What Paul Said

“Does it really matter what Paul said?”

The words hung in the air. “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?” I thought.

I was in a small bible study group—a group particularly designed to cultivate conversation about the LGBT community and the Church. Over the past several years, I had made my peace about what it meant for me personally to be gay and Christian. I had memorized the six clobber passages that are so often used against the LGBT community. (Haven’t we all?) I could name the books, chapters, and verses where they could be found. I had studied about the culture surrounding Paul’s letters, and the churches to which they were written. I had researched the histology of the word ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoitēs). God and I were good. And even as a non-confrontational person, I still had that knowledge polished and tucked away, in case of emergency. We have to be prepared to share why we believe what we believe… especially when it hits so close to home.

My journey from “conservative” to “progressive” was gradual. I spent years with one foot in fundamentalism. But with these words—in this particular moment—I could virtually feel those remaining chains of fundamentalism crumble. Does it really matter what Paul said? Her words somehow gave me permission to face the questions I’d been quietly asking for years. I had always felt a certain degree of guilt when I found myself asking questions about God or faith. (It’s a lovely little trait that many of us pick up through the vast and varied means of indoctrination.) But when I began to evaluate my reasons for not asking questions, it came down to one worry: I was afraid of what I would find. This is simply not a good enough reason. There is virtually no other situation in life where one is encouraged to stop searching, stop studying, stop inquiring. And really, isn’t it that much more important to ask questions about something as deeply important as faith?

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne

“Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne

In regards to Paul’s letters, we must try to do more than place ourselves in his culture. We must also strive to understand his background. And most importantly, we must learn all we can about the manuscripts that compose what we now know as the New Testament (all of which are copies of copies of copies, etc.) The dates of Paul’s letters are approximated to be in the 50’s A.D., yet the earliest discovered manuscript dates to somewhere between 175-225 A.D. When you start to read the Pauline letters from a historical perspective, things change. You notice things you didn’t notice before. You consider things you hadn’t previously considered. We could debate indefinitely about the theology of Paul’s writings: What he may have meant, what he could have thought, what his writing style was. But let’s just assume for a moment that every word of Paul’s letters made it to our modern day translations without a scratch. Let’s imagine that nothing has been added, omitted, or changed in any way. What then? What would that mean for LGBT Christians? Well, we would have to accept that Paul was speaking out against same-sex relationships. We would have to acknowledge that he viewed LGBT relationships as sinful.

Does it matter?

We’ve addressed the historicity of Paul in a little more detail in a post entitled: Paving the Road to Damascus. In a nutshell, we discussed the fact that while Paul was a gifted and anointed trailblazer, he was still human. (Personally, I think that adds an element of redemption in Paul’s story that wouldn’t be there otherwise.) We must also remember that Paul was Jewish—a bona fide descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. The Holiness Code—which he no doubt lived by—prohibited same-sex relations with the purpose of preserving the Israeli lineage. It is my personal opinion that Paul could not have understood monogamous, same-sex relationships as we know them today. Paul’s opinions were a result of his time and culture.

This doesn’t mean I don’t respect Paul or his letters. Quite the opposite, actually; he has always been my favorite Biblical author. But I hold to the notion it’s best to read Scripture with a good dose of reason. Isn’t that, in fact, what Paul himself did when he paved the way for Christianity? He went against his family, against his previous beliefs, and against his very religion when he pronounced Jesus to be the King. Paul had previously rejected Jesus… even to the point of murdering those who believed him to be the Savior. But even after his conversion, he didn’t always see eye to eye with the disciples of Jesus. Even on his second visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 2), he condemned Peter for dining only with the Jews and not the Gentiles. And we certainly know that Paul and James took opposite views on the “works vs. grace” debate. Today, we accept the fact that Paul questioned the Church in his day. He challenged popular notions that were held. He went against the grain. Why are Christians often looked down upon for doing the very same things today? If the Word is living, then wouldn’t it make sense to re-evaluate what it means in our current time and culture?

