Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” If Emerson was right, then the Apostle Paul might be one of the greatest men to ever live. Few religious leaders have been as grossly misunderstood as Paul. Unlike Jesus, who most people regard as a great moral teacher, Paul is routinely accused of the most egregious sins according to modern sensibilities: misogyny, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism. The idea that Paul invented Christianity is so fashionable nowadays that many people take it as a given, as if it’s obviously true. The irony in all this unexamined Paul-bashing is that fewer people today are taking the time to ponder the crux of his moral message: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”—a message that both society and the Church need to hear.
Yes, there are passages in Paul’s letters that would seem to paint him as pro-slavery, anti-women, and homophobic. But just as Muslim scholars insist that the passages of the Qur’an that seem out of step with modern ethical norms be read in light of their historical context, the same is true with Paul’s letters. Paul’s advice to slaves (obey your masters) and their masters (treat your slaves well) may seem off-kilter today, but given the historical situation, his advice can hardly be described as unreasonable. It should also be noted that Paul insisted that slaves who could attain their freedom should do so—and that he condemned slave traders.
As far as women are concerned, for all of the passages that seem to consign women to second- class status in the home and the Church—and there are plenty of scholars who insist that those passages teach the exact opposite of that—all of them pail in comparison to Paul’s notion that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” Whether we’re talking about women or slaves, Paul can rightly be considered a progressive in light of the customs, attitudes, and social norms of his day.
Which leaves us with the homophobia charge…
The definition of homophobia according to the Encarta World English dictionary is “an irrational hatred, disapproval, or fear of homosexuality, gay and lesbian people, and their culture.” Given that in all of Paul’s letters, there’s only one unmistakable reference to same-sex relations (The words translated as homosexual in I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10 are highly ambiguous words in the Greek), Paul can hardly be said to have had “an irrational hatred, disapproval, or fear of homosexuality”, especially when you take into account that in the one clear reference to same sex relations in Paul’s letters (Romans 1:23-17), the relations that Paul is describing are the highly lustful relations that accompanied pagan temple worship in his day.
While it’s not my intention to settle the debate as to whether Paul disapproved of all same-sex relations, even if the traditional view is correct, which is that Paul viewed same sex relations as inherently sinful, whether in the context of monogamous relationships or not, an obsessive inquiry into how Paul felt about same-sex sex misses the forest through the trees. In Paul’s theology, Christian morality isn’t about following a set of ironclad, inflexible rules and regulations. It’s about Spirit-filled followers of Jesus dying to the letter of the Law and rising to a new life in the Spirit (Romans 7:6), a life where the Spirit-indwelt conscience is the new moral compass (Romans 14:22-23, 2 Corinthians 3:6), and the rule of thumb that satisfies all of God’s laws is to love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14).
“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” says Paul.
In Paul’s theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus was the historical game-changer that shifted the focus away from the rules and regulations of the Law and towards the Spirit-indwelt conscience as the arbiter for moral decisions in the life of the believer.
Paul insists, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
Paul was the Apostle of human freedom.
How tragic it is that society maligns him.
And the Church misrepresents him.