Friday, June 08, 2007

Some Thoughts on Paul

Well, I have had better weeks! I have felt that I have been running around a lot this week, but not really achieveing anything. One thing I did do this week was give a talk at the monthly meeting for Anglican clergy in Hong Kong. At every meeting someone is asked to lead people's thoughts on the readings for the forthcoming Sunday. This Sunday, the epistle is from the first chapter of Galatians. I took the opportunity to give some random thoughts on Paul in the light of his comments in Galatians that anyone who disagreed with him should be damned!

Ironically, we are not having this reading at Christ Church on Sunday as we are following the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating Corpus Christi on the Sunday after the day it falls on. In the Anglican calendar it is also more delicately referred to as Day of Thanksgiving for the Instituion of Holy Communion, doubtless to avoid offending any protestant sensibilities. Corpus Christi (Latin for Body of Christ) is, of course, its traditional name and I see no point in not using it.

Protestant attitudes to Communion can be confusing. While Zwingli amongst the Reformers did not see anything special happening at Communion, Luther and Calvin did. True, they criticised what they saw as abuses in the Roman Mass, but they did not throw the baby out with the bath water in the way many of their followers subsequently have. Anyway, my next post in the series, Where I am Now will be on the Eucharist!

Until then, here is the talk I gave for the clergy on Thursday. I wonder what you think?

Some Thoughts on Paul

In his first letter to the Corinthians in chapters 8 to 10, Paul writes about ‘food offered to idols’. As many will know, in pagan cities such as Corinth, animals were sacrificed in the temples. The meat from these sacrifices was then either sold in the meat market or consumed in banquets held in the temple itself. The temples were the social clubs of the city. They were places to meet, to socialize, and to do business. And where you get men and money, you also get sex. Prostitution was commonly associated with the life of the temple

The Corinthians came from this background where going to the temple to eat – and have sex – was a normal part of city life, and where buying meat from the temple at the market was a normal practice. But what about now they were Christians?

Some of the Corinthians argued that nothing needed to change. Paul quotes them as saying, ‘ we know no idol in the world really exists’, and, ‘ there is no God, but one’. They knew that the idol the animal was sacrificed to did not exist. Furthermore, they were not bound by law, ‘all things were lawful’ to them. In other words, they could do what they felt right. What then did it matter if they went to the temple to eat? The idol didn’t exist. What did it matter if they ate meat bought at the market? This was the logical outworking of what was, after all, Paul’s own Gospel.

Paul agrees with the premise, but not the conclusion. It is true that an idol does not exist. However, not all Christians in Corinth believed this. For them going to the temple was as if they were worshipping the idol. Besides, there is, argues Paul, a spiritual reality behind the idol. Concern for our brother and sister ought to come first before our own rights and knowledge in the matter. In any case, prostituion is always wrong.

As for meat sold in the market, Paul himself is convinced that there is no reason why Christians should not buy and eat it. If, however, my eating meat offends another Christian, then it is wrong to eat it. What matters is love and unity between Christians. They should avoid giving offence to one another and be prepared to limit their freedom out of consideration for one another.

He concludes his argument:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)

This sort of approach, avoiding giving offence and concentrating on the unity of the Church, was Paul’s approach generally and not just in Corinth. In his letter to the Romans, he again has to deal with arguments over food. Here it is not food offered to idols, but the issue of what is clean and unclean. This was a big issue for Jewish-Christians. Some in the Church would eat anything; some would not eat any meat in case it was unclean. Some saw some days as holy, presumably Jewish-Christians, while others saw all days as being the same.

Paul’s own position is, again, clear. He sides with the strong, that is, with those who eat anything and who see all days as the same. But again, Paul argues what matters is not what a person thinks right, but the effect it has on a brother or sister. Christians are not to pass judgement on other Christians and what they do. Each is to be persuaded in their own mind. Both positions should co-exist. Each is doing what they do to honour the Lord and that’s what counts. We must not cause our brother or sister to stumble. It is better not to eat than to offend a brother or sister for whom Christ died.

He tells them:

‘The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.’ (Romans 14:22)

This is the liberal Paul: tolerant, inclusive, open and accepting; rejecting fundamentalism and asserting the right of the individual to make up their own mind before God alongside the need to respect conscience and avoid giving offence. It is a Paul who would be very much at home in western, liberal Christianity.

Then we come to Galatians.

We must remember, in reading Galatians, this liberal Paul because in Galatians it is a very different Paul who emerges. Interesting another argument over food is at the heart of the epistle. I will quote from what Paul says:

‘But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"” (Galatians 2:11-14)

In Antioch, Jewish and Gentile Christians ate together. For strict Jewish-Christians this practice was unacceptable as it compromised ritual purity. So when ‘men from James’ come to Antioch from Jerusalem, the Jewish-Christians, including Peter and Barnabas, out of respect, stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. Paul, rather than sympathizing with their desire not to give offence, condemned them for their hypocrisy.