What do you think? When it comes down to it, does it matter what Paul said?

3 responses to “What Paul Said

  1. What a great question, and like any great question, there are multiple answers.

    For me, I have to say, “Yes, it does matter.” We can’t just separate out the parts of the Bible that we don’t like (and make us uncomfortable and others look “good”) or overly emphasize the parts that we do like (and can make other people uncomfortable and make ourselves look “good”).

    Paul had a lot of great things to say. Here’s one often overlooked passage that settles a lot of the question about whether any behavior is right or wrong…Romans 14:4 (NASB) “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

    I like those words because they don’t say what is right or wrong. Those words say to the accuser, “Whatever is bothering you about someone else, it is between them and the Lord.” Those words say to the accused, “You are going to stand in the end. It’s not you that does it anyway.”

    I hope that makes sense. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  2. I think what Paul says does matters. I also think that what Mandy and what projectbuddy says matters and anybody who discerns and contemplates the spirituality of Christ in relationship with God. Paul’s relationship with Christ and his gifts were valuable and continue to be valuable in the bigger story of God in relationship with humanity. I think humans have turned Paul’s words into a Religion in which I think Paul did not intend. But that of course is my opinion. Paul clearly had a mission and calling (with still limited understanding as he was fully human) that helped draw people to Christ. I think it really goes back to taking things into context and such and understanding that the manuscripts we have ended up with could have mistakes in the reproduction process and even mistakes in authorship. I know that it has become very questionable if Paul even wrote the book of Timothy…authorship is something that does matter. So much emphases is put on Paul as being so inspired but to use Paul’s name as author on a manuscript that was not his just to give it more weight, that should raise an eye brow or two. Also, we have to take into consideration we are only hearing one side of the conversation. Paul was constantly responding to letters written to him and to concerns that came about in conversation to him. It seems like many times there is a guessing game as to what the context was. Paul was addressing current issues and sometimes I don’t find it real clear what the issues were. But in all this the spirit is alive to provide learning and growing opportunity from what we do have for studying with the hope that we can seek and find the spirit of the law, the spirit of relationship with God, the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Love as we maintain our faith with seeking and questioning as our stories mesh with the bigger story of relationship with the Creator of Life…..or something like that.

  3. It’s so great to be in conversation with both of you again. Thank you for the provocative discussion. So many wonderful points have been shared so far! Yes, Paul’s words were important. So are the words of modern teachers. So are yours. So are mine. I like the verse that you quoted, projectbuddy. It’s an effective reminder that faith is personal.

    Josha, you brought up many excellent points… things that have been concerning me for awhile now. You mentioned that reading Paul’s letters is like hearing one side of the conversation. I completely agree. I also couldn’t agree more on the point that some have turned Paul’s letters into a religion. I think idolatry of the Bible is a very real thing. The questions about translation and authorship continue to haunt me. There are just so many questions… ones that leave me with more questions instead of answers. For example, in biblical scholarship, there are only 7 undisputed epistles: Romans, Galatians, I Thessalonians, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Phillipians, and Philemon. The rest are up for debate in terms of authorship, and have been for a long time. That poses a serious problem for me—because it matters to me who wrote those letters. Translation is another issue that bring a whole new set of problems. So while I view these letters as important and vital to Christianity as we know it today, I cannot view them as inerrant.

    All of those things considered, where I struggle the most is: where do we draw the line? What’s the “correct” balance of scripture and reason? I know I’ve talked a lot about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—the method that suggests there are four elements of biblical study: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. That viewpoint helps me tremendously when reading biblical literature, because our God-given reason and our own experiences bring a lot to our understanding of the Bible. For me personally, I have to be okay with simply not knowing the answers to a lot of things. But I believe when we seek ways to live in love, THAT is what will be life-giving. If we are doing that, we can only hope the rest will fall into place.

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