Paul, Part 2: The Words of God or Man? (3/26/06)
Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The modern church is split over the writings of Paul. Some claim that since his writings are in the Bible, they are sacred cows—they have absolute authority. Others claim that Paul’s writings actually change the true teachings of Jesus, and that his words are so culturally conditioned by the First Century world they are white elephants. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of white elephant is, “something that requires great care and expense, but yields little profit.”
The books of the Bible which Paul authored are actually letters he wrote to the churches he had established. Fellow Christians would travel from region to region, and they would advise Paul of the problems certain churches he had established were encountering. Paul would write letters to those churches to encourage them in their faith, and to address some of their particular problems. He doesn’t talk about what Jesus said, or what Jesus did, or how Jesus was born—he is unconcerned with the details of Jesus’ life.
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Perhaps you have already guessed the problem with the sacred cow approach to Paul’s letters. There are a couple of problems with insisting that two thousand years after the fact, every word Paul wrote is the eternal and infallible revealed truth of God. First, whatever else we may want to say about Paul, there is one thing that is certain: Paul was a first century Jew. That’s not a slam. That’s who he was. He was a brilliant, charismatic, spiritually advanced man who happened to be living in the first century. And like every other human begin who has ever lived, Paul was shaped by the culture in which he lived. Second, Paul’s letters often address specific problems occurring in the first century churches. So when he discovered that the church in, say, Thessalonica, was having a specific problem, he addressed that problem as best he could. The words he wrote to that particular church might not have applied to another church in, say, Philippi.
The best example of this comes in comparing his letter to the church in Corinth—1 Corinthians—with Galatians—his letter to the church in Galatia. These two churches were having very different problems with this new faith. The Corinthians seem to have taken the position that God’s love, as expressed through Jesus Christ, was unconditional. Once a person accepted Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior, they were in God’s grace forever. And there were those among the Corinthians who evidently thought this allowed them to do anything they wanted. To heck with the Ten Commandments, forget moral laws—it’s party time.
At the other extreme were the Galatians. Paul had told them the same thing he had told the Corinthians—that they were freed from the law by God’s love through Jesus Christ. And since the Galatians were gentiles—non-Jews—to start with, they didn’t need to worry about all those Jewish laws, like ritual hand washing and circumcision. And then, after Paul had moved on, some of the converted Jewish followers of Jesus showed up and told the Galatians they were practicing Christianity all wrong. They were not truly Christian unless they obeyed the Jewish laws, because Jesus himself was a Jew.
It may well be that the people who arrived in Galatia to ”correct” Paul’s teachings were those who had been followers of Jesus when Jesus was alive—people like the original apostles—perhaps even James and Peter. As I mentioned last week, James, called the brother of Jesus, and Peter, who Jesus proclaimed as the rock upon which the church would be built, were often at odds with Paul about the shape of this new faith.
To those Galatians, Paul wrote a letter telling them the law was not important—only faith in Christ matters. Listen to some of Paul’s words regarding the law in his letter to the Galatians: “a person is justified not by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ; if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing; no one is justified before God by the law; the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.
Compare that to his thoughts on the law in his letter to the Corinthians, for whom fighting among themselves and sexual immorality had become commonplace: I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law. By taking the sacred cow approach and quoting Paul’s words from the Bible, you can prove with certainty that it is of the utmost importance to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. And at the same time, you can use other writings by the same man, in the same Bible, to prove those laws from the Old Testament are of no consequence.
You can see why some people take the white elephant approach to Paul. Trying to believe that every little word he wrote came straight from the mouth of God, and applies to all people at all times, takes some real effort. But I firmly believe that those who dismiss Paul too quickly are making a horrible mistake.
I want to see if we can rescue the writings of Paul in a way that will allow us to admire those writings that reveal an almost unparalleled sense of spiritual depth, and forgive Paul for the places where he addresses the specific problems of specific churches in the way we might expect a first century man to address those problems. In other words, I want to see if we can give those writings that deal with our relationship with God, and with Christ, the respect they deserve; and at the same time read his words that apply to the cultural condition of the 1st Century with understanding, but not with an insistence that they convey eternal truths.
Where Paul comes under the greatest attack is with regard to his writings on women and sexual orientation. And frankly, if you view his writing on these subjects through a 21st Century lens, he deserves to come under attack. Let’s start with some of his more offensive words regarding women. This reading is from 1st Corinthians 14:34: Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Wow. What do we do with those words? Honestly, they seem out of character, because throughout his letters it is clear that women are an important part of Paul’s ministry. Chloe (KLO-ee), Euodia (Yoo-OH-dee-ya), Syntyche (SIN-ti-kee), Priscilla, Phoebe—Paul mentions all of these women favorably, as fellow workers in Christ, or as deaconesses. As for his words in 1st Corinthians, all I can figure is that there must have been some women in that particular congregation who were really getting out of line during the church services. I don’t know how else to explain it. He never would have written such a thing to his beloved church in Philippi, where Euodia and Syntyche (Yoo-OH-dee-ya & SIN-ti-kee) appear to be important church leaders.
One other thing about Paul’s occasional attitude problem toward women must be emphasized. This is the 1st Century we’re talking about. Remember, women were not allowed to be priests. Women were not allowed to exert power in the public sphere. Women had a very definite purpose in the eyes of that patriarchal world, and that was to have children—lots and lots of male children. Thankfully, we have a much higher view of the female half of the human race than did our ancient forebears.
By the way, I never could understand fundamentalist women who insist the Bible is without error and must be read literally. I would like to point out to them that according to their own standard, they can argue that point—but not at church, where they must remain quiet and submissive to what they evidently believe are their biological and spiritual superiors. The fact is, some of Paul’s words regarding women simply must be read in the context of the time in which they were written.
