Where (If Anywhere) Does Christ End, and Paul Begin?

questionmarkIt’s been my experience that what the statement, “It’s not Christ I have a problem with; it’s Christians,” invariably boils down to is, “I have a problem with Paul.” What do you think is the proper Christian response to that? Is there anywhere, you think, where Christ ends, and Paul begins? If so, what if anything does that distinction mean to you? More to the point, what if anything do you think it should mean to the non-Christian wondering about Christianity? In my discussions with non-Christians about my faith, this comes up a lot, so I thought I’d ask. **********************************************************************************************************

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  • KyleOrshan

    THANK YOU for putting this question out there. I'm not a christian, but i like a lot of things about Christianity. But it's always confusing to me the way Christians seem to value as much what Paul wrote as what Christ said—or more, I think!! Paul said all the anti-gaystuff, and the stuff about how woman can't talk in church. And about slaves. why do Christians love Pauls so much????

  • Matt

    I think there are a few reasons why Paul is thought of so highly.

    Paul states that he was an apostle of Christ just as much as the other disciples. Jesus appeared to him, and revealed the gospel message to him which made him just as worthy as Matthew, Mark or John, to share that message with the world.

    Paul had admitted shortcomings, but his reliance on Jesus allowed him to become the most prominant missionary the world has ever seen. If not for Paul, who knows if Christianity would have spread beyond some Jews to most of the known world in so quick of time.

    Finally, before Paul become a Christian, he avidly persecuted Christians. He approved when Christians were stoned to death and clearly hoped to snuff out all of Christianity. It's kind of cool that God used Paul of all people to travel the world and get the gospel message out. He's not the type of guy who you would say was remotely perfect, in fact he was the self proclaimed "worst of sinners." If God could use Paul to do great things, he can use anyone.

  • Well, when I think of JC, I dont think he would /ever/ ask me to abandon my faith. Or tell me to worship him or I will go to hell. Or demand the genecide of all non-Christian faiths. Or tell my daughter born with Turner's Syndrome and is gay that she cannot ever fall in love and get married. Or tell his professed followers to not hire and or fire me because I am not Christian. Or tell me to tell others to abandon thier faith…

    Yet, according to many Christians JC /has/ told them to do these very things for Paul said that JC told him that isexactly what JC wants them to do.

    Then again, as a non-Christian what do I know…?

  • Allen

    Julia, a lot of people say whatever the heck they want, and attribute it to Jesus. Including exaggerating stuff attributed to Paul. These are the people who think God wrote the entire Bible in one long dictaphone session. Whatever. Paul is all over the map, and does actually have some good things to say, as far as advice to straight men 2000 years ago is concerned. The further we get from those writings in time and culture, the less we ought to pick at the details. Interpretation of writings from another culture are hard work, a lot of people just find the stuff they want, inflate it, and wave in in people's faces.

    It is very awkward to claim the same religion as people like that. No wonder I have trouble inviting people to church!

  • Hi John! You have terrific questions and posts on your blog. I saw this one on FB and thought I'd like to take a stab at an answer.

    I see the divide as more of a difference in focus. Jesus' teachings are much broader, big-picture in scope, more conceptual. They're still intimately practical, but not heavy on minute detail.

    Paul's job as an apostle (meaning a person who starts churches and then backs off to serve as a mentor to them) was to help his churches and leaders understand how Jesus' teachings play out on a practical, daily level. He had to deal with the details.

    There's some give and take in this, of course. Jesus had some details, and Paul had some big concepts. But on the whole, their roles as teachers were totally different.

    The thing people forget when it comes to Paul is that all of his New Testament writings were LETTERS. That means we've got the equivalent of one end of a phone conversation, and that's all. How easy is it to listen to a phone call and misinterpret what is being said because you didn't know the context and what the other person was saying? That's the danger inherent in trying to interpret the letters in the New Testament.

    There's a lot of gray area in trying to decide A) what the context of the letter was, B) what Paul meant by what he wrote, and C) whether or not that was directed at just that specific situation he was dealing with or if it has a larger, more transcendent application for us.

