Christianity has always been astoundingly diverse. All the different factions are strikingly different in their beliefs and practices, yet all are Christian. The earliest written Christian records are the letters of Paul that tell us about the diversity in early Christian groups. These letters of Paul give us hard evidence of extensive diversity from the earliest days of Christianity.
Paul’s Attack on Christian Missionaries
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul attacks Christian missionaries who claimed that pagan converts need to be circumcised and practice the way of Judaism to be true members of the Church. Paul doesn’t see this simply as an unnecessary step or as needlessly painful for the pagan men who converted.
He considers it a devilish scheme that runs completely contrary to his gospel. Anyone who follows the advice of these Judaizers, he says, is in danger of losing his or her salvation.
Obviously, his opponents claimed the opposite. They said that their view was the original view, and that Paul was a heretical innovator. And, on a second thought, they might appear to be right. There were certainly followers of Jesus who held that view before Paul converted.
Difference in Opinions
A second example is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul attacks a completely different set of Christian leaders who think that salvation in Christ brings glory and power in the present life; that being united with Christ means living an exalted existence in the here and now.
Contrary to Paul’s preaching, these people do not believe there will be a future resurrection of the dead, but that the glories they are experiencing now as believers in Christ will be continued when their souls go to heaven.
It’s not that their bodies will be raised from the dead, their souls will go to heaven and continue experiencing the glories they already have.
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Paul says this is precisely wrong and he argues vehemently that following Christ does not lead to pleasure, prestige, and power; it leads to pain and suffering.
The suffering of this age, for Paul, will end only with a future resurrection in which God redeems this horrible world of evil and raises the bodies of his followers from the dead for eternal life in this world. Eternal life will be lived here on earth in the body, for Paul.
Paul had real difficulty in convincing his Corinthian readers of this view. Many Christian readers still don’t believe it today assuming that eternal life will be lived in the soul in heaven, not in the body here below.
In just about all of his letters, Paul refers to Christian teachers and leaders who are his outspoken opponents representing views that he thinks are completely false and dangerous. These are Christian opponents. They claimed that their views were what Jesus and his disciples taught and like Paul these other teachers had numerous followers.
To think that the opponents of Paul we know about were the only ones he had is irrational; we have only seven of his letters and he was certainly involved with a large number of communities and wrote a large number of letters.
Many of the other books of the New Testament referred to Christians who held views that other Christians thought were flat-out wrong, heretical, and demonic, but these others thought they were faithful to the message of Jesus.
Many people will say these other views were simply wrong, that Paul and the authors of the New Testament were right. That in itself is an interesting question to pursue historically.
Findings from Paul’s Letters
Some form of Christianity certainly did overcome the pagan religions of Rome. The various earliest Christian groups were fighting various battles among themselves to hammer out what could be accepted as the true form of the faith and at the same time they were trying to win convert from paganism. These different struggles were happening simultaneously.
In this way of understanding the matter, there were struggles over what to believe and how to practice Christianity. One group won those struggles. That group became dominant. It took over Christianity and became the norm and called itself orthodox. That’s the view that eventually converted the empire.
In Paul’s writings, he differentiates between the law and the gospel. The law is given to Jews in the scriptures, Christ’s gospel, Christ’s good news brings salvation apart from the law. People don’t have to follow the law to be right with God if they believe in Jesus.
Paul: The Hero of the Marcionists
An important early Christian group called the Marcionites (named after its founder, Marcion) believed in Paul and his writings. Marcion’s hero in the faith was Paul, whom he saw as the ultimate authority for what it meant to be Christian.
Marcion took the views of Paul and drew them to what he understood to be a logical conclusion. For Marcion, Paul’s differentiation between law and gospel was absolute.
Common Questions about What the Letters of Paul Tell about Christianity
Paul believed that Christ does not lead to pleasure, prestige, and power; it leads to pain and suffering. He believed the suffering of this age will end only with a future resurrection in which God redeems this horrible world of evil and raises the bodies of his followers from the dead for eternal life in this world. Eternal life will be lived here on earth in the body, for Paul.
While some early Christian groups opposed Paul and his writings, Marcionists upheld the same. Marcionism’s hero in the faith was Paul, whom they saw as the ultimate authority for what it meant to be Christian.
In just about all of his letters, Paul refers to Christian teachers and leaders who are his outspoken opponents representing views that he thinks are completely false and dangerous. These are Christian opponents.