Paving the Road to Damascus: the Humanity of Paul

"The Conversion of St. Paul" by Caravaggio

The man responsible for much of our New Testament is a complex character indeed. Converted from Judaism after a divine revelation, Paul dedicated his life to founding Christ’s church in the first century. His letters are compelling—mostly containing instruction and code of conduct for the early congregations. Paul was anointed, no doubt. He offered a profound perspective of our history that lives on today. I cannot fathom what Christianity would be without his contributions.

Paul has always been my favorite biblical author. His letters seem to transcend time and culture to speak to the hearts of those who seek Jesus. How then, can I read his letters as a lesbian, and still be in love with this ancient trailblazer? You know the passages I speak of: Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, and I Timothy 1:9-10.

We’ve already explored these scriptures in other posts. If you wish to take an exegetical  look at these passages, please go here. My intent and purpose of this post is to explore the humanity of Paul. What was his world-view? What were his traditions? What were the cultural norms of his time? What were his prejudices? I think it’s important to bring a certain degree of reason to the table when looking at the Scriptures. In no way do I claim to have it all figured out. I’m on a journey; my convictions and philosophies may very well change, and I’m open to that. This post is more of a means to hash out thoughts and feelings, and less of an intent to change minds. It is always my hope that this site will remain a safe place for all people to discuss the issue of Christianity and homosexuality.

Before I could make a personal decision about Paul’s letters, I had to really evaluate what I thought about the Scriptures. I grew up in a conservative atmosphere, where every word out of my English translation was considered infallible. It was years before I realized my Bible wasn’t translated word for word directly from the mouth of God. While translation isn’t the topic I want to dwell on here, I think it’s important to consider that errors exist. I was well into my twenties before I began to realize that I was no longer a biblical literalist. I have to be careful with that terminology. This doesn’t mean that I interpret the supernatural aspects of the Bible figuratively. I fully believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, etc. I wholeheartedly believe in the divinity of Jesus. What I’m addressing here is cherry-picking verses from the Bible to make a point. Some call this proof-texting. Many times, proof-texting is done without the consideration of culture, specific circumstance, or author intent. Sometimes, proof-texting can even ignore additional references that may shed light on the text in question. Let me give you an example:

In I Corinthians, Paul addresses the issue of incest. It angers him to the point that he instructs the congregation to excommunicate the guilty man.

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Cor. 5:1, 4b-5, NRSV).

There have been many people throughout Church history that have used this text as a means to support excommunication for an individual such as this. However, what we don’t see in this text is something that Paul addresses in his second letter to the church at Corinth. In II Corinthians 2, Paul actually changes his mind!

“But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he might not be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm you love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be out-witted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (II Cor. 2:5-11).

Paul “took back” what he said! This was an “aha moment” for me—and one that resonates. What can we glean from this?

Paul was human.

When we read his letters, we must remember that. Yes, he was indeed anointed; he was led by the Holy Spirit. But he was also a full-time member of the human race. He made mistakes. He had struggles. And like us, he contended daily against the schemes of evil, and constantly grappled with his understanding of this Jesus who flew in the face of his cultural prejudices.

So what did Paul think about homosexuals? Honestly, I believe he did not (and could not) comprehend monogamous homosexual relationships as they exist today. Homosexual practices of Paul’s time were generally implemented as a facet of pagan worship. Paul was also a Jew—a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. Therefore, he was familiar with the Holiness Code of the Old Testament, which also prohibited homosexual relations in order to ensure the lineage of the Israelites continued. Paul was a product of his time and culture. If he was living among us today, I think he would be seeking answers along with the rest of us. To be sure, Paul absolutely knew what it meant to be transformed by the unconditional love of Christ. Once a persecutor of Christ-followers himself, Paul fell before Jesus at his conversion on the road to Damascus. He was the one that God had chosen to preach salvation to the Jews and Gentiles alike. I cannot imagine the flood of emotions Paul must have felt—once a murderer, and now a vessel of God’s inclusive love!

That is my prayer for all of us. May we recognize the fierce, counter-cultural love of Jesus, and may we carry that knowledge to those in our lives. No matter where we are or where we’ve been, may we identify that one thing that is at the center of us all:

love.

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4 responses to “Paving the Road to Damascus: the Humanity of Paul

  1. These are excellent points! I don’t think that it was Paul’s intentions to have a religious system that looks the same way in year 2012 as it did in his time. I think he was trying to keep people close to Christ and training people to have a heart like Christ so that the love of God would be evident and grow in the hearts of all mankind for generations to come until the unknown end.

    While Paul was instructing about the spiritual gifts in Chapter 12 of I Corinthians, he became less concerned with their practice of these gifts and more concerned with the exercising of Christian love as Chapter 13 is so beautifully written. And the main point I want to make that goes along with the above entry is that Paul admits to his humanity and his lack of knowing everything and the imperfections of man which includes himself, in verses 8-12, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

    We all see in part. We know in part. We understand in part. It keeps us searching. It keeps us growing. And we do the best we can and trust that we are fully known by God who knows our hearts and knows that we are striving to serve him and his purpose of love.

    May we never forget verse 13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” To go along with Mandy’s prayer.

  2. Studying the humanity Paul causes me to reflect on the difficult things he teaches us by example. The cultural shift in accepting gentiles as recipients of the gospel was huge for the Jews. Paul was educated in the Jewish law and had a high standing in Jewish society. Turning from his traditions and embracing a new way speaks loudly of his courage and convictions to stand for what is true. Standing up to church leaders when they wavered in accepting these new gentile Christians demonstrates courage and love. I think we often forget to measure our beliefs, convictions, standards, and our acceptance of others by the knowledge of God’s love and grace that we know through Christ. Paul’s life teaches a lot about the courage it takes to embrace and love each other. I like reading about the people he surrounded himself with such as the list in Romans 16 and how often he refers to individuals as beloved.

  3. Pingback: Homosexuality and the Bible: The Clobber Passages—Part 3 | Coming Out Christian

  4. Pingback: What Paul Said | Coming Out Christian

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