On Reading Paul

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

The next Book of the Month will be Paul's letter to Philemon. It will be our first foray into Paul's letters. Therefore, I decided to write this blog as a way of providing context and perspective for interpreting Paul's writings. Why? Because Paul doesn't have a great track record with oppressed people; namely, women, Black people, people of color, poor people, and members of the LGBTQ community. Persons who are a part of these communities have experienced the dehumanizing words and interpretations of those words first hand. Yet, we hold these writings as word of God or at least a part of the Christian canon.

Should we choose, we could be like Nancy Ambrose, Howard Thurman's grandmother:

"'During the days of slavery,' she (Ambrose) said, 'the master's minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used a text:"Slaves, be obedient to them that are your master…, As unto Christ." Then he would go on to show how it was God's will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom came, I would not read that part of the Bible.'" (1).

And some of us share Mother Ambrose's sentiment. We read around Paul. Others apologize and make excuses for Paul. Some seek to redeem the writings of Paul. Like Nancy Ambrose, who would occasionally let Thurman read I Corinthians 13 to her, I won't let it all go. There are parts of Paul's letters (and those pseudonymously penned in his name), that I believe contain God's word; I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit when I read them. But how do I keep those verses? How do I read Paul?

In the earliest years of my faith formation, my primary exposure to Paul was through literal readings of his letters with the assumption that he penned all of the letters attributed to him. However, certain passages (specifically the ones about slaves and masters) were explained away as no longer applicable because Paul's context was radically different than our own. Interestingly enough, passages regarding women/wives' submission to husbands/men and passages referencing homosexual relations were never contextualized. They continued to be read literally.

When I attended seminary and did my doctoral work, I began reading the entirety of Paul contextually. Contextually usually meant reading Paul's letters in light of his socio-cultural, not socio-political, context. I read Paul with eye toward Judaism. I acknowledged the presence of the Roman Empire in the background of Paul's letters, but did not delve into the insidious ways the norms of the Empire were unquestioningly ensnared in Paul, his ministry, and his writings. Therefore, my reading was still apologetic. I sought to "redeem" Paul rather than question or reject Paul. Reading Paul from this perspective forbade placing any culpability on Paul. It began with the assumption that what Paul had written was word of God and if anything I read was questionable, it was because I was missing a contextual clue that would clarify (actually, clean up) what he had written.

I am no longer where I was. I find myself contending with Paul. I read him with an ear to the Spirit and an eye to the vestiges of the Roman Empire's language, imagery, and message that may be entangled or camouflaged by his proclamation of the gospel (2). Schussler Fiorenza puts it this way:

"Such a reading, which seeks to decolonize the religious imagination, has as its goal not to whitewash the Christian scriptures, nor to absolve Paul from the blame of having inscribed empire, but rather to make us conscious of such inscriptions"(3).

Here is how I understand her and how I understand the way in which I read Paul: If we are to decolonize our faith (no longer read the scriptures in ways that oppress us for the benefit of others rather than liberate us to live wholly, holy, and faithfully before God and creation), we cannot gloss over where the articulations of our faith fall short or try to clean up the places where Paul's writings reflect more of the Roman Empire than the Kingdom of God.

Instead, we must be conscious of these places that unquestioningly equate Kingdom with the inequities of society. We must push past our discomfort when maintaining the status quo that frees us but enslaves or rejects the humanity of others. Otherwise, we will preach, teach, and live thinking we represent gospel, but a merely pushing the status quo of the empire. By uncritically accepting and propagating empire speak wrapped up Christian prose and justified by Christian Scriptures, we become religious fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalism "is not... a religious faith, but...a political ideology based on the politicizing of religion for sociopolitical and economic goals in the pursuit of establishing a divine order"(4). Right now, fundamentalism is the current politicizing of Christianity to establish White Supremacy as divine order.

