Progressive Christians can embrace Paul too

(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.

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