Picking a fight like Paul

November 20, 2018
 I probably spend more time thinking about the New Testament character ‘Paul’ and his written words and the implied actions from those words more than I think about almost anyone else. It’s a occupational hazard I guess.
I have to say, I never picture him as the sculptor Michaelangelo has rendered him – formal, elite, commanding. It just doesn’t fit the voice in my head when I read his writings: impulsive, vernacular, a little bit crude, antsy, intense and rough and smelly.
Paul’s writings are often appealed to in theological and ecclesial debated to settle matters. He certainly knew how to plant himself in the hottest part of the furnace of contention.  And it appears he was not much of a settler and more of a stirrer if the characterisation by Luke in Acts and the rhetorical style of the letters is anything to go by.
Our faith community is in roaring pain and what feels like irreconcilable conflict regarding the use of our church property for same sex weddings.
Of course, much of the conflict does not directly address the use of property for same sex wedding. Rather this practical question has become a lightning rod for a range of other subterranean wounds, fears, crusades and old fights: the possible theological meanings of marriage,
how we understand human sexuality,
the imperatives of mission,
the relation of church to culture and to the state,
the way biblical texts are understood to exercise authority in individual’s lives and in the church community.
This last question is very significant for a recalcitrant old-school evangelical like me, for whom ‘evangelical’ means focus on proclaiming in body and affect and speech the Good news of the hope of God – as against focus on maintaining the traditions of the institutional church.
I have found myself drawn towards seeing Paul’s repeated use in 1 Corinthians and Galatians (twice) of the line ‘neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision is anything, but…[faith working through love] [new creation] [obeying the commandments of God] is everything.’(Gal 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor 7:19)
How very Paul, also, that what he claims as the ultimate ‘everything’ in each context is expressed differently.
You can imagine the Galatians (if they are anything like us) then dividing and arguing –
is faith working through love everything?
or is new creation everything?
or is obeying the commands of God everything?
Isn’t circumcision the commands of God anyway – so how can it be nothing?
and on they would go…
But perhaps this is an example of the radical middle as a ‘biblical position’.
We know that Paul has a reputation for arguing vehemently against the imposition of circumcision on Christians of the diverse ethnicities populating the cities of the ancient world. Famously his hyperbole reaches violent ideation as he wishes self-castration on the those who unsettle the community (Galatians 5:12)
And yet Paul inflicts this very ritual on his young companion Timothy in Acts 16 ‘because of the Jews’. Which side is he on?
In many modern debated Paul would be seen as inconsistent, compromising and succumbing to cultural accomodation.
Our biblical giant Paul the Apostle – from whom we hope to find an authoritative wisdom on issues of sexuality and marriage and culture and law –  turns out to both write and act in ways that confound allegiance ‘no matter what’ to one side or the other embarrassingly ‘unbiblical’.
I have strong convictions on lots of things. I’m inclined to think and act with passion.
The question of ‘what matters’ matters a lot to me.
And that people matter matters a lot to me too.
I hope, as I participate in our community conversations,  I can align myself with what matters – faith working through love, new creation, obeying the command of God: Love.



  1. I’m afraid I can see Paul only as a vehicle for ‘othering’ – exclusion, distaste, disapproval, judgement. Those who invoke Paul as they speak to, and of, LGBTIQ people like me drive us from the temple. Maybe that’s the idea. Thanks a bunch – you can keep your conservative ideologies and an ever-diminishing circle of adherents while the rest of society moves on.

    • Indeed – Paul has been claimed by the church as an authority for exclusion, rejection and unrepentant bigotry over and over and over. He’s been used as a smoke screen to do so much damage over and over.
      As a Pauline scholar I am full of sorrow at the pain that has been caused, and that sadly continues to be caused. There’s no excuses for this. As you say, why would precious sensible beautiful LGBTIQ people stick around for that hurtful nonsense.
      All that hateful exclusion based on only two possible lines in the whole of Paul’s undisputed writings that might – in an ancient context – be relevant to same sex acts, and certainly nothing relating to the voluntary, intimate, long term same sex coupling that is expressed in the call for same sex marriage.
      The case – if relying on Paul alone for excluding same sex couples is very very very slim indeed.
      Such pain caused on the basis of such slim and shaky evidence is a travesty.

      (partly why I don’t even mention it in my original post)
      Thanks for commenting – and sharing you response frankly. We need your voice.
      Can you believe that there are still christians in churches who can’t see the harm and offense in excluding LGBTIQ people from using property to host their weddings, or from sharing their gifts in ministry, or becoming members? I bet, sadly, you can.

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