“Jesus was a radical who welcomed everyone and criticized powerful leaders who oppressed the poor. Jesus was crucified because he was a political threat. But the Apostle Paul was a conservative missionary who misunderstood Jesus and was anti-woman, pro-slavery, and anti-gay.”
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That seems to sum up how many progressive Christians view Paul. But are such views justified by the biblical record? Or are there other ways to understand the zealous Pharisee who became an apostle to the Gentiles?
IN THE EARLY 1970s, I came across an article on Jesus’ women disciples in the Christian social justice magazine The Other Side. I was shocked. I had attended church all my life; how come I never noticed those women disciples?
What I didn’t know then was that a renewed “search for the historical Jesus” was underway. Applying the ever-developing insights of sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, scholars were investigating the socio-economic and political aspects of life in first century Palestine. How did Jesus fit into his historical context? As a peasant healer, how did he challenge the Roman occupation and their clients, the chief priests at the temple in Jerusalem?
It takes a while for new insights from biblical research to reach lay Christians. This is further delayed if church leaders are suspicious of intellectual elitism and fearful some of their parishioners might “lose their faith.”
But some of those dams were breaking open for U.S. Christians who had caught the fervor of the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements—both secular and religious—which had begun in the 1950s and ’60s. Evangelicals for Social Action and the Evangelical Women’s Caucus emerged, along with publications such as The Other Side, Daughters of Sarah, and The Post-American, now called Sojourners. Intentional communities sprouted here and there. The growing body of research on Jesus in his social and political contexts fit well with this movement that involved many justice-oriented lay people. As my feminist awareness grew, I was drawn into deeper discipleship with this radical rabbi Jesus.
Radical Jesus vs. conservative Paul
On the other hand, Paul still appears bipolar. His progressive supporters appeal to Galatians 3:28—“in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” But many African Americans, women, GLBT persons, and other progressive Christians distance themselves from a Paul who (in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy) asks slaves and wives to submit, and who apparently opposes (in Romans 1) what translators render as homosexuality. Paul’s instructions to obey the government in Romans 13 raise red flags for Christian political activists. Those involved in alternate forms of church often choose to ignore the ecclesial order called for in the pastoral letters.
Here is one colorful response I received when I asked a progressive Christian about her former impressions of Paul.
I always thought of Paul as some “full of s--- conservative dude” who perverted the message of Jesus. I pictured him being complicit in making Jesus’ cool and deep message into something simple-stupid enough to get the masses to buy into. He mainly wanted to obtain power for himself. I figured his stuff got included in the Bible because power and control was the goal of everyone who came after him. So Paul and all those other dudes just spun the message of Jesus to support their patriarchal and hierarchical worldview.
So when somebody would read about Paul putting down women or telling slaves to behave, I would just roll my eyes and blow it off, because he was obviously (to me) working his own agenda, not that of Jesus.
Another woman spoke of her militaristic father humorlessly keeping his children in line with Paul’s admonition, “I beat my body and enslave it” (1 Corinthians 9:27). “Rules and fear,” she said, “were the foundation; and church, church, church (doing the Lord’s work) was the metronome of life.” Paul’s words “supported our exercise-less, recreation-less, dutiful lifestyle.” Her summary of Paul: “bigoted, dogmatic, exclusive, running around doing works he thinks are good.”
Though these people have since adjusted their attitudes, how many progressive Christians still react in similar ways?
ANOTHER VIEW OF Paul harks back to an over-emphasis on Martin Luther’s “faith vs. works” insight, where salvation is seen as primarily individual and personal. A letter in another publication put it like this: “Read through the gospels, and then enter Paul’s world in his letters to Christians of Corinth and Rome. You’ll find yourself in a puzzling new landscape. Here the issue chiefly is atonement. The cross is lifted up for forgiveness in a way it is not in the gospels.” Instead, Paul conducts a “constant interior dialogue” about personal guilt and sin.
I shared some similar views about Paul when I began studying New Testament at Garrett Seminary in Evanston, Ill., in 1987. My first course was on Paul’s Romans letter, and I did not look forward to heavy-duty theology on how to get saved. But Professor Robert Jewett blew my mind as he showed the class how Romans was actually a unified speech about how Jews and Gentiles in Roman house churches should get along with each other, even if they didn’t agree on everything. Using insights from Roman history, sociology, economics, politics, and gender issues shed a whole new light on the meaning of this letter.
Why don’t we like Paul?
As a Sojourners article by Jewel Gingerich Longenecker (November 2011) noted, there is a gap in biblical understanding between seminary-trained persons and average laypersons in the pew. I suggest several interrelated reasons why many lay Christians perceive Jesus and Paul in such different ways.
