The Good and Bad of Paul

The Pauline epistles take up a significant portion of the New Testament. Yet I find that public opinion of Paul is widely split, and often polarized. So I thought a brief post on the good and bad of Paul was warranted.

When I first read the Bible cover to cover, I didn’t really like Paul. I found that he had this curious mix of really good stuff and really bad stuff, and thought he compromised too much of the gospel for the sake of political convenience. As I have explored the historical context, my view of Paul has been become more favorable–yet I also have realized that there still remains some truth in my initial impression of Paul.

I should mention at this point that the authorship of the Pauline epistles is debated. Broadly speaking there are Pauline epistles which the vast majority of scholars believe are authentic, there are Pauline epistles which opinion is split, and there are Pauline epistles where the vast majority of scholars believe were written by someone other than Paul. Now, many use this dispute in authorship to argue for keeping to the teachings of the authentic Pauline epistles only, a view which I was attracted to at one point, but which I’ve since come to see as erroneous. For one thing, disciples writing in their teacher’s name was a pretty common practice at that time, and the teaching would remain largely the same. But even if neither Paul nor a disciple of his wrote the disputed Pauline epistles they were included in the New Testatment–and contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament was not arbitrarily chosen; it was instead carefully selected to portray a consistent and unified message. Now, this included diversity of views (compare the Letters of James or John to the Pauline epistles for illustration), but still was accepted as church canon. So we can’t ignore the disputed Pauline epistles–they are still considered church canon, and in line with the message of the New Testament.

Now, for the good of Paul. He writes extensively on the grace of God and the Holy Spirit in language that is very inclusive and affirming. It is a message everyone can hear. On issues of gender and sexuality, Paul at a glance is often very conservative–and yet a deeper reading often makes Paul more favorable. For example, when Paul speaks of the relation between Master and Servant, Husband and Wife, Parents and Children it appears conservative to modern eyes—yet the readers of his time would have found it very radical. For in those sections, Paul re-works the Roman Household codes which spoke purely of one-way duties (Servant to Master, Wife to Husband, Children to Parents) and makes them two-way (Servants and Masters have duties to one another, as do wife and husbands, children and parents). Such examples of historical context do much to soften Paul, and capture how truly grace-filled his vision was.

Yet there are still passages that we must wrestle with in Paul. For example, in Corinthians he strongly condemns uncovered hair in a woman. Now Corinth was close to an Aphroditic Temple and the uncovered hair was associated with the Temple prostitutes, so we can largely see this as a way to differentiate Christians from the pagans surrounding them. The problem, of course, is that this concern with differentiating Christians from pagans was a pastoral concern, rising out of the challenges of living faith in a world not favorable to the burgeoning Christian faith. Paul HAD to be conscious of appearances, and often strode a narrow line between a grace-filled vision and doing what was “appropriate”.

This contrasts sharply with what the gospels tell us of Jesus. I do not see Jesus concerning himself overly much with the appearance of hair–trusting rather that the degree to which his followers practiced love, gentleness, and humility would differentiate them. So I think there is validity in saying that Paul may have strayed in parts from the Gospel message, and that such straying has had consequences today–witness the modesty culture which often is very legalistic, focused on outer appearances, rather than matters of the heart.

At the same time though, Paul did include passages which spoke of the importance of love, of the marks of a good Christian, of the fruits of the Spirit. So he was familiar with the teachings of Christ, and taught them faithfully–there were just practical pastoral concerns where he sometimes fell short, and of which he can hardly be blamed. Whether Paul was right or not to get focused on such things is immaterial–it is important to keep in mind that he was STILL radical enough to be imprisoned and executed, and that his initial shepherding of the Christian faith eventually led to Christianity being spread worldwide.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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