I know it makes me sound "nonspiritual" and definitely heretical, but I have a really hard time with Paul. I don't have a hard time with the big picture of Paul's message - the Paul who says that "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol." I do not have a problem with the overwhelming majority of Paul's message that says that God is accepting of all people and that among all the things we try to be before God love is the only virtue that gives anything else meaning. I love the message of Paul that calls people into solidarity with Jesus through his suffering (see almost the whole book of Philippians). I love the Paul that says to the outcast "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 2:13). It actually gives me goosebumps, I love Paul's message so much. But unfortunately I worry (and I say this hesitantly because I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and the Biblical canon was divinely compiled) that Paul does more harm than good in our culture.
Why do some Christians hold signs that say "God hates fags?" Why do so many churches subjugate women by denying them a voice in the leadership and pastoral ministry of the church? Why are some Christians so clueless to the importance of civil action and standing in solidarity with the poor and the link between those things and soteriology? Why are so many Christians concerned about weather someone is going to hell when they die but don't have little concern with weather or not they are living in hell right now? Why do some Christians think that the same Jesus who said "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it" also thinks that the law is a path to hell? Why has Christianity, in so many churches, been reduced to the mental ascent to a list of doctrinal statements? Why have some churches refused to partner with other churches in the work of the Kingdom of God based on a difference of opinion about homosexuality?
It's because of questions like these that I have been moved to wrestling with God but more so wrestling with Paul, for it is Paul's letters that have provided the "biblical foundation" for these atrocities. Each of the social and theological issues that I brought up in the questions above are due in part to and perpetuated by something written in Paul's letters. There is a Pauline verse which answers each one of those questions. For a while, because of this, I simply stopped reading Paul. I wouldn't have admitted it but I hated him for giving so many people a reason to do things that are so against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It took our youth group in LA doing a study on Philippians and me being forced to teach about this letter from Paul for me to realize that I actually love Paul. I realized that Paul, if interpreted correctly, should empower us to act toward the interests of the crucified Son of God, not against the interests of homosexuals or women. There are some problematic verses in Paul's letters, an abundance of them. Paul's message is about, in a word, LOVE. Yet, we have acted against love based on some things he wrote. Why?
The problem with Paul's letters is that, due to the fact that he was not originally writing to 21st century Christians, he expects that his audience already understands the context of his statements and therefore he does not provide us (the modern reader) with enough context within the text itself to interpret it. We are not the original audience and so very often we are forced to guess and insert our own modern definitions for ancient words. Paul is an whole other animal than the narrative of the Old Testament, or the Poetry of the Psalms. Paul's audience is much more specific and much more particular. He is writing particular advice into particular situations of which we are not particularly aware. Do you see why Paul presents such a problem for me?
Nevertheless, I am convinced that Paul can be understood by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He can be interpreted, but we must do it humbly enough to look for more context before we come to staunch theological conclusions. We must not rush to the answer but allow God to speak in His timing rather than our own. Perhaps God doesn't think you need all the answers right now.
I admit, sometimes I think we'd be better off without the Pauline Epistles, gays might not be rejected from churches and women might not be rejected from the pulpit, but then I realize that it's not all Paul's fault. It might be harder for them, but I think people with an agenda would find reason for thinking the way they do even if they didn't have Paul to back them up. I have realized that I have been hypocritical in dealing with Paul. I am usually all about finding the baby in the bathwater and focusing on that, I am usually about finding the good and affirming it (hence the subtitle of my blog "searching for whatever is good"). I do believe, I never really stopped believing (though I have been wrestling), that the Bible including the Pauline Epistles is indeed the Word of God, and as such I have the assurance that it will not be empty but will breath life into death.
Wherever it seems that a mess has been created by Paul, may we hope in God's assurance and pray that life may be breathed into the mess bringing new life. May we pray this way, remembering that prayer and action must go together to be authentic. May our love for the Gospel of Jesus be renewed as our hope is restored that one day the Word of God will not be a weapon but a breath of life.
Of all the words we read in the Pauline Epistles, may Your Word be heard, and may Your Word be good news.