Somewhere during college, I began struggling to fit the pieces together. Growing up as literalist, I found it harder and harder to work the Biblical puzzle. For example, how can Paul say in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent,” when Acts shows Priscilla leading the church in Ephesus?
As part of his urban strategy, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. Aquila, a native of Pontus, and his wife Priscilla, had just fled from Rome because Emperor Claudius enacted a religious travel ban that forced Jewish people to leave Rome. Paul looked up Aquila and Priscilla because they all were tentmakers; he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath Paul reasoned in the synagogue. Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time, then left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. When they arrived at Ephesus, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila to lead First Church Ephesus. There, Apollos, a new Christian, began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Did you catch all that: a religious travel ban, a clergy couple, and Priscilla as a New Testament seminary professor?
How do we reconcile 1 Timothy’s “I permit no woman to teach” and Romans 16: 1-7? I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, welcome her in the Lord and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles. How do you fit that puzzle together? Do we remember that Easter’s message is “Christ is risen”, but Easter’s second stanza is that Jesus commissioned women to preach, as did the angels. The Risen Christ told Mary Magdalene and Joanna, “Go tell my brothers.” ( Matthew 28:1-10)
So many people just ignore the tension or fabricate extra-biblical explanations to force the disjointed puzzle pieces together. Some conservatives speculate that Priscilla only led the women’s groups; that speculation contradicts our text, because Priscilla taught a promising new preacher-man named Apollos. Some moderates ignore 1 Timothy’s ban or Titus’ support of slave holders, but then cite the authority of scripture in other places. Do such moves maintain internal theological consistency? How can you cite scripture to exclude gays and lesebians while affirming the ordination of women clergy or remarriage after divorce? When was it ever okay to subjugate another child of God to slavery? Let us remember Bible verses were used to defend the holding of slaves, the evils of the Nazis, and the subjugation of women. Some liberal Christians look for theological foundations outside of the Bible. We need tools beyond ignoring or glossing over uncomfortable texts.
As a kid with a dyslexia, who got to repeat the 4th grade, church was my refuge. People loved me there. In 8th grade, an amazing youth leader, Greg Northcutt, challenged us to read our Bible every morning. So from 8th grade until well into college, I read the 4 chapters from the Old Testament and 3 from the New or about 45 minutes of reading before school. That reading, while lifting my heart to God, uncovered a lot of hard-to-cram-together puzzle pieces. I needed no one to find Bibles inconsistencies for me. So as a 22 year-old, full time student and full time youth director, my theological wheels spun off their literalistic axis. I could no longer bend, twist, blend, flavor away, ignore, or force the text into my inerrant theological framework. Imagine Paul correcting Jesus on Easter Sunday: “Hold on there Jesus, don’t send Joana or Magdalene, send an angel, um, because, well I permit no woman to have authority over a man.” It may seem funny, but the tension was tearing my soul apart.
What do you do with an injunction for slaves to obey masters or sabbath breakers to be stoned to death? Like a lot of folks, I tried to push it down and or ignore these passages. I heard beloved preachers repeat, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” I did not realize that was a theological slap down. In the 9th grade, a very cool and very conservative college student taught our Sunday school class. He liked to say, “if any part of the Bible is untrue then throw the whole thing out.” That is “Bible-idolatry”(the worship of the Bible instead of God). Thanks be to God, my faith was tethered to more than my conception of scripture. I could not throw this powerful book out that offered me faith, hope and love. I did not realize that the problem was not the text, but my art-less, letter-bound, unspiritual approach to the text. “Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.” (John Wesley on how to read scripture)
I am reading “The First Paul” by Marcus Borg. It is making me think.
First, Paul’s letters are supplements to the faith, written to ancient communities who already know the Gospel. Prior to the printing press and other technologies, few people could afford to keep a leather scroll at home. Ancient education centered around memorization. People memorized the Gospel, taking it into their hearts to give it the deepest memory and emphasis. Each church had a pastor, Phoebe, Priscilla or Lydia! The letters Paul write answer questions and offer guidance to the churches: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” ( 1 Cor. 7:1) or “I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it.” (1 cor 11:18) Those divisions in ancient Corinth lead Paul to write”now only faith, hope, and love remain- these three, and the greatest of these is love.” Paul is not writing a Gospel; Paul comes as a supplement.
Second, Paul himself distinguishes between what his opinion and what he feels comes from God. “Now concerning _____, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy…. but in my judgment … And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 7) Divine Dictation, or this idea that God guided the very pen strokes of Paul, is not Biblical. Paul is not always sure he has a “word” from God!
Third, Borg asks if acceptance of Paul’s theology is necessary for salvation. Is Jesus enough or do we need Paul? Is our theology shaped more by Paul or more fully by Jesus? 2 Peter 3 instructs Team Peter’s audience: “our dear friend and brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some of Paul’s remarks are hard to understand, and people who are ignorant and whose faith is weak twist them to their own ends, just as they do the other scriptures.” This twisting of puzzle pieces to fit an extra-biblical model is older than the Bible! Is our theology shaped more by Paul or more fully by Jesus?
