Maybe Paul’s Not so Bad After All . . .

"Apostle Paul" by Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1635

I know. I know. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But I have to be honest. I’ve had my doubts about Paul.

“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22). “Women should remain silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34). “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).And, of course, Paul is the go-to guy for evangelicals who want to condemn homosexuals. (Because Jesus sure as heck didn’t say anything about gay people.)

Lately, though, I’ve payed less attention to the soundbites and more attention to the story. And it’s a different Paul who emerges. The narrative of Paul’s life does not reveal the Paul who wants to exclude gay people from the church and relegate women to teaching the toddler Sunday School class. Paul’s story reveals the Paul who spent his ministry sharing the good news with the religiously marginalized Gentiles.

Many early Christ-followers did not think that there was any place in the church for Gentiles. Period.

Others believed Gentiles could be included–as long as they quit acting like Gentiles and got themselves circumcised. (Don’t get me started on the exclusion of women here . . . )

But Paul proclaims freedom in Christ. He says that the Gentiles should be included as Gentiles. No circumcision required.

The verses I quoted above about women are fairly well known quips from Paul. I’ve read a couple of other passages from his letters recently that don’t get so much attention.

The epistle reading for my morning prayer time a couple of days ago was Galatians 2:1-10. It speaks of Paul’s acceptance by the other apostles. Paul relates that they accepted and blessed his ministry to the Gentiles. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” So nice when people have their priorities straight.

And these verses from 1 Timothy 4, which I gratefully came across several months ago. I read this as I was preparing for the conversations I knew would take place in the wake of my decision to officiate a same-sex wedding:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits . . . They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; . . . If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.”

Maybe you are starting to see some of the parallels I’ve discovered between the “circumcision debate” that threatened to split apart the early church and the “homosexuality debate” that threatens our churches today. I realize that the situations are not identical; I know that all analogies break down at a certain point. Still think I have a pretty good idea where Paul would stand in the midst of today’s struggles.

(You can find some notes about the biblical and theological foundations for my congregation’s welcoming and affirming stance toward GLBT folks here.)

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One thought on “Maybe Paul’s Not so Bad After All . . .

  1. Just to confirm what you said: sometime during my first year at Winfield FBC I preached on Acts 15, the council where early Christians talked about how to treat and what to expect from Gentiles. I spent more time than usual on background–how the Jews and the Gentiles REALLY didn’t get along, etc., which makes their decision to not circumcize exceptional. Anyway, after church one of the long-time members asked me how what they went through was any different than what the church was going through with the topic of homosexuality. I just turned the question back to her, and we both went away with a deep comparison. There is a lot of similarity, I believe. We aren’t handling things much like the early church, are we?
    Thank you for your posting.

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