Something I have learned over the years is that many people struggle with St. Paul. In progressive mainline Protestant churches he is often a lightning rod for things people do not like about Christianity. His letters have often been cited by some to exclude women in leadership positions in the church and to establish hierarchies within families. Paul is seen by many to be harsh and judgmental. He is also often something of a dualist in his approach to humanity. Additionally, his letters often appear to be rather abstract and difficult to comprehend.
Yet, here I am, a progressive mainline Protestant who loves St. Paul. I really do and I preach from the Epistles of Paul a good deal. Often, at least in my opinion, the problems people have with St. Paul can be addressed.
First, the role of women is a sticking point for many. I do not believe Paul was a misogynist. Misogyny is a hatred of women and girls. Paul did not, in my mind, even come close to this. He was, however, a person of his time.
Jesus was not a person of his time. Jesus appeared to women first. In many ways, the primal message of the Gospels is that Jesus was raised from the dead. The first Christian preachers, the first people to share the good news of the resurrection of Christ were women. Jesus was not a person of his time and, frankly, neither was God very interested in the human constructs of the day. It can be argued that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, was a primal message. Again, the receiver of that message was a woman. Women, in the Gospels, took a second seat to no one.
Paul was a person of his time. Women had no rights. Women did not speak in the synagogue. Women were the property of men. Often missed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about women submitting to husbands was the command for husbands to love their wives. It was more than romantic love. It was an outright statement of responsibility the husband was being given to take care of and be responsible for his wife’s well-being. His words are, however, in the context of the world he was living in. Paul was slightly ahead of his time by our standards, radically by the era’s standards.
The issue of women speaking in church was not unlike this. Paul came from a tradition where women were separated and silenced in the synagogue. In early Christianity, as some women stepped forward, this was met with great hesitation by people. One concern Paul had was that the women might lead the men astray as the women did not have the same background of information as the men. I wish he had given more say to the women having the ability and privilege of receiving more information, but he didn’t. Sadly. However, Paul was not atypical of his era.
Several things people seem to miss about St. Paul.
His writings were letters to churches addressing specific issues within those churches. The early Christian Church put those letters in the Bible, but Paul was not, in his mind, writing the New Testament. He was merely writing letters to address issues. His responses were and are brilliant. The problem is, however, that we do not have the letters TO Paul that contain the questions he was being asked. We attempt to ascertain those questions with his answers, but we might not always be correct. As a result, those letters may appear to us, to fall short.
Secondly, Paul was brilliant. He studied to be a rabbi under the premier Rabbi Gamaliel, who, in rabbinic terms, would have been the “Harvard or Yale” of his era. Paul was also fluent in Greek and his writings demonstrate a clear understanding of the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Paul uses the language of Plato to often explain, to the Gentile world, Jesus’ theology. This was no easy feat and it is often difficult to truly get a grasp on Paul without a working knowledge of Plato’s philosophy. His writings are sophisticated and often elegant and deftly put together.
Third, there is culture. People are products of their time and place. It’s important not to bind them to our time and place and judge them according to our own eras.
Lastly, the writings of Paul evolve. St. Paul, often not noticed by people, changed many perceptions. He became kinder and gentler as he got older. He grew in his faith. I admire that, and love that about him.
This blog today may seem random. Just a reminder to us, however, to not gloss over and dismiss this amazing man and his writings.