Understanding that gives us a starting place for dealing with Paul’s words regarding homosexuality. First, let’s be clear about one thing. Despite what some with a narrow view of the faith would have us believe, homosexuality is not a big issue in the Bible. It was not an important enough issue to make an appearance in the Ten Commandments. Oh, it does pop up on rare occasion in the Old Testament. One of the over 600 laws of the Old Testament says, You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It amazes me how many fundamentalists can quote that scripture as sacred law. I wonder how many of them follow those other laws from the Old Testament, such as the one that forbids the cutting of hair and shaving of beards, or one of my favorites: Whoever curses their mother or father shall be put to death. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to quote the 2500-year-old Levitical code as eternal truth, then you can’t pick and choose which of those countless hundreds of rules you’re going to obey. And the modern Christian world ignores at least 500 of them.
As for Paul, he does mention the subject—twice. One important thing to understand on this subject is that the idea of a mutually loving same-sex relationship was not on the radar screen in the ancient world. Most scholars agree that there were two types of recognized same-sex behavior in the 1st Century. One involved the coercive sexual exploitation of young male slaves by their masters; the other involved the sale of sexual favors by young “call boys” to older male patrons. In neither case was there any love involved in the relationship. In neither case was the behavior in any way attributed to anything other than coercion, lust and greed.
The word homosexuality is a modern word, first used in the 19th Century. And over the past century we have come to realize that people are born with a sexual orientation—a concept completely foreign to Paul and to those of Paul’s era. For those in the modern world who insist that sexual orientation is a person’s choice, I simply ask them this question: When did you make your choice? When was it that upon finding yourself attracted to people of both sexes, you made the decision—the choice—to pursue relationships only with people of the opposite sex? For most people, I am convinced, it is not a matter of choice, but rather a matter of how God made us.
Paul could never have conceived of a person being born with a same-sex orientation. But when we look at his words, we realize that the behavior he condemned had nothing to do with real love between two committed people. He writes, don’t you know that unrighteous persons will not get into God’s kingdom? Don’t deceive yourselves; neither the sexually immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate males, nor men who have sex with them, nor thieves, nor money-grabbers, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will get into God’s kingdom.
We can see the reference to the call-boys and their older customers, when he writes effeminate males and the men who have sex with them. And there is a point to be made here. Not all same-sex activity should be condoned by the modern church. There is still coercive, promiscuous and loveless acts being performed between people of the same sex, just like there are coercive, promiscuous and loveless acts being performed between men and women. We should not condone the loveless type of activity that Paul condemned. But I simply have too many friends who are gay and lesbian, and I have simply seen too many people in loving and committed relationships, to believe sexual orientation should be a source of shame or guilt. The only shame should fall upon the person who would judge another for simply being who they are.
By the way, I was once asked, in view of my openness to a person’s sexual orientation, what I would do if a man showed up on Sunday morning dressed like Mae West. And I said I would tell that man the same thing I would tell a woman who showed up dressed like Mae West—this is the place we come to worship God; not to display our sexuality. Feel free to be yourself, but I would prefer it if rather than calling attention to yourself in this hour, you allowed the focus to be on God.
Of course, when I’m confronted with a moral dilemma, I turn to the words of Jesus. Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about morality. The moral code he put forth is impossibly strict. We cannot lie, cheat, steal, envy, be greedy, save money, kill, get angry, or even so much as look at another person with lustful thoughts. There aren’t any sins I can think of that Jesus didn’t get around to at one time or another, and I would now like to read to you every word Jesus ever said about same-sex relationships…
He never even mentions the subject. You can study all four gospels and you won’t find a single word about it. For me personally, I figure that when I’ve arrived at such a state of perfection I can avoid all the sins Jesus did talk about, then I’ll start concerning myself with whether or not there are some he failed to mention.
Well, I set out to rescue Paul’s writings for the modern church, and I don’t know if I succeeded. When Paul gets on his moral high-horse, he and I start having trouble. But I can overlook those parts of his writing that are overly conditioned by the world in which he lived, because there are plenty of times when his writing is so good, so strong, so intensely spiritual, that we simply cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater
Consider 1st Corinthians 13. We’ve all heard it many times. It begins, If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal, and it ends, and now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. You can hardly attend a wedding where that scripture is not read, and for good reason. Paul says in that chapter of Corinthians what I believe with all my heart: Love is the only reason we exist. Nothing in all of creation justifies our being with the exception of love. If I ever find myself getting frustrated with a passage from Paul, all I need do is quickly turn to 1st Corinthians 13, and all is soon forgiven.
The fact is, in the letters of Paul, sandwiched between some questionable statements based on 1st Century morality, and some complex and tedious theology, are some of the most beautiful and inspiring words ever written. If we can accept the fact that Paul was a fallible human being just like the rest of us, conditioned by the culture in which he lived and subject to the same ups and downs as everybody else; then we don’t have to label his writings as sacred cows or white elephants. And we can read them with open minds and open hearts, which in the end can be a spiritually enriching endeavor.
Next week we will bring this three week series on Paul to an end by looking at the two paths people tend to take through modern Christianity. One is based on the teachings of Jesus, and is all about how we live our lives. The other is based on the writings of Paul, and is all about personal salvation, and the power and glory of the Risen Christ. Perhaps between these two extremes we will find a faith for ourselves. For now, I leave you with my favorite passage from the writing of Paul, found in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans. In my eyes it is, with the exception of the cross itself, the strongest statement in the Bible concerning God’s love.
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.