Reading Paul

Paul the Apostle, Russian icon from first quar...

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At our church, we are reading through the New Testament this year (www.westminsterreads.org). We have been reading in a roughly chronological order, which means we have spent the first several weeks reading Paul. One of the pleasant surprises about reading several of Paul’s letters in their entirety and one after another is that you begin to get a sense of Paul’s personality.

He can be defensive: “I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:11)

He can be cranky:”You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? …(Gal 3:1-3a)

He can be loving: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now…For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. (Gal 1:3-5,8)

He can be frustrated and concerned; “I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:14-15)

He can be sarcastic: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!” (1 Cor 4:8)

Reading Paul in this way drives home the point that his letters are not calm, rational discourses on theology. Rather they are letters from an absent pastor concerned about the well being of his beloved – if somewhat frustrating- congregations.

Realizing this makes one reluctant to take 2-3 verses and declare them normative for all churches in all times. To be sure there are theological themes that are present across the letters, but Paul is a practical theologian. He is applying theology to particular situations in particular churches.

Part of our difficulty in reading Paul is that we only have one side of the conversation. We don’t have the letter or message from the church in Corinth, or Galicia, or Philippi to Paul. We don’t know with certainty what the problems or issues in those churches were. We can (and scholars have) take educated guesses.

It is also helpful to remember that Paul’s letters are early documents. Paul and the church, in it’s various forms and locations, are trying to figure out how, specifically, in the real world, in a particular time and place, to be followers of Jesus. How should they do that, be Christians, when no one before them has ever been a Christian? They don’t have a tradition or role models to follow. Paul and the early Christians have to figure it out as they go. They are struggling with how to be followers of Jesus when following Jesus puts them at odds with the culture they live in. Paul and the churches are living in a strongly patriarchal, strongly hierarchical, strongly polytheistic society. It’s big and pervasive and unavoidable.

I have a hypothesis for reading Paul I would like to share. See if this makes sense to you. It might be helpful to consider at least parts of Paul’s letters as case studies. We have the opportunity to watch and listen as Paul and the church try to figure out what it means to be disciples. They have a rather steep learning curve, and it’s not without it’s bumps and detours and falls.

Some of Paul’s more problematic statements have to do with women in the church. Paul seems to  affirm women’s participation in some places and seems to deny it in others.

Take for example 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Here Paul acknowledges women’s participation in church, although he has concerns about dress. (v5). But the passage is confusing. In verse 3 and 7-9 he seems to affirm a traditional patriarchal view. In Paul’s time people believed that the social order was connected to the cosmic order. But he can’t quite fully support this. In verses 11-12 he argues a non hierarchical view.  Finally Paul appeals to “nature” in verses 14-15. And then he uses the “everyone one else does it this way” argument in verse 16.

Perhaps the “lesson” for us in Paul’s letters is not what to do, in this case with women, perhaps the “lesson” is more a cautionary tale. Perhaps it is a case study of how powerful cultural forces are. Even Paul is tempted to conform. Perhaps it is a case study of how difficult and troublesome following Christ might be. Paul and the church in Corinth are pushed to the edge of their cultural comfort zone and beyond. Perhaps Paul’s letters have some things to tell us about the struggle of the church to be faithful?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

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4 Responses to “Reading Paul”

  1. mobius faith Says:

    I think Paul is one of the most misread/misunderstood writers in the Bible. I’ve been guilty of that – or maybe as I get older with changes that have occurred in my life…I can just relate better. Now I constantly marvel at his revolutionary ideas. And his ideas were revolutionary when you consider that he was before the conversion. I think that he had a very vibrant personality, which is often misinterpreted. Living possessed by the Holy Spirit is living on the edge.

    • Nancy Says:

      I agree. Paul,this time reading through is much more a ‘real’ person to me. Perhaps, after all these years, I’m beginning to appreciate the people of the Bible, rather than looking for ‘answers’. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. aFrankAngle Says:

    A couple things I appreciate in this post. Love the adjectives and the supporting example. More importantly, your emphasis on understanding the context. After all, we don’t have docs from the Church of Corinth as well as more cultural context of the situation. Then again, sacred readings are usually more demanding than many think.

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