Paulianity, Part 4
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin…Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.
1 Corinthians 7:27-28
The “books” of Paul in the New Testament are letters written to individual and regional churches, letters to individuals, letters responding to specific questions, letters of prayerful support, and letters addressing various issues within the body of believers. The letters to the churches are basically sermons. Parts of these letters encourage the congregations for their holy works and faithful persistence. Other parts chide followers about certain types of actions. Paul, in typical Paul form, does not mince words. In fact, in my opinion, Paul goes into so much detail that his overarching points easily get lost in the nuanced rhetoric he feels obligated to provide. He writes in strong, direct, authoritative language, even emphasizing how he speaks on the authority of Jesus Christ, and when certain parts of his writings are removed from their overarching context they can be and are used to wound and divide.
Here are some of Paul’s most common conclusions about the gospel that are often ignored by those seeking to make a point by taking parts of his writings out of context (please ignore my taking these out of context to make a point here):
*We are justified (saved) by our faith, not by our works (Romans 3:28).
*All the commandments (the law) are summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).
*Do not judge others (Romans 14:13).
*We are individual parts of a single body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
*Be humble (Philippians 2:3).
These “conclusions” are completely consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus, yet one can easily quote Paul as saying the exact opposite.
As an example, in today’s epilogue I quote part of Paul’s confusing discourse on marriage from the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul’s conclusion, that it is not sinful either to marry or to remain single, gets lost in his nuanced reasoning, going back and forth between the advantages to and blessings of marriage and the advantages to and blessings of remaining unmarried. His overarching point, apparently, is that remaining unmarried (as Paul was) frees up more time and energy that can be given to the Lord (assuming that one’s free time and energy actually goes there). He notes that being married brings “distress” in this life, as if being single does not. My point is that one can authentically quote Paul in support of marriage and in support of not marrying. One can also, however, accurately quote Paul to imply that being married is inconsistent with the will of God, which is not Paul’s message at all. Rather, Paul extensively defends his belief that his marital situation is what is best for his situation, which I do not doubt. His intentions are good even if his verbosity hinders his clarity.
Paul, as is true of all zealots by definition, is passionately defensive about his own choices and beliefs. If he were not on the fringes of typical human behavior and belief he would not be a zealot. There is an annoying obsession with sin in Paul’s writings that is not nearly so prevalent in Jesus’ teachings. He uses all manner of “I” statements that make him sound self-obsessed when perhaps he is only confessing his own human frailties to make others feel better about theirs. His letters go into tortured detail about issues that have less interest for many of us today, like circumcision, the role of women in church, the laws laid out in the Old Testament, and the role of women in marriage. What were almost certainly hot-button issues in his day can make his writings sound seriously out-of-touch and bigoted today. Regardless, some of his writings from 2000 years ago are used still today to oppress women, defend slavery, and condemn committed LGBTQ+ relationships.
When we use Paul’s rhetoric without consideration of the world in which he wrote, without considering his innate tendencies, and without following it to his conclusions of nonjudgmentally loving others and humbly living by faith, we fall into the trap of Paulianity, and what was originally intended to help people live freer and more united lives becomes fuel for spreading oppression and division. Although I should not feel the need to apologize for Paul’s sometimes annoying mannerisms, I do feel the need to put them in a context that allows seekers after gospel wisdom and application to not completely tune him out. After all, some of the writings of Paul are among the most beautiful and insightful in all of Christian literature.
This is the 43rd in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at email@example.com, 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.