I recently read a letter by a young woman struggling with the issue of women in ministry. She was torn because her father, a wonderful man of God, believed strongly that women were not to be ordained to ministry. “How can I question the beliefs of such a passionate godly man?” she asked.
But passion for God does not guarantee correct belief.
In Acts 22, Luke reports Paul’s words when he stood on the steps of the barracks in Jerusalem and told the story of his conversion. Paul’s experience offers four facts to inform us on our spiritual journey.
The first is found in verses 3-5, when Paul said:
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
Paul was zealous for God but that did not guarantee correct belief. Paul recounted how, out of his zealousness for God, he killed the followers of the Way. In Galatians 1:13-14 he says he was “extremely zealous for the tradition of the fathers.” Yet he was wrong. Because of incorrect belief, his passion was misdirected.
Paul was highly educated. Yet his education had lead him away from the truth instead of toward it. Neither passion for God nor education guarantees correct belief.
In Romans 10, Paul points to the Jews who were “zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” In their zealousness without knowledge, they rejected the Messiah. Passion for God does not guarantee correct belief.
Second, in verses 4-5 of Acts 22, Paul writes:
I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
A passion for God, coupled with incorrect belief, can result in tragic actions. Paul killed the followers of Jesus Christ out of his passion for God—a passion based on an incorrect understanding of who Jesus was.
Out of their zealousness for God, not based on knowledge, the Jewish leaders sought Jesus’ death. Later on, we need only look to the Crusades to see the thousands of lives that were lost out of the medieval church’s passion for God. The Bible was also zealously invoked as a justification for slavery before and during the American Civil War,—and by Hitler to justify the genocide of the Jews during World War II. During the 1960s the Bible was used to justify racism in the United States. Today we see the Bible held up to justify holding down women who are called to the ministry and service of Jesus Christ. Out of a passion for God coupled with wrong belief, it is possible to hurt deeply other members of the family of God and members of the body of Jesus Christ. This is damage to the kingdom of God.
Third, in verses 6-9, we have the Good News:
About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
It is an encounter with God himself, through Jesus Christ, that causes the reversal from wrong thinking to right thinking. It is through an encounter with Jesus Christ that we are first made right with God. Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is the primary goal of the Gospel message.
It is also an encounter with Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit that brings us, the children of God, from wrong belief to right belief. Jesus told his disciples he would send the Counselor who would teach them in all things (John 14:26), the Spirit of Truth who would guide them into all truth (16:12). It is an encounter with Jesus Christ that transforms our minds toward truth.
Fourth and finally in verse 10, Paul recounts:
“What shall I do, Lord?” I asked.
“Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.”
What an amazing truth! The encounter with Jesus Christ transforms the enemy into the champion. Paul went from killer of Jesus’ disciples to maker of Jesus’ disciples. His transformation was complete and radical. When Paul was transformed by Jesus Christ, Paul was given a job to do. So also when Christ transforms us, we are assigned tasks that help God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done.
The apostle Paul’s conversion story provides guidance for our lives. From it we learn that passion and love for God do not guarantee correct belief, and error in belief can result in tragedy for others. Incorrect belief coupled with passion can be deadly. Therefore, Christ invites us to open our hearts to the scrutinizing light of the Holy Spirit—an encounter with Jesus Christ himself. We are invited to be willing always to submit our passion and belief to the critique of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to be open to the Counselor’s guidance into all truth and righteousness.
Then we are given an assignment to offer truth and liberation to others. We are transformed from enemies of God to the children of God and told to advance the Good News, a message of liberation in this life and an invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God.
What response can we offer to the young woman whose letter I mentioned? We can ask her to recognize that passion for God is not equal to human infallibility. We can remind her to love always, including asking God to help her love even those who hurt her. But we must also challenge her to seek the face of God and his truth through renewed openness to God’s Word and his Spirit. God’s truth will set her free.