|Boxing match between two different versions of the same woman- one representing "flesh" and one representing "spirit." Image source.|
Hmm. It's about the contrast between "the flesh" and "the spirit." Now, first of all, if I were reading this as a good evangelical, it would be OBVIOUS that "those who live according to the flesh" referred to non-Christians and "those who live in accordance with the Spirit" were the real Christians. (Note: Fake Christians, which unfortunately make up the majority of people claiming to be Christians, are being counted as non-Christians.) But now I'm wondering if maybe that's not what Paul meant. Can we really be sure that he believed that everyone who didn't use Christian language to talk about the greatest source of goodness and meaning in life is "living according to the flesh"? What about, for example, a Muslim person who lives as Jesus taught that people should live?
When I was an evangelical, I believed that people are all, by default, living in "the flesh", sinful and lost and bad. Then, if they make a decision to follow Jesus, at that exact moment they change to living in "the spirit", and they are now a completely different kind of person. (See Two Corinthians 5:17.) Yes, after that moment, God is going to "work on them" and change them to become more and more like Jesus, but that key moment, the moment of salvation, is where the most important change happens.
And, I believed, OBVIOUSLY all non-Christians are sinful and lost and bad. It doesn't matter if they are good people or not- well, the bible says "good people" don't really exist. All religions besides Christianity are EVIL. They "lead people astray" and give them fake answers for needs that only Jesus can satisfy.
Fortunately, I no longer believe in that Christian-supremacist nonsense. I think it's totally fine for people to believe whatever religion they want (or none at all), but what's more important is how they treat people. And right now I'm wondering if the writer of Romans held those same Christian-supremacist views that good evangelicals assume the bible teaches, or not.
Like, maybe there's a different interpretation for this passage. An interpretation that's not incredibly nasty toward non-Christians.
In the spirit of Honest Lent, though, I'll say this: I really don't care what the writer "meant." I don't take the bible as an authority over what I should believe. If the bible says non-Christians are all bad and can't even use their brains to understand things because they're just too darn sinful, well, that's not true and I won't believe it because it's not true. I don't have to believe it just because the bible says it. And if we come up with a different interpretation, a non-terrible interpretation, that's fine (actually I'd be really interested in hearing it) but it's not necessary for me. I'm totally okay with saying "well this bible passage is just wrong" and moving on with life.
Here's the main part that I have a problem with:
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.It's a similar idea to 1 Corinthians 2:14, which I'll also mention here because it says it more explicitly:
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.In other words, people who do not believe in the correct type of Christianity have minds controlled by "the flesh." They're so lost, they're not even able to do anything good, they're not able to follow God, they're not even able to understand basic facts about Christianity.
In other words, if you're not a Christian, your opinions about the bible/Christianity/etc are automatically invalid because you just don't get it. Christians don't have to actually listen to you and take your ideas seriously- they already know you're automatically wrong and they can just ignore whatever you say.
This is gaslighting.
Gaslighting means trying to make someone believe that their experiences, feelings, memories, and perceptions of the world are invalid, that something is wrong with their mind and they can't trust themselves to know what's really real. And a lot of what I was taught about "our sinful nature" was straight-up gaslighting.
Yes, I learned all the apologetics arguments. It was important to me to understand the reasons for my beliefs. But when it came down to it, I believed I was, at the most basic level, intrinsically incapable of understanding. At the deepest part of my identity, I was sinful and rebellious and was subconsciously looking for any excuse to sin. If I ever thought "well I know the church teaches that it's bad to do XYZ, but I think it's not bad for these reasons, and I have some bible verses to back me up"... ooooh, be careful. Because maybe my sinful nature is deceiving me into thinking my reasons are correct and reasonable, but in reality they're just a flimsy, laughable excuse driven by my desire to sin against my God. And I can't trust my own brain to know which it is.
It took me a long time to question and get out of evangelicalism because of that gaslighting. I couldn't figure out if the new ideas I was reading made way more sense than what the church taught me, or if that's just what my sinful nature wanted me to think.
This isn't okay. It's not okay to dismiss someone's ideas out-of-hand because "you're not a Christian, obviously you don't get it." It's not okay to teach people to doubt their own brains and rely on the church to tell them what's true. It's not okay to claim that only people who have "the Spirit" can understand what reality is.
Related: Gaslighting Is Not Okay, Even If It's Biblical