and selling tents, Paul would have been mingling with exactly the kind of people he needed to mingle with.

These people were cosmopolitan. They came from varying ethnicities, they dealt with people of varying ethnicities, and their financial interest thus dictated some tolerance of ethnic difference, some extension of amity across ethnic bounds. These cosmopolitan values were built into the logic of long-distance commerce in the multinational Roman Empire, just as they are built into the logic of long-distance commerce in an age of globalization. When economics draws people of different ethnicities and cultures into mutually beneficial relationships, interethnic and intercultural tolerance often ensue. (How many ethnic slurs are heard in transatlantic business class?) In that sense, a nontrivial part of Paul’s work had been done for him by the tenor of the times.

Still, finishing the job—fully exploiting the commercial and moral currents moving across Rome’s imperial platform—required meeting the needs of Paul’s most important recruits. When people open a local franchise—a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut—they do so because they expect to get something in return. What did people get in return for making their homes Christian franchises? In some cases, no doubt, it was mainly the benefit of the gospel; Lydia presumably found Paul’s initial teachings gratifying, and what additional benefits she got—social, economic, whatever—from hosting a church, we’ll never know. But as the franchising continued, and the church expanded to more and more cities, it offered new benefits to church leaders.

In particular: reliable lodging. Tents were adequate for overnight stays on the road, but when you reached the big city, nicer accommodations were desirable—especially if you planned to stay awhile and do business. Paul’s letters to Christian congregations often include requests that they extend hospitality to traveling church leaders. Such privileges, as the scholar E.A. Judge put it, were increasingly “extended to the whole household of faith, who [were] accepted on trust, though complete strangers.” This extension was a revolution of sorts, since “security and hospitality when traveling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful.” The Roman Empire had made distant travel easier than at any time in history, and Christianity exploited this fact. The young church was, among other things, the Holiday Inn of its day.

But there was at least one big difference. The proprietor of a Holiday Inn isn’t inviting lodgers into his or her home. Besides, the credit-card numbers of guests are on record in the event that they should turn out to be bad apples. Ancients who hosted travelers they didn’t know personally were being asked to take a bigger risk. And they were more likely to make the effort if they could believe that the lodger was no mere guest but rather a spiritual sibling, a “brother.”

Once travelers in the Roman Empire arrived in a city, they needed information and orientation. And in the days before the Internet, the net to plug into was other people. But where to find people willing to provide you with valuable information, show you around town, help you make contact with others in your profession or with possible clients? Well, how about a congregation full of “siblings”—all of whom are more likely to lend a hand if they indeed consider you as such. Paul wrote to the Romans, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.”

Cenchreae was a seaport near Corinth. Paul was here asking Romans to extend familial love to a Greek, and he was doing so in the process of knitting his imperial organization together. As the scholar Wayne McCready has noted, the early Christian language of familial intimacy not only “underscored the internal cohesion that distinguished the assemblies of early Christians” but also “was applied as a universal principle which transcended local and geographic references and united numerous local communities into a collective whole.” Paul’s international church built on existing cosmopolitan values of interethnic tolerance and amity, but in offering its international networking services to congregants, the church went beyond those values; a kind of interethnic love was the core value that held the system together.

Even today, religious bonds can play a role in commerce. (The Mormon Church, whose growth rate has been compared to that of early Christianity, has proved to be a smooth conduit of commercial contact.) But in the ancient world, that role was pervasive. Greek and Roman associations that were essentially vocational—associations of shippers or of artisans or whatever—seem never to have been wholly secular. The transactional trust on which business depends—a trust that rests today largely on elaborate laws and their reliable enforcement—rested in ancient times partly on laws but largely on faith in the integrity of individual people. And religious fellowship was one of the great foundations of such faith.

It may sound implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is a religion. And, actually, it is implausible. What emerged with early Christianity isn’t really what many Christians like to believe: a God of “universal” love. The core appeal of the early church, remember, was that “brotherly love” was a form of familial love. And familial love is discerning—it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.

This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he tells the Romans. “Through love become slaves to one another,” he instructs members of the Galatian congregation.

This isn’t to say that his preachings offer no foundation for a more truly universal love. He often exhorts Christians to extend hospitality to the unconverted, and sometimes he goes further. He tells the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Still, he isn’t in the habit of putting Christians and non-Christians on quite the same plane. He tells the Galatians: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Paul is treading a fine line—occasionally urging a kind of “love” for non-Christians, yet suggesting that it be a less powerful motivator for generosity than the “brotherly love” he champions among Christians. Treading this line was a key to Christianity’s early success.

On the one hand, Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians. Some of those it befriended joined the church, and others no doubt spoke highly of it thereafter. Yet Christianity couldn’t extend generosity to non-Christians infinitely. After all, it was an organization that wanted to grow, and central among its enticements was that membership brought the benefits of an extended family, including material assistance in times of need. If anyone could get these things forever without joining, how many people would join?

Presented by

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Evolution of God, from which this has been adapted. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Wright. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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