    This is why we've got to engage our minds as well as spirit when we handle scripture. We have to pray and we have to question and learn how to sort out best we can what we think God is telling us from what might just be the thoughts and ideas of other (flawed) humans. By the way, I think that's something people can do whether or not they consider themselves Christians. I think God speaks to non-Christians, too. 🙂

    We like things to be black and white, but the longer I am a Christian the less black and white things seem to be. I think the only way to navigate this is with a lot of humility and great care. Not being too quick to pass judgment, not being too quick to think there is only one explanation or interpretation for something.

    I don't like the idea that some people have expressed (not here, but in other places) that Paul absconded with Jesus' teachings and formed his own religion off that. He wasn't such a rogue teacher as that. He was in contact and discussion with the other Christian leaders–most of whom had been Jesus' disciples–and though they all disagreed strongly with each other at times, there appears to have been a respect and support among them.

    That's not to say I don't sometimes have my doubts about the good folks who originally compiled the New Testament canon–as far as if they got it right or not. But I think if we're going to ascribe any meaning at all to the NT, we have to take it as a whole and wrestle with all of it. If we pick and choose, where does that end? So I prefer not to look at Jesus and Paul as opposing forces, but instead, I think there are things I just don't yet understand, or that we aren't interpreting correctly, and I hope, hope, hope that someday, God will clear it all up for us. 🙂

  • I think eventually everything boils down to personal conviction. Some women feel that they should be "submissive", dress modestly, and always turn to their husband as the priest of their house… some don't. Why it is true for some and not others is something I try not to think about too much, but I think the fact remains that God speaks to some of us about some things far more clearly than about others. I think the people who blindly follow what their religious leaders tell them in the absence of personal conviction or taking the responsibility to research, inform, and pray about things is frightening- and that is what many people reject when they say they have a problem with "Christians"- not necessarily Paul. While it often boils down to material that Paul covers, I think the greater problem is with the attitude that we have a right or responsibility to cast judgment on private choices or to "save" people from a lifestyle that they have a right to pursue. (And I'm not just talking about homosexuality- the same thing happens with women who work outside the home, or people who drink, or people who choose to live together without marrying.)

    The end point being… when people say they have a problem with Christians, while Paul factors into it, I don't think he's the wholeness of their problem. I think the problem is with some Christian attitudes- which Paul is not the author of, even if he's a factor in them.

  • What a big, big question. The way I see it, in a nutshell is this:

    1) Some want to discount Paul and adhere only to the Gospels. Yet Paul wrote long before the Gospels were written. The Gospel writers were probably aware of Paul's theology.

    2) Paul (aside from Luke's account in Acts) was not a contemporary of Jesus – he got his information second hand. But so did the author's of the Gospels, most likely.

    3) Paul seems to have an agenda that Jesus did not – establish a new religion or at least a religious movement. To accomplish this end he seems at times to abandon the 'spirit' of the Good News. The duality of his Roman citizenship and his Jewish heritage can be confusing.

    4) Not everything attributed to Paul was written by him. Some of the letters were written by others and some inserted passages into his letters much later, passages that would seem to contradict other things he wrote.

    5) Paul was often responding to questions that we have never heard.

    6) The Greek he used does not use punctuation in the same way we do and that can suggest different meanings.

    7) His audience was most often first century Jews living in the Roman Empire who were trying to follow a 'new' way of encountering God. He was not addressing us today (although what he wrote often has great relevance).

    8) He is constantly taken out of context.

    9) He was a man of his times. Which means we cannot hold him to the moral standards of today.

    10) He was only a man and was not channelling God or Jesus.

    Just my 10 cents.

  • No smiley face intended.

  • Catherine

    I am a Christian, and I have a problem with Paul. Well, not exactly him, but the way most Christians interpret his teachings. There's nothing that tells you that Paul was writing a book of laws. He was writing letters, and not doing something someone tells you in a letter isn't a sin. What assures me that Paul didn't make a mistake somewhere, didn't misinterpret something.