It is against the background of this argument that Galatians is written. The Jewish-Christians from James were also, it seems, insisting that Paul’s converts in Galatia should be circumcised and keep the Law. That is, in order to have unity in the Church and full table-fellowship, they argued that Gentiles should adopt the same lifestyle as the Jewish-Christians. It is important to stress that these Jewish-Christians were not anti-Gentile. Paul himself describes them as zealous for the Galatians. They too wanted to avoid offence, preserve Church unity, and have a common basis for fellowship. What is more, the Galatians themselves were not upset at this argument and seem to have been willing to comply with the Jewish-Christians' request. It was, it seems, only Paul who had the problem!

Not only that, Paul himself seems to have been the problem for many of them. They attacked Paul as preaching a Gospel of his own in not requiring the Galatian Christians to be circumcised. They argued that the Christians in Galatia should follow the example of the mother church in Jerusalem and the apostles who knew the Lord, not this maverick Paul.

Attacks on the authority of Paul were common then as now. But before we use the attacks then as the basis for the attacks now, it is worth reminding ourselves that Paul and his opponents had much in common. They believed the same scriptures, had the same Christology, and accepted the same basic structure of the Christian faith. Paul passed on what had been passed on to him, especially, but not only, that 'Christ died for our sins and on the third day rose again'.

The common argument that Paul invented something new, something different from what Jesus preached and was first believed, is not supported by the evidence. What Paul and the Jewish-Christians were arguing over were the Gentiles. Everything else they agreed on. What Paul is supposed to have invented already existed before he came on the scene. This is, indeed, part of the Jewish-Christians’ argument. They got there first and so should be believed before Paul.

What Paul was saying that was new was that Jews and Gentiles were both Christians and members of the Church on the same basis as each other, namely, that of faith. There was no need for the Gentiles in addition to be circumcised and keep the Law. However, Paul goes further than arguing that it is unnecessary. He sees the requirement that they should be circumcised as a perversion of the Gospel. What is more, if they are circumcised Christ will be of no use to them. The Jewish-Christians concerned are enemies of the Cross of Christ. The Galatians must listen to Paul and hold fast to the freedom that God has given them.

Precisely why Paul was so opposed to the Gentiles being circumcised, especially when the Gentiles themselves were quite happy to be, is a question which is too quickly passed over in my opinion, but that must wait for another day. What is important here is the question of where Paul got the authority for his position. Quite simply, he claims, he received it directly from God himself:

“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)

If anyone preaches anything different to Paul, then they are wrong. He states boldly:

‘Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.’ (Galatians 1:10)

This is the absolute Paul, the Calvinist Paul, intolerant of any view that he sees as compromising the Gospel, confident in his faith, willing to divide the Church for what he believes to be true and unwilling to let anyone get in his way. This is a Paul who would be at home in the Church in Nigeria or Sydney.

Two different Paul’s, listen to them again:

1 Corinthians 10:32-33: ‘Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.’

Galatians 1:10: ‘‘Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.’

How do we reconcile the two? How do we do justice to these two Paul’s, or two sides to Paul’s teaching.

Paul went out of his way to preserve the unity of the Church. He was prepared to compromise to a breath-taking degree to avoid division, even to the extent of having his co-worker Timothy circumcised, notwithstanding what he says about circumcision in Galatians. It is true he could justify it because Timothy’s mother was Jewish, but it shows how flexible Paul was prepared to be.

However, when it came to something that he saw as lying at the heart of the Christian faith, he was immoveable. For Paul the requirement for the Gentiles to be circumcised compromised the truth of the gospel. (As I said, quite why is another issue!) Again, in these days when it is common to condemn Paul for extremism and arrogance, it is worth reminding ourselves that most of us think he was right. At least no-one has suggested to me recently that I need to be circumcised. We cannot cite the argument in Galatia as an example of why we think Paul was wrong while agreeing with what he says.

The bottom line was the Gospel. And Paul believed the truth of the Gospel was at stake in the issue of circumcision in a way it was not in the issue of food offered to idols and that of clean and unclean food.

In the Church today there is a conflict between those who want to follow the relative line that Paul promotes in Corinth and Rome, and those who want to follow the absolute line that he takes in Galatia.

In Anglicanism, for example, some see the issue of homosexuality, like circumcision, in absolute terms. On the one side, there are those who argue we must permit it if we believe the Gospel. On the other, there those who argue that we should forbid it for precisely the same reason. For both it is a defining issue, one that cannot be compromised on.

Others, such as those who follow the Windsor report, see the issue, like food offered to idols, in relative terms. There are differences of opinion that must be listened to and respected, but what matters most is love of each other and the unity of the Church. Compromise is essential.

I do not wish to discuss the gay issue here. I do want to say though that the reason why Paul could be both relative and absolute at times and still live with himself was because he was clear in his own mind what the Gospel was. He knew what was the basis of his faith. He defined this a lot more minimally and generously than many give him credit for, but he did define it and was prepared to defend it.

Part of our problem today, I would suggest, is that we are unable to say exactly what the Gospel essentially is. What it is that must be believed by everyone, everywhere. Paul believed that the Gospel was not something negotiable, something to be discovered and defined by humans. He believed it was a gift from God carrying divine authority. This was why it was good news that had the power to save.

Until we too know what the Gospel is, we are not going to be in a position to save anyone.

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