The gospel is all about self-denial. The message that Jesus left his heavenly throne to take on flesh and suffer is beautiful and terrifying. It’s that same message that drove the life and work of the apostle Paul. Through his preaching and work, Paul saved the eternal souls of families, oversaw the collection of money for widows, orphans and the poor, and instructed young pastors to carry the flame of the gospel to their congregations. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. He brought the word of salvation to Romans and Greeks, navigating ethnic tension, and risked his reputation to argue on Mars Hill with leading scholars about the nature of God and creation. The entire church owes a great debt to this apostle.
Here is where privilege comes in. One can understand privilege as a special right or advantage that can be earned through works or that one can gain by chance. Some people at airports have special boarding privileges they earned by accumulating miles. Others are privileged with being raised by two parents, something they had no control over. Privilege also come with offices and ranks, such as a doctor’s right to a reserved parking space.
Paul was privileged in many ways. He was born a Jew and a had high social standing as a Pharisee, making him a member of the educated elite and a part of the people of Israel who had a special covenant with God. He was the last to hold the office of apostle, even though he did not meet the criteria of the twelve. In his words, his encounter with Jesus was “as by one born out of due time.”
But Paul did not use the privileges of his apostolic office or appeal to his spiritual, ethnic privileges, even when it would have made his life easier. He worked as a tent maker to make ends meet when he was entitled to take a living wage from the churches he served. Why? Because he did not want to be a stumbling block to those coming to Christ. He ate with Gentiles and mentored a mixed-race Timothy who had a Gentile father. He even devoted a section of his first letter to the Corinthians to settle tensions about dietary restrictions, commanding them to give up eating meat when it caused believers from different religious or ethnic backgrounds to stumble in the faith.
Paul even gave up some of his legal privileges as a Roman citizen. These privileges served him well when a centurion was going to use force to interrogate him with due process and he informed his warden that he was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22). However, when Paul was arrested for sedition against the empire and for religious crimes, he renounced his legal victory, despite winning the case and finding favor before the magistrates. In fact, King Agrippa commented to his court that, “This man is doing nothing deserving of
death or chains… [he] might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:31-32). But Paul made his appeal to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, as Jesus commanded him to.
Paul’s life demonstrates a clear message for Christians: everyone should matter more to us than we do. Martin Luther called Christians “slaves to all,” because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, and “slaves to none” because we find freedom in the love and unconditional acceptance of God. Paul knew that, though he had special legal and social privileges, he had no special status before God by his deeds or birth- no human does. He learned to abandon lofty jargon to preach to the uneducated, to love the Gentile, and to set aside his claim to comforts when there was a chance it could offend his brothers or hinder reception of the gospel.
To Christians today, setting aside our privileges might mean being sensitive to cultural differences. Contentious issue like celebrating Halloween, for instance, or getting tattoos are matters of conscience to some, but abstaining from them are signs of a Christian lifestyle to others. Someone called to preach the gospel in Honduras may have no conscience issue with tattoos, for instance, but they would do best to avoid getting new ones to avoid offending others.
Putting aside privileges applies to political issues as well. Although Christians are free to engage in politics, people in influential positions may need to consider how their advocacy affects their witness for the gospel. It can mean that pastors, for instance, avoid using their influence to support specific parties or candidates, unlike the evangelicals on the advisory board for Donald Trump. Associating with a self-proclaimed Christian who demeans women and minorities does little for people considering Christianity. Maybe it means rejecting the Confederate flag that your ancestors died for, as the Southern Baptist Convention has lovingly done, to embrace your African-American brothers in the faith instead.
This is not because Christ forbids Christians from eating certain foods or drinks, dressing certain ways, or celebrating holidays. God does not forbid pastors to engage with politics and advocate for what they believe is right. We set aside our privileges because the gospel is bigger than social norms and politics, and because people are more important than our family history or ideas about economics. Our heavenly citizenship should matter infinitely more to us than our earthly one, and our love for others should matter more to us than clinging to our earthly privileges. This is something that St. Paul recognized, and something that we should learn to recognize today.