A few years ago I spoke at an ecumenical gathering of clergy, giving four talks on the Apostle Paul. I avoided anything controversial and tried to be very gracious in how I spoke. However, while I was up in my room, I overheard one of the conference participants outside flying into a fit of apoplectic rage as to why they were being forced to listen to talks about the apostle Paul. The person in question was ticked off to the max: “I didn’t come here to be force-fed hateful crap from Paul!” And that boys and girls is what happens when you talk about the apostle Paul in a mainline context: people get riled up!
Last week an American progressive minister of religion sent out a tweet saying that the letters of the apostle Paul were a kind of pick-and-choose buffet.
Perry received, unsurprisingly, both a tirade of conservative reaction and a tidal wave of progressive support.
How does one respond to this?
Well, on the one hand, to try and be sympathetic to Perry, who I suspect is largely concerned with LGBTIQ+ issues, I’d acknowledge:
First, Pauline texts about same-sex intercourse have been used to expel, abuse, and attack LGBTIQ+ people. I’ve heard and read the ungracious and demeaning things conservative Christians have said or written about LGBTIQ+ people in the name of texts like Rom 1.26-28 and 1 Cor 6.9.
Second, faithful, historically-informed, wise, missional, and responsible readers of Scripture do have to discern precisely how Pauline passages about sexuality, men and women, household codes, marriage, the state, and spiritual authority apply in a context very different from Paul’s world. Paul’s response to the pagan culture of Rome and Ephesus would probably have some continuities and discontinuities from how he might respond to the secular culture of New York and Melbourne. That’s for us to figure out!
Third, one can admit the failure of traditional or evangelical churches to love and pastor LGBTI+ people in their midst. A failure that results in this kind of anxious or stand-offish relationship with Paul that some LGBTIQ+ people have. Precisely why I recommend Preston Sprinkle’s excellent book People To Be Loved.
On the other hand, I cannot go along with Perry’s affirmation of Paul only by a selective removal of his progressive organs. For Perry, Paul only speaks for God when Perry agrees with what Paul is saying. That is not a helpful or healthy interpretive approach, let me explain why.
The rejection of the apostle Paul is nothing new. Bishop of Irenaeus of Lyon wrote about a Jewish Christian group who rejected Paul because Paul did not believe Gentile Christ-followers had to obey the Torah.
“Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law.” (Adv. Haer. 1.26.2).
The Nazis too did not like Paul, because Paul found a way to make the Jewish ethic of the equality of humanity universal among Greeks and Romans. Paul thus corrupted the triumphant warriors of Greece and Rome and made them sick with softness, corrupted with compassion, and rife with effeminacy. According to historian Tom Holland:
Hitler thinks that both the Greeks and the Romans are of Germanic stock, and that they were destroyed by Paul coming along with his cosmopolitan insistence that all humans are equal.
Thus, paradoxically, the Ebionites rejected Paul for not being Jewish enough, while the Nazis rejected Paul for being too Jewish! #Irony.
When someone says I reject Paul because or I support Paul if, the “because” and “if” are usually giving license to their own presuppositions and prejudices.
This is why the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has affirmed Paul’s letters as normative for faith, from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. While we must wrestle with how to apply difficult passages from Paul - difficulties often due to our own context - we are not free to carve Paul up as he were like a turkey and only take the cuts we like.
If Scripture is not your authority, then you will inevitably make something else your authority in matters of religion. It will either be your own desires, your own politics, your own culture, or even your own prejudices. Jettisoning Paul, in whole or in part, will not necessarily enable you to better love God and love your neighbor. It merely provides a convenient way for you to provide religious capital to stuff you already believe, to validate your rage against people you don’t like, and to give you the assurance that your biases are infallible.
In other words, while many postmodern progressives like to see themselves as championing a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” that is, reading against the grain of the text in order to free us from its tyrannies. In reality, this strategy looks more like a “hermeneutic of solipsism,” reading the text from the self-centeredness of one’s own interests, a haughty belief that one’s lived experienced towers over the revealed wisdom and the collective experience of 2000 years of tradition, baptizing one’s own predilections in the waters of expressive individualism; and appreciating scripture only when it functions as a mirror of the self rather than as a challenge to sanctify one’s soul from the worldliness (whether conservative or progressive) that assaults it and tries to conquer it.
If I may gloss Augustine: “If you believe what you like in the Pauline epistles, and reject what you don't like, it is not the epistles you believe, but yourself.”
FYI: I deal with issues of biblical authority and interpretation in my book Seven Things About the Bible That I Wish All Christians Knew, which releases tomorrow!