Different genres and social contexts. We know Jesus and Paul only through written texts—but in very different types of writing, so in a sense we’re comparing apples and oranges. The gospels are stories with plots, thus intrinsically more interesting than long letters telling people how to behave. Further, some Pauline letters emphasize building up the church as an institution; conversely, Jesus attacks the status quo in his religious context, accepting all kinds of people in an alternate, nonhierarchical society. This is more attractive to activists and counter-cultural thinkers.
Descriptive vs. prescriptive literature. As a movement grows, it develops more structure and rules. Church leaders find it easier to apply prescriptive rules as “God’s law” (too often using them as clubs on less powerful people) than to deduce interpretive principles from descriptive literature, even when both are present in Paul’s letters.
For example, women’s leadership has been severely restricted throughout church history based on prescriptive texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15, interpreted as mandates that women cannot teach (men) and should be silent in public worship. Most members of traditional churches know these texts well—but ignored are the many descriptive references to women already leading Pauline churches: Chloe in Corinth; Phoebe in Cenchreae; Nympha in Laodicea; Apphia in Colossae; Euodia and Syntyche in Phillipi; and Prisca, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and four other women in Roman churches. Before seminary, I never noticed Junia, the female apostle in Romans 16:7—the NIV calls her Junias, a man! Is it any wonder that progressive lay women react against Paul?
Reading Paul through letters he may not have written. Did Paul write all 13 letters attributed to him? Biblical inerrantists assume he did. Yet to truly respect a text is to read it honestly and in its proper historical and literary contexts. Today, New Testament scholars divide the Pauline letters into the seven that are “undisputed”—Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon—and the remaining six about which there is no universal agreement of authorship. Ironically, lay Christians—both conservative and progressive—tend to interpret the character of the Apostle Paul through these disputed letters, especially the pastorals (Timothy and Titus) and the household instructions in Colossians and Ephesians. Some see prescriptive commands to be obeyed; others reject them as unjust and out of date.
So often missed are the personal tone and careful nuances in Paul’s undisputed letters. Though trained as a Jewish rabbi, Paul’s cross-cultural mission pushed him to re-evaluate his cultural views on women and on scriptural commands related to circumcision, food laws, and observing Jewish holy days—in order to plant egalitarian, multi-ethnic house churches. (See, for example, Galatians, Romans 14, or 1 Corinthians 10 on idol meat.)
Paul and the “new perspective.” Finally, laypeople tend to see Jesus as more radical than Paul because the newer methods of socio-historical research were applied to Jesus’ life earlier than to Paul and his world. Even secular media popularized Jesus because of the work of the “Jesus Seminar” of the past few decades. Today the development of a “new perspective” on Paul and his daring opposition to Rome’s empire is proceeding rapidly, but it takes time for this to reach popular audiences, both those who retain traditional views about Paul as well as social justice activists.
Humanizing Paul and his churches
How can lay progressive Christians reclaim a major part of their New Testament and connect with Paul as nuanced, groundbreaking, and countercultural? My first encounter with this human Paul happened years ago in Chicago. At an intentional community’s Bible study one evening, Dale Brown, a Church of the Brethren theologian and church historian, led us in a simulation of Philemon’s house church receiving Paul’s letter, which asked for the runaway slave Onesimus to be accepted back “not as a slave but as a brother” (Philemon, verse 16). We role-played four different social groups represented in this Colossian house church: slave owners, slaves, freed slaves, and freepersons. How would each group have responded to Paul’s request that Onesimus be forgiven and freed from slavery?
My eyes were opened during that lively debate, and since then I’ve often used this method to draw Sunday school classes and college and seminary students into Paul’s letters. We have set up house churches in Rome where “conservative” Jews and “liberal” Gentiles argue over their different social and religious practices. We simulate four different theological positions represented in Galatians: Law-observant Jews, Superstitious Gentiles, Licentious Liberals, and Desperate Leaders. Recently a friend and I have re-created the four factions in Chloe’s house church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11-12), imagining their varied reactions to Paul’s criticisms. What is more contemporary than discussing food, sex, and pulling rank over others?
It is hard to put Paul back in a box after we begin to see him as a passionate but human leader confronting enormous hurdles to bring Jesus’ democratizing gospel to the stratified Roman Empire. When we imagine ourselves back in a time when Paul was one missionary among many others and whose letters were not yet considered “scripture,” he can emerge just as radical as Jesus.
Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (2013), taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at eewc.com/RetasReflections.