Opinion

Progressive Christians can embrace Paul too

Adamo Tadolini's statue of St. Paul stands in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Photo credit: ‘AngMoKio’, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

(RNS) — As churches struggle to become more inclusive, the Apostle Paul continues to confound.

Conservatives champion Paul, quoting his writings to support their arguments. For progressives, Paul is often a source of disdain. To them, Paul hates women, condones slavery, hates gay people and is sexually repressed. And the biggie: Paul didn’t even know Jesus when he was alive, so we can’t take him seriously. How could anything this usurper offers be useful to progressive causes?

This doesn’t have to be. While Paul falls short of our current progressive demands, he was a trailblazer for his time. Most people who lived 2,000 years ago – including Jesus – would fail to live up to our current understanding of equality.

But there is still good to salvage in Paul, and his work can prove useful to progressive causes today. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s 2009 book, “The First Paul,” argues that Paul was far more radical than he’s given credit for. More recently, Sarah Ruden’s “Paul Among the People” tackles Paul’s challenging works, showcasing more progressive possibilities for their interpretations.

Here are some ways to get the best out of Paul.

Did he really write that?

Most scholars agree that Paul did not write all ascribed to him in the New Testament. They consider 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon and Romans the product of Paul’s own hand, or at least written by dictation. The Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians is questionable. Most scholars agree that the Timothys and Titus are not Paul’s work. The discussions of church structure, regressive ideas and the blatant contradictions that are found in these documents showcase different authors.

In ancient times, it was common to write in the name of a dead popular figure. While this practice would be considered “fake news” today, it was an honor in antiquity. People wrote what they imagined a popular figure would say were they still alive. Many of the statements that anger progressives most about Paul, he likely didn’t write.

“Paul’s” admonishment for women to keep silent is in First Timothy. “Paul’s” advice for slaves to remain in their condition is in Ephesians. The words translated “homosexual” appear in authentic and pseudo-Paul documents. Since the word and its implications didn’t exist until the 1880s, it’s challenging at best to use that as a condemnation of same-gender relationships. This doesn’t remove the issues that still exist in Paul’s genuine letters. Nevertheless, it does remove some theological weeds that tangle Paul’s genuine message.

He falls short, but not always 

In some of Paul’s writings, his understanding about kinship in Christ coincides with progressive goals. Paul assumed that women were leading worship in First Corinthians, where he also scolded well-to-do worshippers who ate the best parts of the Communion meal before the poorer believers arrived. Paul declared that the main divisions that divided society are torn down in Galatians 3:26.

This isn’t to say that Radical Paul’s work is problem-free. His desire that everyone be celibate has caused much strife. Even with liberal interpretation, Romans 1 is a minefield of issues about who and how God loves. While Galatians and Romans discuss the problem of legalism, these texts also contain verses that encouraged anti-Jewish sentiment.

Paul is us

Paul’s experience is one that Christians today can relate to. He didn’t encounter Jesus while Jesus was alive. Paul was against everything that the fledgling Jesus movement was about. Then he encountered Christ and changed, even to the point of traveling the world to spread the gospel.

If Paul’s message is discounted because he didn’t physically know Christ, it brings the spirituality of billions of Christians into doubt.

Paul is not perfect. But the Bible is filled with people who are learning to get it right. Some do better than others.

Yet, Paul still conveys the  conviction that we must pursue justice and honor our neighbors. At a time when people seem all too willing to discount the other as wrong-thinking, and against God, it’s all the more important to rescue Paul as neither one of us nor them.

(Verdell A. Wright is a scholar, speaker and writer who focuses on popular issues within religion. You can find him on Twitter at @vdotw. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Verdell A. Wright

13 Comments

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  • Good one, brother Verdell A. Wright, for: “Here are some ways to get the BEST out of Paul. … Paul did not write … Ephesians and Colossians … the Timothys and Titus … Galatians and Romans … contain verses that encouraged anti-Jewish sentiment.”

    Because, if that was Paul’s BEST, I kinda wonder what his WORST would look like!

    (I’m not expressing well here, but it’s supposed to be along the line of, With friends like that, who needs enemies.)

  • The issues in Romans 1 are most likely a misunderstanding of what takes place in the text. Modern scholarship points to Paul quoting the theology of someone else with regard to what modern translations make out to be gay and lesbian condemnation. Since ancient Koine Greek didn’t have the grammar conventions for quoting that we have in modern English, folks have had great difficulty sussing out Paul’s message in Romans 1.

    http://hackingchristianity.net/2015/09/turns-out-st-pauls-not-anti-gay-hes-just-a-plagiarist.html

  • ” He didn’t encounter Jesus while Jesus was alive. ” Jesus is still alive.
    Paul learned via revelation from Christ Himself for 3 years while in Arabia. (Galatians 1:11-18)

  • they’ve translated Paul just fine for 600 years. You don’t want to believe Paul, don’t, but, don’t confuse people with trash David.

  • Without entering into your discussion, I will simply correct one factual statement :’“Paul’s” admonishment for women to keep silent is in First Timothy.’ No, it is in 1 Corinthians 14:34.

  • Can we live without Paul? Yes we can as observed by the billions of Chinese who live quite well without him.

  • Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and “Gentilized” the good word to the “big buck” world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. So why pay any attention to what he said since it was all about the money.

  • Paul noted “”if Jesus is not risen, then all our work is in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:14. And indeed it was and still is.

  • Either Paul is right or Paul is wrong, and I appreciate you being honest enough to directly say “Paul is wrong” instead of playing worthless games like Wright does.

  • It’s interesting that you point out that Paul has been mistranslated about gay, lesbian and bisexual humans for 600 years! That’s the same time, the 1400s identified by the late historian John Boswell, identified a drastic change in how those folks were treated, the rise of the witchhunt for anyone viewed as different. The original groundswell of fundamentalist homophobia.

    Aren’t others also entitled to believe? And how do they believe but that they are sent a teacher? What do you fear, that they might learn the truth about you and yours? That they might have the light and dispise the lies that you perpetuate? Can’t your 600 year old beliefs withstand criticism?

  • To paraphrase Dr. Malcom from Jurassic Park, “[You] were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if you should”

  • Does anyone know who Verdell Wright is? His bio here is pretty scant (scholar, speaker, writer?) for such a topic that requires pretty in-depth Biblical exegesis. The Twitter citation above takes me to someone tweeting under the name Murphy Brown Jr.

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