What to Do with Paul?

When a writer decides to take a public stand on a controversial issue, he had better be prepared for some push back. You simply can’t expect consensus. You can only hope to get people thinking and, perhaps, open a healthy dialogue. A good, respectful exchange of different opinions is essential to expanding minds. We need to be pushed and challenged on a regular basis so that we test our own knowledge and faith.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article called This Little Light of Mine. The piece was about my reaction to a Facebook post that a few old church friends were tagged in. The post was supportive of a small business owner who was being sued for refusing to provide a service for a gay couple’s wedding. The tone of the post came off as very condescending and judgemental and it bothered me since it was from a Christian. I called into question what kind of message that sort of post sends to non-Christians. I mentioned that when it comes to my stance on homosexuality, I prefer to stick to what Jesus had to say about the subject, which is nothing at all. I mentioned that most of what the Bible says about homosexuality comes from Old Testament scriptures like Leviticus, where the topic is scattered among many other “sins” that we no longer consider sins and that, even in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sins in question regarding homosexuality were aggravated by multiple layers of depravity such as rape and child exploitation. I am admittedly not a Bible scholar but, to my knowledge, there is no scriptural reference to a loving, committed, monogamous homosexual relationship.

A pastor friend of mine who often reads my essays, particularly my faith-based pieces, is sometimes the person who pushes back and tests me. I’m glad he pushes and tests me, it always leads to a rich exchange of ideas. I respect him deeply. He challenged me on the piece I referenced above. We had a long, somewhat confrontational, but quite respectful text conversation about the topic. He told me he thought I was misrepresenting the New Testament in regard to what it says about homosexuality. I assured him that I wasn’t trying to claim that the New Testament was completely silent on the topic, only that Jesus was. I admitted that, of course, the Apostle Paul did write a few things in his letters that appear to condemn homosexuality. My friend asked me how I could justify my article given what Paul had to say on the matter. I simply told him that I am never quite sure what to do with Paul. To me, Paul has always been a bit enigmatic. He was so instrumental and vital to the early Christian Church–without his work, the Church could have failed–but his message seems sometimes to veer off the path, too. Paul has always been a controversial figure among biblical scholars. Some give him near complete Godly authority, some are a bit confused about him, and some even have called him a false prophet. Wherever you stand on the subject of the Apostle Paul, it can’t be denied that he penned a significant portion of the New Testament–so what are we to do with him?

My friend pushed me hardest when he pulled out the “trump card” of fundamentalist Christians with regard to scripture. He asked me flat out if I was denying that all scripture was “God-Breathed.” That is a tough one. If you grew up in an evangelical Protestant denomination, you likely have heard that phrase your entire life. All scripture is God-Breathed. What do you say to that? It gets right to the heart of faith, doesn’t it?

My friend rocked me with that question a bit, I must admit. I thought carefully about it before responding. I finally said that, while not completely denying that scriptures were God-Breathed, I feel there’s room for cultural context in scripture. I believe that we have to understand the scriptures from the cultural context in which they were written. I believe it is impossible not to do so because, otherwise, it’s apples and oranges. I came back at my friend with another question. I asked him if he ever listened to woman’s teachings on the Bible. He said he did so often. I told him Paul wouldn’t have liked that. Paul, of course, said women had no authority to teach men and should remain silent in church. My friend basically said that he interpreted that passage to mean that women shouldn’t take authority over men, but it was ok if men gave them authority. I felt that was an interesting take but an example of the kind of selective interpretation that often seems to come up when the “sin” of homosexuality is on the table.

None of this means we need to throw the scriptures out or rewrite them. There is also the fact that, while the original scriptures may indeed have been God-Breathed, we aren’t working with the original scriptures. We have translations. Translations are not perfect. Which translation is God-Breathed? What about the scriptures that didn’t make the cut, were they God-Breathed? If so, why aren’t they in the Bible? If not, who decided which scriptures were God-Breathed and which ones were not?

Here is the other thing about the whole God-Breathed question that I don’t know what to do with. From where do we get the phrase “God-Breathed”? We get it from Paul himself. In 2 Timothy (that’s pronounce second Timothy, President Trump) 3:16-17 Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-Breathed and is useful in teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That, to me, brings a whole new question into focus. Paul is the originator of the phrase, God-Breathed. It appeared in a letter he wrote. He wrote those words with not one inkling that his very letters would one day become scripture. Paul was a great Christian, but he wasn’t God. So, we are back to our original question, what do we do with Paul? Do we elevate him to the level of Christ? I think we all would agree that is a no no.

I don’t have the answer to what to do about Paul, only questions.

Now I’ll go back to what Christ had to say about homosexuality, which is nothing. That’s what I’m going to say about it, too. Ask me if I think it is a sin for a man and a man or a woman and a woman to have a loving, committed relationship with one another in marriage and I’ll say, I’m going with what Jesus had to say about it.

Paul said it’s better for nobody to be married, fancy that!

Here is an undeniable fact about marriage and sin. Everyone who was ever married–man to woman, man to man, or woman to woman–was a miserable sinner.

Here is another undeniable fact, sin is sin. Murder is the same as gluttony when it comes down to it.

If you want to get bogged down in trying to figure out whether gay marriage is a sin or not, knock yourself out.

I’m sticking to what Jesus said.

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  • Beth

    Thank you for this message, Shane. It was surely divine that I came upon your blog for the first time tonight! I am personally struggling with Paul in a different area of my life and what I keep coming back to is that we, as Christians, are called to love the Lord, and walk in love as Christ loves us! I praise God for Paul! But I want to be like Jesus :)

    • http://shanephipps.wordpress.com shanephipps

      Wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://peterc95376.wordpress.com peterc95376

    I read a book – Reading the Bible for all it is worth – In it they mention that when we read Paul’s writing we are only seeing one half of the conversation. It is like listening to one side of a phone conversation and guessing what the other person is saying also we do not understand the culture of the of the other half of the conversation. What if the fundamentalist have guessed wrong?
    I look at homosexuality the same way I look at gossip, they are both sins that has been forgiven. We are in the process of growing into the full measure of this forgiveness. I have enough on my plate that I don’t worry about other people.

  • Leslie M

    I’ve often wondered why Paul has been ascribed so much authority, given that he is not supposed to be divine in the sense that Jesus is. His lack of divinity makes it easier for me to question and selectively disregard his teachings, particularly since he is no friend to women.

  • Melanie Omer

    Most scholars agree that 2 Timothy was NOT written by Paul but by someone who wanted to claim Paul’s authority for their own views.

    • http://shanephipps.wordpress.com shanephipps

      Hmm? Fascinating…I’d not heard that. I’ll have look into it.

  • Anonymous

    If we are going to stick with what Jesus said maybe we should also consider what he said about the scriptures.

    “What does Jesus say about God’s Word? He says, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35, NIV), thus testifying to the authority of the Bible. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” meaning that Jesus believed and trusted in the Old Testament “Law” and “Prophets.” Jesus also said, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). Space does not allow a thorough investigation of the views of Jesus on the Bible, but it is sufficient here to note that He believed God spoke through the Bible, He overtly upheld belief in several Old Testament stories, and revered the Bible as holy and authoritative (http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/the-study-of-god/how-do-we-know-the-bible-is-true/how-do-we-know-bible-is-true).”

    It seems that Jesus believed the OT. Maybe it is worth giving it more consideration?