Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all members of God’s family who are with me… Galatians 1:1-2a
The apostle Paul wrote many of the books of the New Testament. An important and influential figure in Christianity, Paul was a zealot, passionate about his faith and his beliefs. As is true of most zealots, Paul was divisive in his time and remains divisive today. Arguably arrogant and overly assured, Paul laid much of the foundation for what has grown into today’s Christian, particularly Protestant church. Some people love Paul and see him as unquestionably chosen to preach and spread God’s word. Others are offended by Paul because of his judgmental certainty. Throughout my life I have cautiously held Paul under suspicion, as I do all zealots. Having said that, I believe Paul wrote some of the most beautiful and insightful Christian literature penned by anyone. Having said that, I further believe Paul penned some of the most divisive, misleading, and misapplied Christian literature since the time of Jesus.
My beef with Paul today, as I will expand upon in coming weeks, is really not with Paul at all. He was who he was. I do not expect Paul and I would have been close friends, but I do not consider that as a negative indictment on either of us. My annoyance is with the churches and church leaders who seemingly believe Paul’s teachings are synonymous with and sometimes superior to the life and teachings of Jesus. Certainly, Paul commented on a broader spectrum of the human experience than is documented of Jesus in the gospels. Paul’s teachings were often less cryptic than those of Jesus and so are often easier to understand and apply. Of course, our understanding of anything applies only to a limited context. We must always be careful when generalizing contextual understandings to other contexts, which is, in my opinion, the root of much of what I consider to be the misapplication of Paul’s teachings. Paul lived in a specific space and time in human history, and his letters were written to very specific groups of people with very specific issues.
At the outset, let me state my annoyance with the way Paul’s teachings are sometimes used in Christianity: Paul’s teachings should not be used as our primary source of what is and is not Christian. Paul’s teachings can appropriately be used to help clarify and illuminate the life and teachings of the primary source of the Christian life, which is Jesus the Christ. In other words, Jesus is primary; Paul is always secondary. We must measure what Paul teaches against what Jesus lived. When we hold Paul as primary we fall prey to what some label as Paulianity, a mistake I suspect even Paul would be appalled (ap-PAUL-ed) by. Practitioners of Paulianity tend to use some of the clear distinctions Paul drew in his writings to establish church doctrine that often ignores the love underlying the gospel message. Indeed, love and acceptance are foundational to the life and teaching of Jesus. When love is removed from or subjugated by church doctrine we find ourselves in the same boat as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – holding to the letter of the Old Testament (in their case) law and ignoring the spirit of the law. It was what drew Jesus’ harshest criticism because it implied that following God’s will was more about following rules and less about loving one’s neighbor. Of course, Paul was a Pharisee prior to his conversion experience so we should not be surprised that some of his writings reflect that inflexible pattern.
Before I launch into what some will interpret as an unfair and uninformed attack on Paul as a person, an apostle, a teacher and author, I will restate my beliefs about biblical origins. I believe the Bible was inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). I do not, however, believe that God dictated the scriptures to its authors, nor do I believe God’s hand directed the specific writing of the texts independent of the authors. Rather, the biblical authors relate what they believed to be God experiences worthy of committing to writing. Both the nature of their experience and the content and tenor of their writing was and remains uniquely their own. In other words, the writings in the Bible, including Paul’s, are told through very human eyes complete with the unique biases and beliefs each mortal being possesses. The words and phrasings, though divinely inspired, are very human and, thus, not a perfect reflection of the original inspiration or the experience.
It is through my own flawed and biased lens that I share my (inspired) thoughts about the teachings of Paul.
This is the 40th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.