    Paul's letters are valuable for Christianity, but I don't think you have to live by every single verse in them to be a Christian. Christianity is about Jesus teachings, Paul may be an extension, but if the only thing stopping someone from being a Christian is Paul, I don't think they have a big problem. Maybe with other Christians, but certainly not with Jesus.

  • It's going to be very hard to add anything now that I've read Meredith's comment (which is a compliment, Meredith!).

    I do know of (mostly online) people who are of the red-letter-believers set, who focus on the words Jesus said. One person has tossed out the line (possibly a famous quote, but I don't know it as such) "I'm a Christian, not a Paulian."

    I think that the point is nailed … Paul is often answering some things to which we aren't privy. That's going to make a difference.

  • janeyruth

    There is no divide between Christ and Paul…

    “I went into Arabia” (Galatians 1:17).

    Paul spent three years in the Desert apart from humanity being personally trained by Jesus for his ministry, which was massive in scope.

  • Rich

    I think the question really comes down to whether someone believes what is stated in 2 Timothy 3:16:

    "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

    If someone is going to discount Paul's writing and opinions because of a personal agenda, then this verse is easily dismissed as an attempt to give his own authority to everything he's written.

    If someone is going to believe this verse–and the fact that it says "All scripture"–then there's really no room to attribute personal agendas to the authors.

    Obviously, as with Chrisitanity itself, this boils down to a matter of faith & personal conviction.

    Personally, I'm not ready to pick & choose what I like about the Bible and what I don't. If we only choose to follow the parts we agree with, history shows that Bible passages can be pulled apart to support just about any belief system.

  • Joy

    Thank you, Meredith!

    "We like things to be black and white, but the longer I am a Christian the less black and white things seem to be. I think the only way to navigate this is with a lot of humility and great care. Not being too quick to pass judgment, not being too quick to think there is only one explanation or interpretation for something."

  • I've always had less difficulty comprehending Paul's words, as disconnected as they may seem at times, than Jesus'. Perhaps that's because Paul has the luxury of many words. I'm inspired and moved by Paul's words, in most cases, and bewildered by them in others. Jesus' words, however, seem to be much deeper and broader in scope, like poetry, making him a little less accessible, more mysterious, and definitely less polarizing (although, I think that if we take Jesus' words as a whole, and not only remember those that are convenient to support our desired view, he can be very harsh).

    But I think that's a diversionary tactic put forth by non-Christians, in general and in some cases subconsciously. Maybe it's like a person saying they would love to see the symphony orchestra because they think the music is beautiful, but they can't stand the audience who are all pompous and superficial, when the truth is that they really don't understand the orchestra or have a sincere attraction to it at all, and if they did it would completely overcome their disdain for their audience.

    In other words, Christianity is about Christ. I'm not following anybody else, and wouldn't. If Christ isn't all he's cracked up to be then the whole thing stinks, because the club is repulsive. BUT, if he's the real deal, nothing deserves my reverence more, and I'll deal with the followers' shortcomings to know more of him. It's Jesus we worship, not Christians. I'll always be disappointed by Christians.

    So, I say, to your hypothetical audience, John, "If you think Christ is grand, forget about his followers, including Paul, and pursue him. If you really get to know him, it's likely you'll see his followers in a new light – broken people desiring a savior, just like you, with all of the baggage that comes with such."

    One thing further – Paul really only shines for me, i.e. makes my heart sing, when he is exalting Jesus pursuing him fervently, and not when he's pounding on the people (though, as an apostle to them, some of that may have been needed, in the context.)

  • textjunkie

    I'm not sure what it means to have a problem with Paul per se. Jesus said a lot of stuff I find hard to accept too (I'm a firm believer that people should be allowed to get divorced, for example, and a lot of folks waiting for the imminent end of the world are hanging on to those red-letter texts).

    But consider: Paul's job was to take all the stuff that Jesus said and practiced, and help groups of believers figure out what it meant to live out those teachings and practices in a world where Jesus wasn't physically available–the beginning of the church, in small groups of believers. Paul had to interpret Jesus. But then Constantine happened, and what had been a minority cult became the state religion. Now Paul had to be interpreted in the light of governmental policy and practice. Most of what we see in Paul is through the lens of that interpretation and the history that came after it. When people say they can't stand Christians or "the church", they are talking about more than just Paul, but all the accretions of what it means to be or have been a powerful religion and social control institution that sets the rules of the culture and thought.

