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“The Rabble-rouser Preaches Peace”


Astonishing. The rabble-rouser argues for peace. That’s what Paul does in his first letter to the believers at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:10-12).

Our first order of business, however, is to document Paul’s reputation as a rabble-rouser. My suspicion is that most believers “remember” Paul’s peace-making passages, not his role as a first century troublemaker: “Love is patient and kind” (1 Cor. 13, RSV); “think about” the “pure,” the “lovely,” the “admirable” (Phil. 4:8, NIV); “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace” (Gal. 5:22, NRSV). How could such gems come from a rabble-rouser? Read on.

Paul’s rabble-rousing work is documented in Acts 16 and 17, the story of the founding of three Christian communities in Macedonia, one at Phillipi, one at Thessalonica, and one at Berea.  After the nighttime invitation, “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” Paul and Silas head for Philippi, a leading Roman city in Macedonia where a female slave, a fortune-teller, began following them, announcing to the world, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

Paul did not appreciate the PR. Indeed, he found it so irritating that one day he turned around and in the name of Jesus Christ, commanded the spirit to come out of her. Their source of income gone, the slave’s owners dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace to face the authorities. After being beaten, Paul and Silas were tossed into jail.

It was an exciting night at the jail: a midnight song service, an earthquake, and the conversion of the jailer and his whole family. In the morning the authorities sent word to let the prisoners go free. But Paul insisted on their rights as Roman citizens and demanded an official apology. Alarmed, the magistrates did come and apologize – but also requested them to leave the city. Paul and Silas complied with their instructions.

Their next stop was at Thessalonica where Paul reasoned in the Jewish synagogue three Sabbaths in a row. His presentation of Jesus, the suffering Messiah, resulted in the conversion of both leading Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. But other Jews became enraged, forming a mob and starting a riot in the city. That night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.

The angry Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul and Silas to Berea and stirred up the crowds there, too. The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, though Silas and Timothy remained behind.

In short, in all three places, Paul caused so much trouble that he was either sent away by the authorities (Philippi), or fled on his own with the help of the believers (Thessalonica and Berea). Whether or not it was his fault, he was nothing but trouble.

That history of Paul as troublemaker is front and center in the narrative in Acts 16 and 17 and echoes of that trouble can be heard in Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 2:2, for example, he reports that he and Silas had been “treated outrageously” in Philippi. But he gives none of the details found in the book of Acts. Indeed, given his record of  troublemaker in Acts, his counsel in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 is really surprising: 1) Make it a point – an ambition even – to lead a quiet life; 2) Mind your own business; 3) Work with your own hands; 4) Win the respect of outsiders; 5) Don’t be dependent on anybody (cf. 1 Thess. 4:11-12, NIV).

Paul, the counter-cultural rabble-rouser, is now counseling the believers to settle down, lead a quiet life and win the respect of outsiders. In other words, Paul urges the believers to work within culture, not against it. A sociologist would say that Paul has nearly abandoned the sectarian call to stand over against culture as a vocal critic. Instead he is calling the believers to transform culture from within.

In broad outline, a similar pattern can be seen in the experience of Ellen White. She and her early Adventist compatriots trumpeted the second angel’s message of Revelation 14:8: “Babylon is fallen” (KJV), and they linked it with the message of that other angel of Revelation 18:4: “Come out of her my people.” It was a strident, confrontational message, essential for marking the boundaries of the early Adventist community.

But what happens to a community over time if it maintains that attack mode?  It easily splinters as the members become quarrelsome and pugnacious with each other. In Adventism, I have traced Ellen White’s move from confrontation to cooperation insofar as it relates to the non-Adventist culture. We can hear echoes of that transformation in this remarkable counsel to a brother who was going to South Africa as a missionary:

In laboring in a new field, do not think it your duty to say at once to the people, We are Seventh-day Adventists; we believe that the seventh day is the Sabbath; we believe in the non-immortality of the soul. This would often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach. Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree.  Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness.  Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls.  Let them see that you are conscientious.  Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus.  (Gospel Workers, 119-120 [1915]; Evangelism, 200 [ATs 48-49]; cf. “Letter to a Minister and His Wife Bound for Africa” [June 25, 1887 = Letter 12, to Elder Boyd; almost verbatim “original” of the Gospel Worker quote] in Testimonies to Southern Africa, pp. 14-20).

Christians are called to live in that dangerous no-man’s land between attacking the culture in which we live, and seeking to transform it from within. Paul must has sensed that his rabble-rousing tour through Macedonia was not a good model for an enduring Christian witness in a particular community. So he counseled the believers “to lead a quiet life” and to seek to “win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thess. 4:11-12).

That could be timely counsel for devout Christians today, even devout Adventists.

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