Y'all, I believe the Church is being stretched in this season. We are out of our comfort zone in so many ways that I do not think we are meant to remain the way we were. I think practice, priorities, and our treatment of people are being challenged to change. I think it is time to disentangle ourselves from the fears that foster the injustices committed in the name of Jesus for the benefit of the empire. I think it is time we loose our minds and spirits, because God is bigger than we ever imagined and we too often act like we have God figured out. And perhaps, if we start decolonizing Paul, we can start decolonizing ourselves theologically and biblically because too many of us have learned at the feet of Paul, read everything through the lens of Paul, without ever questioning Paul.

So here are a 5 things I offer as consideration when reading Paul... ( I encourage you to read all the way to the end)

1. Paul was a Roman.

You may be thinking, "Of course, I know he was a Roman." Sit with that a minute. He was a Roman and he also embraced the rights and privileges of being a Roman. They were givens and called upon when the need arose.

In Acts 16, Paul is in Philippi. After exorcising demons from a very profitable soothsaying girl, the owners demand Paul's imprisonment. He is beaten and thrown into jail.

At midnight, an earthquake releases his and Silas' chains and opens the prison door. They prevent the jailer from killing himself (he feared the prisoners had escaped). They are brought to the jailers house where they proclaim the gospel and baptize his household.

The next morning, word comes that Paul and Silas are free to go.

But Paul replied, "They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves" (Acts 16:37).

In Jerusalem, some Jews from Asia stir up crowd against him. They throw him out of the temple and begin beating him. The Roman tribune comes. Paul says to him, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city; I beg you, let me speak to the people"(Acts 21:39). He is from a city that Rome values. Paul decides to code switch from Greek to Hebrew. Instead of calming the crowd, his speech has the opposite effect and gets the crowd riled up again. The tribune decides to "examine" him by flogging (beat the truth out of him). Once again, Paul pulls out his citizenship card:

But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?"(Acts 22:25).

When the tribune finds out Paul is a Roman citizen, he tells him that"[i]t cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship." Paul's response:

"But I was born a citizen"(Acts 22:28).

I, like many of you, heard that Paul was his post-conversion name. We heard the sermons about how the Lord changed his name. Yet Paul is referred to or called Saul at least 13 times after his conversion. Acts 13:9 begins, "But Paul, also known as Saul". The name change is not really a name change. Paul is the Greco-Roman version of the Jewish name, Saul. It also the name he uses to self-identify in his letters. You see, Paul never stopped being a Roman. He never saw his conversion as conflicting with Rome enough to have to renounce it. But Judaism...well listen to what he writes in Philippians 3:4-9:

Even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Paul counts his Jewish heritage as loss because of Christ, but not his Roman citizenship. He is imprisoned and awaiting trial because he is a Roman citizen and has the right to a trial. HIs Roman citizenship was such a given that there is no real awareness of how his Roman citizenship influenced how he viewed the world and Christianity.

Therefore, we must read Paul's letter not as an unquestioned authority on how the gospel is to be applied in all times and places. Instead, we must contend with Paul and recognize the places where the inequities of the status quo have tipped the Kingdom off balance.

2. Most of the "you's" in his letters are "y'alls"

When reading Paul, we must resist the convergence of American individualism and the fact that in proper English the second person singular pronoun (you) and the second person plural pronoun (y'all, you's-depending on where you are from) are translated the same: YOU. This gives us the feeling that Paul is writing directly to each of us rather than a community. Therefore, we tend to read it as a personal letter rather than a communal letter.

The second person pronoun appears approximately 838 times in the 9 letters (not including the Pastorals) either written by him or attributed to him. Of the 838 appearances, only 39 are singular. Moreover, 8 of the 39 are quotes from other sources and 19 are found in Philemon, which is actually a personal letter. That means there are about 12 times with the "you" is addressing single individual.

So when we read Paul and come across a "you", we should probably think "y'all" and be reminded that we are part of a larger, diverse community. We have to figure out how to live out this faith in relation to others not just God.

Lastly (to this point, and I advise you take a seat first), Paul wasn't writing to YOU. YOU are not his original or intended audience. When we read Paul's letters, y'all, we are reading other people's mail. Therefore, we do not apply it carte blanche . We seek to apply it critically, discerningly, and lovingly valuing everyone in the community, not just the folk we like, understand, or are comfortable with.