    The attempt to grapple with that history is one of the reaons we have so freakin' many schools of belief within Christianity.

  • I was just emailing a friend to tell her how awed I've been by the quality of these responses. You guys do us proud.

  • Another translation of 2 Timothy 3:16, from the NIV, puts it this way:

    "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"

    God breathed, meaning inspired, not dictated. Useful, implying that scripture is not the sole means of teaching etc. Neither statement infers infallibility in everything it addresses. And then again, when this was written, it was not at the time considered scriptural itself. I don't see how this is a case oif the author was trying to cement the authority of his own writings.

  • Leonardo

    The problem starts when we don't read the Word as the Word of God and divide saying: 'this is what Paul says', or 'this is what Peter says'. Jesus said: "Your word is truth." Jesus implies that the writers were agents of God: Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:…" and then refers a verse in Psalms Also: "Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" Simply He speaks about what is written as Scriptures. When a group asked Him, He answered: "And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read…"and continues citing Genesis.

    God uses Peter to say:"…as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures." This last phrase is interesting: "the rest of the Scriptures". So the writtings of Paul are part of the Scriptures.

    We don't have to make a division on: This is Paul or This is Jesus. We would must see it as: It is Scripture.

    "If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord."

    "Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit."

  • Weeeell, this may get deleted, but here's my non-Christian view of the whole JC/Paul thing (if anyone's interested):

    My problem with Paul is simple: We was originaly Saul. He hated Christians. Hated them with a passion. Hated them so much that he went house to house, tore them from their homes, tortured and killed them. Killed lots of them. He wanted this whole upstart cult of JC wiped out. (Hm, this sounds familiar…) A rather nasty dude was this Saul was. Then one day he -surprise!- had a vision and bam! he's suddenly an appostle to the very cult he dispised and vowed to irradicate? Supposedly handpicked by the ghost of a suppsed man-god to become the biggest mouthpiece of same aforementioned ghost?

    It would be like say, Saddam or Bin Laden suddenly claiming to have a change of heart and a had some miraculous visitation of JC and that they've all changed and are really really sorry for all those folks they murdered and are now really chosen by a god they never believed in to be the next real disciple of the this same god who they origianly had done their damndest to irradicate its fanbase.

    Um, yeah, sureyoubetchya.

    And some Christians think some of us non-Christians believe some really wierd stuff…?

    Okay, okay, That may be blunt, but that is how I see it. *ducks as a tomato comes sailing at her* I just I find it telling that JC left no writings himself but, hooboy, oh so many folks who supposedly knew what he was all about did supposedly leave notes behind. For me it all boils down to interpretation of what all this ancient and fragmented texts say someone says that someone said they think what JC may have said and meant. Which is all fine and cool mind you. But, well, is that it?

    Am I to read this book of claims of this god and suddenly be Christian? Really? Why? Do I listen to the fans of this book and join them just because they say so? Really? Why?

    Well them I'm told that it comes around to KNOWING this JC person. I am told that I must ASK this one god person into my life and then I will understand and be yet another follower. Or more acturately pray for a visitation of the ghost of this JC person and voila! it all will be revealed to me. At least that is what I am told. Is that it? That is all I do? I am to ask this ghost of this suppose human son of a supposed god to come to me so I can understand what he really want and become a follower of this ghost son of this god? Really?


    Well, in that case, this ghost is really not too different than any other ghost of other gods, yes? I mean I've seen a few in my lifetime mind you, including this said JC, and none have ever said I had to bow down to them or face their wrath. Intersting I find that.

    And if any reading this are still with me and not just shook their head mumbling "Stupid pagans, what do they know…." and scrolled on down to the next comments, l will say I have no beef with JC. Really, I dont. As ghosts of sons of gods go he's a rather nice guy. I see him as the world's first hippy. Peace, love, forgivesness, treat everyone as you want to be treated. Pretty profound stuff for his time. I've seen the same messege from other faiths too, but I digress….

