From the moment of his conversion, Paul faced opposition from within. At first it was his former life that frightened the apostles. After all, everyone knew that he had tried to arrest and even kill followers of Jesus. It took one of the apostles' biggest benefactors, Barnabas-- the "son of encouragement"-- to vouch for Paul and secure a reluctant seal of approval from the apostles. Indeed, Barnabas did more than stand up for Paul; he also took Paul with him as his protégé when he left Jerusalem for the Syrian city of Antioch, where together they helped nurture a different kind of Christian community.
It was what Paul learned from this experience and then replicated in many other places that made the apostles-and a lot of other people both inside and outside the Church--even more nervous about him. For at the heart of Paul's message was a complete breakdown of all the boundaries and social divisions that he himself had previously guarded. He put it succinctly in a letter to the Christians in Galatia: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28).
It is almost impossible now to appreciate how radical a message this was to those who lived in the Mediterranean world of the first century. Our much-vaunted modern notion of individualism would have been incomprehensible to those who understood themselves as parts of a larger whole or, more likely, several larger wholes. As one ancient Roman once wrote, "That which is not in the interests of the hive cannot be in the interests of the bee." Belonging was what gave someone an identity and purpose. First-century people lived their lives in a series of relational networks. Some were formal networks, like voluntary associations, clubs, and trade guilds. Some were based on political and religious ties. Still others were more informal, like those connections between patrons and clients, masters and servants. We have already seen that Paul was a man of two worlds, which meant that he could move in and out of synagogues on the one hand, but on the other hand he had invested enough in his Roman side that he understood his rights as a citizen. Plus, he was a "tent maker" or, more generally, a leatherworker, which means that he either belonged to a trade guild or at least knew his way around the informal networks of leatherworkers, so that he was able to find some fellow craftsmen when he came into a new city.
Yet, with his message that "all are one in Christ," Paul set up a new possibility: a network that demanded primary allegiance from its members and in which all other distinctions between people became secondary or even irrelevant.
Excerpted from A Dangerous Dozen: Twelve Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo but Taught Us to Live Like Jesus. © 2011 by The Rev. C.K. Robertson, PhD. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091. This book may be purchased directly from www.skylightpaths.com.