3. Apostolic speech is characterized by arguments.

I don't mean argument in the sense of Webster's first definition: "an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one" but in the sense of the second definition: "a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong."

Compare Paul's speech to Jesus'. Jesus proclaims and when asked, clarifies. Now look at Paul's. He spends a lot of time providing reasons to persuade his readers to think about things the way he does. I am not saying this is wrong. It is, after all, what we do as preachers. We persuade and convince waging arguments grounded in the Word. This is the nature of apostolic speech.

Since the nature of apostolic speech is argument, then it would behoove us to examine the argument rather than uncritically accept it. Moreover, we should check the premise of the argument-what is it built upon? We might find out that some of the stuff we hold as gospel is actually built on a faulty foundation.

4. Paul believed our time on earth would be a pitstop, not a prolonged stay.

Paul believed that Jesus' return was immanent. He did not expect Christians to be waiting 2000 years later. Therefore, he advised the church in Corinth:

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

Well, we have to deal with the world and figure out how to do it in a way that honors and is faithful to our commitment to follow Jesus Christ. I believe we are called to life ethical lives, not escapist ones. We cannot live with no regard for creation or our fellow creatures because we are trying to clock the arrival of the "Jesus train" that will take us, and only us, from the mess we helped make. As we read Paul, we must consider if what he is saying helps us to live faithfully for the long haul or only for the "moment."

5. Who is included? Who is excluded? And why?

If you are still reading, take a deep breath. I began this post noting Paul's poor track record with various oppressed communities. Trust me, we all have receipts. So here's my push: read Paul (actually read the whole Bible) with the above question in mind because it is so easy, it is actually a well-documented habit that we often read Paul (scripture) in ways that includes some folks and not others.

So here is what I mean. A couple of weeks ago, while I was sitting on my back porch while my children played (ok, while I was making sure they did not kill themselves or each other with the crazy games they created), my mind was thinking though this post. I was thinking about the passages of Paul that I found liberative, freeing. Immediately I thought about Galatians 3:28. I consider Galatians 3:26-28 the Pauline gold standard for Christian community. I could be wrong, but until proven otherwise, I will hang my hat here:

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 is my "go to" scripture for Christian unity and equality. When I read it, I nod my head assenting to the ethnic barriers torn down with "no longer Jew or Greek." I am definitely down with "no longer slave or free," interpreting it as the eradication of slavery so that we are all free (division gone). "No longer male and female" enabled me to stand firm in my call to preach the gospel and support women in leadership positions.

And then it hit me.

I was reading "no longer male and female" in relation to biological sex only. In other words, I interpreted it to mean that my biological sex should not bar me from inclusion, participation, or leadership in the Christian community.

But my mind did not stay there, it immediately flipped to Trump's attempt to overturn the civil rights protection of transgender people because he wanted the law only to consider biological sex. My mind started racing: What if I moved beyond my very heteronormative second person singular reading that focuses on my freedom and think about the "y'all"? Who gets left out? What if I don't read this scripture like Trump read the legislation for the civil rights protections in healthcare? Who gets in? If male and female are no longer dividing lines and we are all "one in Christ Jesus"....? (will you keep reading?) I am faced with my own discomfort with envisioning the kingdom in ways I was taught it could never be expanded. If there is no male or female then I have to deal with my ignorance and discomfort around things like gender fluidity, transpeople, and homosexuality that may not directly affect my life but of so many "y'alls" in the (Christian and Black) communities.

In the end, I have to ask myself the hard questions. I have to move beyond arguments made upon faulty premises. I have to examine my givens (Do I start with my assumptions about whom to exclude or did I approach the text with a willingness to hear it ways I never have before?). I have to face my own fears. I cannot decolonize Paul without decolonizing myself.

So, next week and at various points in the upcoming months, we will read Paul. We will learn from Paul. We will even hear the word of God through Paul. But Paul isn't Jesus, y'all. So, I will continue to contend with Paul.


(1) Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 30-31

(2) Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire (p. 6). Kindle Edition.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political lslam and the New World Disorder, 20.

215 views1 comment