    I just think that Saul-turned-Paul charactor put alot of words in JC's mouth. Words I am told I must believe to believe. Maybe he was trying to redeam himself before the families of all he murdered and the authorites caught up with him, but I guess we'll never really know.

    Anyhoo, that is how the whole Saul/Pau/JC story comes across to me. Sorry to interupt the discussion and feel free to ignore me if you wish. (I'll clean up all those tomatoes for you John). Have a good one.



  • So when Paul was writing 2 Timothy 3:16 (which he probably just thought of as Scroll 2, line 4)… did he think he was writing scripture?

    When Jesus talked about the scriptures, he was talking about the Law and Prophets, because that's all that existed.

    And as someone noted earlier, Paul's letters predate the Gospels. So he's not talking about the Gospels here. Is he really referring to his own writings, which weren't recognized as canon until hundreds of years later?

  • Exactly.

  • Leonardo

    Redlefty: About 2 TImothy 3:16 God uses Paul to let clear that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable…" and obviously, by context, specifically is talking about what we know as the Old Testament, and that's because, strange as it may seems, people discussed about to rely or not in the Scriptures. It sounds familiar?

    Paul suffered the same problems: "for he [Paul] vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ." ayay it's human nature:

  • Julia – I have read your comments to several recent posts, and frankly, I'm intrigued. I admire your tenacity. I mean, you're still here, even after all this Christian hot air continues to fill the space. Sincerely, I'm an admirer.

    You'll think this is patronizing, but your questions are very legit. So, here are some blunt answers from my humble perch (sans tomatoes or stones or any other ammunition.)

    Yes, that's what we're asking you to believe about Saul/Paul. If Saul had the supposed encounter with Jesus, yes, we're crazy enough to believe he would have been so transformed.

    Yes, that's what we're asking you to believe about Jesus. If you truly embrace him, having such an encounter with his "ghost", yes we believe your life could be so transformed. Really.

    Yes, I know that's crazy. Yes, it seems completely ignorant of reality, but that's the thing with all of this Christian stuff. It doesn't line up with any of the typical human paradigm. It's weird. But that's what we believe.

    As far as Jesus being a hippy, it's a nice picture, but I have to say, it's a partial picture. He had some pretty ugly words to say to lots of folks, and it wasn't all about the hippy platform. I'm curious, from where did you get that impression?

    Anyway, thanks for sticking with us. Contrary to your expected response, I think we could learn a lot about our faith by dealing with your blunt questions.

    Leonardo – agreed that scriptured must be revered for what it is: foundational authority and essential to our faith. Even if we can't all agree on the degree of it's perfection, we must agree it's the best we've got, and it's pretty amazing. God knows I love that book, even if I struggle to comprehend it.

    I just wonder if we should set it up as a barricade which people have to deal with in order to get to Jesus. I mean, do people have to overcome all of the questions about scripture before embracing Jesus, or can they just go straight to Jesus and allow him to help them figure out how to handle scripture?

  • Christian,

    Sorry I didn't quite finish your earlier post — it appears that I pretty much said the same thing you did, only later and less gently. Oops!

    All I know is that when it comes to picking and choosing scriptures to follow, I generally don't pick the ones, for example, where women cover their heads in silence. Of course, that was a Pauline letter so the scripturosity may be debated.

  • Leonardo


    What I’ve understood, it is my experience and I’ve seen in others (John speak about this in other post) is that the Lord call us pointing to the essential thing: God is holy, we are sinners, so we can’t have a relationship with Him which our soul is crying for. So God, to fulfill His word, need that somebody without sin (holy), take our sins, paying it by death. So He came in flesh ( He is the One, the Holy), took our place and now is our Savior and is calling us to repent and turn to Him.

    When we are converted He gives us a new mind, helping us from inside to live according to His will, cause, obviously we can’t by ourselves. In that new mind we start to understand the other part of His Word believing it even when is against our carnal ways, proving every time that His ways are better.