Fourth, Borg invites us to think about three Pauls. Mainline scholars agree that you can sort Paul’s 13 New Testament letters into three zip codes- authentically Paul, Not Paul, and Disputed Paul. Scholars sort the Paul’s mail with tools like word usage, style, sentence structure, theme, context, chronology and message. It is hard to square Titus’ reactionary “elders should be without fault” (1:6) and Romans 7 where Paul writes “O, what a wretch I am! Who will free me from my slavery to sin?” or Paul noting Pastor Priscilla (teaching Apollos) and then Timothy requiring women to learn in silence!
Now, about these 3 Pauls across 50 years, please know that to write in the name of Paul was not considered plagiarism. The ancients did not hold our market-driven ideas about ownership of an idea or movement. Indeed, it was customary and honorable for students to teach and write in the name of the founding teacher. We kind of do this now with Wesleyan, Lutheran or Calvinism. Team Paul honored Paul by writing in his name.
Mainline scholars name seven letters as Authentically Paul or Radical Paul. Paul wrote these somewhere between 40 and 50 AD. Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon are the earliest Christian writings! Remember, Gospel’s were memorized!
The second pile of Paul’s mail contains letters to Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. These are called “disputed” for some scholars see them as written by Paul, but most do not. Imagine about 20 years after Paul passed, a second generation of Pauline writers addressed new problems, new issues, new contexts, amid growing numerical success. They might add teachings Paul actually shared with the community years before. Borg names this zip code, Conversative Paul. Think of them as Paul .02 or second generations letters. They lack the tone of radical grace and freedom seen in Radical Paul.
Finally, there are three letters scholars names “not Paul” or “Reactionary Paul. They seem the least connected to Paul. Reactionary Paul includes 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus and were written around 100 AD.
To understand the Authentic or Radical Paul, Borg invites us to consider 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul argues that women need to keep their heads covered during church. Now, we could talk about Paul’s teaching that women should not have short hair because nature teaches that is a disgrace. Borg points out that in this strange passage, we miss is that Authentic Paul has no problem with women preaching, praying and prophesying in church – he just wants women to wear a hat when they do it! Just let that resonate for a bit.
Now two generations removed from the Radical or Authentic Paul, the third Team Paul has grown more reactionary writing: “I permit no woman to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)
Now these three Pauls are a lot to process in a sermon. I hesitate to share this sermon, I do not want to trouble anyone, leaving my childhood conception of the Bible stands as maybe the most painful journey of my life. However, we must move beyond easy inconsistent answers! Borg offers a thoughtful and spiritual way to understand the contradictions within Paul. I wish it was easier, simpler, clearer, but Jesus gifted us with a messy faith, trusting that we would work together in community. Jesus gave us the “the keys to the kingdom” and promised to be present with us, when even as few as two or three gather in his name. (Matthew 16:18-19 & 18:18-20) The Spirit or Risen Christ is still speaking until the end of the age. (Matt 28)
If Jesus had wanted to lay it out in a clear, easy, step-by-step, legally binding guide, don’t you think he would have left us that book written by his own pen, a rule-book- Christianity 101 by Jesus Christ? Perhaps, God knows it is not that simple. Maybe, Jesus can’t be bound within the pages of a text book or reproduced like a recipe in a cookbook.
Friends, some of my friends will disagree with me, but the problem is they lack answers or internal consistency in regards to these Biblical contradictions. You can’t force 1 Timothy and Romans 16 to sing in harmony. We have progressed in our understanding and know slavery is wrong. Period. I believe the Spirit of Jesus is still speaking in our midst. Jesus has never left or abandoned us. We’re not just rehearsing an old play. Theology is more akin to jazz than physics, more like art than science. We a hold a Biblical record of God‘s great love, and we can innovate a bit- we can rift off the notes within the Sacred page while remaining true to the Spirit’s melody. We can innovate knowing that Paul dropped a kosher diet and even circumcision, so maybe men can grow long hair or maybe two men might get married. Let us hold our Bible in our hands, and open our minds and our hearts to Jesus’ ever present spirit and together apply the word to our lives.
One day thirty years ago, I sat on my bed, lamenting and frustrated. I had resigned as the youth director of my home church. After months in deep spiritual wilderness, I just knew my approach to. In deepest frustration, I tossed my open Bible at the wall, as it flew I tearfully prayed, “Lord, I can’t make sense out of this. If you are…. I need some answers.” The Bible landed unharmed across the room. I did not get an answer. Not even one theological insight. Instead, something like a wall of love just hit me. Maybe something like Paul’s “Love that surpasses knowledge” whispered a wordless hope into my soul, “it is going to be fine.” My heart was strangely warmed. My restrictive chains loosed a bit- my heart was not quite free- but less burdened. I did not have ecstatic euphoria or even the joy, joy, joy. Just a deep sense of love. It would take years for my old rule based, over theologized, legalism to work it’s way out of my system. The Apostle Paul had this same kind of experience with the always risen Christ on the Damascus Road.
Well, our journey to honest theology is likely not be easy- the narrow path that leads to life never is, but we do not go alone. Hear Conservative Paul’s prayer for us from Ephesians 3:14. Team Conversative Paul prays: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. amen”