Are evangelicals blind to the obvious faults of the Apostle Paul….and, consequently, to many of their own?
I’m reading Charles Freeman’s book “The Closing of the Western Mind.” It’s not exactly an unbiased presentation of Christianity, though Freeman’s thesis that established Christianity squelched the rational tradition of the Greeks is interesting and worth discussing. His early chapters on the source figures of Christianity, however, are another matter. The chapter on Jesus is, well, atrocious, but the chapter on Paul gave me a thought.
As one who seems uninvested in any kind of “pro-Christian” view of Paul, Freeman writes what I believe any number of intelligent people would write if they studied the New Testament without Christian assumptions that the documents being read were “the Word of God.”
What does he say about Paul? It’s a chapter you wouldn’t read from any evangelical source, because the cataloging of Paul’s imperfections would be too much of a challenge to their doctrine of scripture.
Remember that Freeman is partaking of the academic prejudices against Christianity and of the usual attempts to blame Paul for all that is wrong with Christianity. Even with these errors, however, Freeman gave me much to think about in terms of something we do believe….in fact, must believe: Paul was not perfect. He was as messed up as the rest of us. He had his edges. He had his limits. He had his problems.
“He could also be abrasive and deeply sensitive to any threat to his assumed authority, which at the beginning of several of his letters…he proclaimed to have come directly from God or Christ…He appears never to have married and to have been ill at ease with sexuality, above all homosexuality…but no one could pretend that he was an easy man to work with. His life appears to have been one of constant conflict. Gamaliel is believed to have been tolerant to Christians…so Paul’s early desire to persecute them must have come from elsewhere, perhaps from his own combative personality. He had violent confrontations with Barnabas, his companion who had put him in contact with the apostles in Jerusalem, though he traveled extensively with him, and even with Peter, the undoubted early leader of the Jerusalem Christians. In fact, he seems to have accepted that conflict with others was a normal part of life…This is certainly not a man who has any confidence in his ability to charm those he met. While Jesus drew people to him, Paul appears to have had the opposite effect; there was not one Christian community in which he can be said to have been fully at ease…The result was that although Paul could write, and perhaps speak, with great eloquence, he often failed to win over audiences, and may even have provoked their opposition with his manner.” (pp. 109-111)
“Paul appears to have known little of the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world outside Judaism and made little attempt in his letters to explain the Judaic concepts he used in a form that would have been comprehensible to those not brought up in that tradition…Buffeted by these conflicts, Paul seems at times to hardly know who he is. In particular, his identity as a Jew seems to fluctuate according to the pressures he encounters. ‘Paul’s Judaism was no longer of his very being, but a guise he could adopt or discard at will,’ as one influential scholar, C. K. Barrett, has put it. It is hardly surprising that on a personal level this highly insecure man became acutely sensitive to threats to his leadership…He is desperately afraid of competition…In fact, his desperation as he hears of rival Christian preachers breaks through again and again in his letters. He boasts, cajoles, threatens, and pleads his case, claiming that because of his hard work and suffering for the cause he deserves to be seen as the foremost of the apostles.” (pp. 112-114)
“…Paul’s theology, however, is confined in that it is shaped by his personal isolation, his acute insecurity about his authority, and his ambivalence about his Jewish roots. The difficult circumstances in which he wrote can explain much of the incoherence and contradiction in his letters, which have taxed theologians ever since. He seems to have failed to absorb, or at least express in his letters, any real awareness of Jesus as a human being, or to reflect his teachings, other than, significantly, the prohibition on divorce. It has always to be remembered that Paul is the only major Christian theologian never to have read the gospels, and one cannot be sure that he interpreted Jesus’ teachings, on the law, for instance, with accuracy. Can one assume that Paul preached what Jesus would have wanted him to preach?” (124)
If you are not used to reading the current non-Christian approach to Paul, those paragraphs probably raised your blood pressure, but stay focused. Do we idealize Paul to the point that we are blind to his faults, and also blind and justifying to those flaws in ourselves that are similar to his?
Defending Paul is a natural response for Bible believing evangelicals because they believe he is the author of holy and authoritative scripture. (Inerrant scripture for many evangelicals.) What he says- about anything- is the Word of God. How he says it is the Word of God. The complex of personality factors that frame a thought or a feeling before it is written in an epistle are the prelude to the written word of God.
For New Testament believers, therefore, defending Paul’s quirks, flaws, shortcomings and possible inconsistencies and errors is serious business.
Can you name a statement of Paul, which if made in your own ministry or church would be inappropriate, rude or outrageous, that isn’t defended by evangelical preachers and theologians as acceptable?
Would you tell your congregation to follow you as an example? Would you tell the women of the church to be silent and ask their husbands at home? Would you call your critics names and invite them to emasculate themselves? Would you preach entire sermons defending your ordination? Would you focus on your critics to the extent Paul does?
Would you allow a church planter sponsored by your church to be as divisive as Paul? Would you allow him/her to change target groups in frustration? Would you accept his “parting of the ways” with his/her partner in ministry (Barnabas)? Would you be comfortable with the constant appeal to personal experience? With the inability to bring new congregations to the point of having solid and dependable leadership?
Of course, many of you reading the preceding paragraphs already have a response to each one of these questions, and that is well and good. I probably agree with much of what you would say. The larger question is, however, if we justify all of what appears to be Paul’s flaws and issues as a fallen, imperfect man, then how do we treat our own?
What happens to our rudeness, insecurity, self-justification and inconsistency if we excuse it completely in Paul? If we have to have a “perfect Paul” to have a “perfect revelation,” do we then whitewash and baptize sins in ourselves that should be admitted and repented of? Have we made abrasiveness, divisiveness and contention into virtues because we see Paul doing the same things in the cause of Christ? Have we decided that a lack of insight into our own meanness/motives/actions, and stubborn loyalties to our own conclusions is just another name for being a “serious” Christian?
Frankly, I’m tired of meeting and experiencing people who are simple immature, rude, mean jerks, and having to listen to what great Christians they are. Paul may have confronted Peter, but did anyone ever need to confront Paul? Or had he run them all off?
Paul wasn’t perfect. Far from it. It may take non-Christians writing about Paul to make the necessary points, and to remind us that we can’t excuse ourselves from the example of Jesus by citing the example of Paul.