    Some verses (better than opinions) speak about this:

    “for without Me you can do nothing.”

    “[God] make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

    and a defiant verse: “But He [Jesus] said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

  • Julia is my hero. Very well stated.

  • Hello Dale! Thank you for your kind words. (And for not lobbing a fruit salad my direction.)

    You said: “If you truly embrace him, having such an encounter with his “ghost”, yes we believe your life could be so transformed. Really.”

    Really? Really really?

    If I may ask; transformed /how/ exactly? What is it I’m to expect? I am curious as to how this particular ‘ghost’ is any more special than others.

    You also said: “As far as Jesus being a hippy, it’s a nice picture, but I have to say, it’s a partial picture. He had some pretty ugly words to say to lots of folks, and it wasn’t all about the hippy platform. I’m curious, from where did you get that impression?”

    Well, it’s all that God loves you and love and treat thy neighbor as you would yourself stuff. Pretty straight forward.

    I feel a lot of folks put a lot of words in JC’s mouth and made some extraordinary claims about him. The whole bible is full of some extraordinary claims and stories. I mean really, think about it. And yes, I feel many of them are just that; stories. Tribal legends, myths and stories with a smattering of history in there. Putting that all aside one must look at the whole thing with common sense and their gut. To me JC was a simple man of peace in a time not so peaceful. He found the simple message of ‘God loves you’ to be the single most important truth there is. Remove all the other stuff including hell and damnation – for those are based in fear and /not/ love- and the whole son of God stuff and you have a simple man with a simple yet profound message.

    IOW’s for me it is not so much the teacher but the teachings. What JC was trying to say is what is important, not who is supposedly was. Man, Rabbi, rebel, hippy, all that doesn’t matter. It is what he was trying to say that is the message:

    God loves you.

    That’s it.

    No need to make a god out of the man, no need to make a religion of the message, no need to beat people over the head with it.

    God loves you.

    Pretty transforming, yes?

    Just take the message of ‘God loves you’ into your lives and out into the world and live it.

    Pretty simple, yes?

    And a pretty tall order. I mean, gee, love ourselves and each other like God loves us? Really? That’s it? Wow.

    Think we can do it?

    I think we can. But it’s gonna take a whole lot of practice and patience to do so. But, hey, God has faith in us that we CAN do it. And with that kind of support backing us, well, what are we afraid of…?

    As the slogan goes: Just do it.

    So, lets!

    Be The Peace,


  • Brian, aw shucks dude! You made me blush.

    Now cut it out; y’all are gonna give me a complex…


    Thanx. Srsly.


  • Julia – this post may be too old to continue this conversation with any relevance here on John's blog, so if you'd like, you're welcome to respond via private not on my blog, but either way, my intrigue grows and I can't drop it.

    Regarding, how an encounter with Jesus (or his "ghost") might be transformative, I'll just offer John as case in point. Evidently you have some admiration for his position (you keep coming back here), and I think his story is a great example of Jesus making things wildly different.

    Regarding the idea that Jesus' words have been modified/enhanced/corrupted to meet the agendas of men, I would have to agree, at least extra-biblically. Within the context of scripture, I wouldn't give that up so easily. Either way, though, the things you believe about him come from the same source as the things you disbelieve. How can you tell what works, other than your own conscience, and do you really trust your conscience to divide the good from the bad without bias?

    Now, I really love your attitude about the other stuff. I'm curious about what you see in the phrase "God loves you," in terms of that capital-g God. Who is that for you and how do you come to those ideas?

    Beyond that, though, I truly admire the path you're on regarding the pursuit of unequivocal, unconditional love. Of course, I believe the truth of that is all in Jesus, but if you're on that path, I wonder how far you could be from Him.

    As you asked, "God loves you. Pretty transforming, yes?"


    Earlier in this line of comments, you mention your daughter. I'd love to hear more of that story. Sincerely. But maybe that's too much in this context.

    Thanks for the great exchange. Be the peace!


  • Leonardo – you totally missed the point, but thanks anyway.

  • Dale, you have mail.