St. Paul…you know, the guy who is responsible for a good chunk of the New Testament thanks to those letters he wrote, mostly to young Gentile churches in the years after Jesus died and rose…well, he’s a lot like my father-in-law. I love him, and I can learn a lot from him religiously. But I wouldn’t talk much politics with him. Nor would I discuss many social issues like, say, feminism. And I sure wouldn’t ask him for much in the way of advice on communications in interpersonal relations.
That isn’t a knock, by the way. Both my father-in-law (who was once my pastor) and Paul show a lot of intellectual power. They are both strong in their spiritual faith. Both of them have a lot to teach me about how to be a better person: for God, my family and others in my life. I respect both of them greatly. And I pay attention to them.
But they can both be jerks, too. They can both be narrow-minded. To their credit, both of them also tend to qualify their statements (Paul in his letters and my father-in-law in church) when they are indeed their own thoughts as opposed to biblical doctrine. Admittedly, the line can blur sometimes, and there are moments in my father-in-law’s sermons when you know his personal feelings have crept in…just as there are moments in Paul’s letters when it looks like perhaps he was going off on a personal tangent without remembering to warn us.
None of this dilutes the value of their messages, but it requires a certain willingness to forgive the man for his faults and focus in on the message. Paul was a learned, disciplined, committed man. He was a Pharisee and was all too willing to take on the mission of hunting down and persecuting Jews who were preaching Jesus as the Messiah and as having risen from the dead to ascent to the right hand of God his father. Despite his conversion to a belief in Jesus as the son of God, Paul didn’t suddenly get a personality transplant and thus much of what he says is colored by the way he was raised and the way he saw the world.
Here’s a funny take on St. Paul from cross-dressing British comedian Eddie Izzard (there is some foul language, but you’d expect that with me, now wouldn’t you?). Watch it for a nice palate cleanser, and then we’ll continue…
So, there were a lot of people who probably would have liked to give Paul the middle finger and many more who still do today. Certainly, he doesn’t endear himself to modern women with this:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
First, some have argued that the misogyny was added later after Paul was long dead, but I’m going to give credit to Paul for this because…well, why the hell not? The man lived in a society far more male-centered than what Americans are accustomed to today. Women didn’t hold positions of power generally, and educating them certainly wasn’t a priority, so why would he want a woman telling him what to do? Jerky, yes. But for the time and place, pretty normal thought process. Besides, I think the intent of that passage is a bit more narrow than it seems, as I noted in this post. Just for the record, I talked about Paul and the Pauline letters a bit here, too.
That certainly isn’t the only place where Paul exhibited a certain prickly streak, but it is one of the most telling for our modern times. So, if the guy has some old-world, old boy network chips on his shoulder, why care about anything he says?
Well, the man’s writings lay out a huge chunk of the fundamental doctrine of the church. The other apostles actually listened to him (once they figured out he wasn’t trying to infiltrate them as some sort of trick to destroy them) when he challenged what they were doing. He challenged himself and was open about many of his own flaws. This isn’t the kind of guy who seems to be out to create a church to suit his own ends but someone who was on a mission. In this case, a mission for Christ.
Now, consider also the fact that while the other apostles focused on teaching the Jews about Jesus and his divinity, Paul was tasked with reaching everyone else. The Gentiles vastly outnumbered the Jews and represented a whole host of different belief systems or lack thereof. If Paul seems like a hard-ass at time in his letters, let’s remember that he had to try to stamp out heretical fires at every turn, often when he was far away from the churches that were under fire, and thus unable to counter the false doctrines in person. You’re trying to keep people in line under God’s laws and strengthen their faith while battling their very human natures and being persecuted yourself at every turn.
I’d be a bit salty too.
Fact is, there is little that Paul writes that isn’t fully in line with the teaching of Jesus and the laws of God. And what bits of personal bias he might show at times can often easily be reconciled with societal changes today without altering the core intent. I know a lot of women won’t like the fact that I agree with Paul that women aren’t meant to be pastors. But with educational levels being what they are today, I think they belong everywhere else in the church, and I think Paul would agree on that front as well, given that he recognized a couple women who were important in the evangelism of the early church.
I suspect Paul would hold fast to views against sexual immorality and other desires of the flesh, as well he should given that God doesn’t want us to sin in those ways. But I also don’t think he’d be pleased with people bombing abortion clinics or trying to force secular lawmakers to hold to biblical law on issues such as sexual intercourse.
Paul was a sonovabitch at times, but he was an honest one and a faithful one, and that gives him a lot of credit as far as I’m concerned.
I know I already have a link to some biographical info on Paul embedded in the first word of this post, but click here for a Wikipedia entry on him should you like to learn even more. I rely on Wikipedia for a lot of the informational hyperlinks around here and I just feel like I need to branch out sometimes.