Rethinking Paul

First, let me welcome you to Theology Thursdays. Posts on Thursdays will generally deal with issues of Theology, and/or Biblical Studies.

Today I want to think a little bit about Paul. Here’s a caricature of a common interpretive strategy:

“Look, here’s Paul’s ministry methodology. It’s in the Bible, it must be right! This is an inspired and authoritative way to do ministry!”

There are a lot of takes that basically follow this approach. Today I’m suggesting it’s fatally flawed.

Paul is not Jesus, and even if he was this would be wrong. There are many aspects of Jesus’ ministry we do not try and reproduce because (a) we’re not Jesus, (b) our context is not Jesus’, (c) the Gospels give us little indication that many of Jesus’ methodologies are given for imitation. The same applies in Acts. Acts is not primarily written to be prescriptive for churches. There are very important lessons to learn from Acts, but methodology is rarely one of them.

Things are a little more tricky when it comes to Paul. Because he writes letters as an Apostle, designed to be authoritative, and their mode is generally didactic. The epistolary material is not descriptive in the way Acts is, nor does it occasion the same kind of reading Acts does. However, the fact that the letters are didactic does not mean everything in them is to be interpreted in the same way. Especially on this point – Paul’s strategies and methodologies of church planting and leadership.

I repeat, Paul is not Jesus. So when Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” that second clause is vital, and Paul knows it. We are not bound to imitate Paul in respect of things in which Paul does not imitate Christ. Paul, no doubt, was a sinful man. He is held up as a paradigmatic believer, but not a sinless one. We should not easily forget this. Paul rarely teaches or directs others to adopt his methodologies or strategies. However very often we hear, “Paul did X, Y, Z, therefore we should do the same.” I am suggesting that this is a lazy and misleading hermeneutic.

The Apostolic Age between Jesus’ ascension and the death of the last Apostle (I take it to be John) was not a Golden Age. Many things went wrong immediately. If you received a resume from Paul of Tarsus, Church Planter, you would be horrified. Almost every church he planted had significant doctrinal issues, as well as some having serious schisms, and flagrant immorality. Granted, this was generally not attributable to Paul’s teaching, but I believe it highlights something that Paul himself highlights – the weakness and frailty of these clay vessels through whom God is pleased to work. Paul is well aware of his own frailties and failings. For example, 2 Corinthians. As one gets to the end of Paul’s life, letters like Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy reveal that Paul is struggling very much to see the future in bright terms. There has been significant damage in the Christian communities either founded by him or under his oversight. 1 Timothy as a letter entrusting oversight of Ephesus to Timothy highlights how, in a church where Paul spend considerable time and energy, still succession was an issue and still false teaching arose. Reading 2 Timothy straight afterwards, it appears that Timothy for unknown reasons has not stayed in Ephesus. Did Timothy abandon his work there? 2 Timothy is very concerned that Timothy should ‘keep the faith’; Paul exhibits his worry that Timothy, perhaps his closest disciple, will abandon both him and the gospel, like so many others. 2 Timothy in this light reads like the final letter of a man worried that everything he has worked for is in danger of coming to nought.

And yet it did not, did it? The church did not fail with Paul’s death. Why? Because it didn’t rest on Paul. Paul, like us, was a clay vessel containing a priceless treasure. That treasure was carried by other flawed, sinful human beings. In the end, I don’t believe Paul himself despaired. He knew that it was not in Timothy’s strength, or the Gentile churches’ own strength, or even his own strength, that God’s gospel would continue forth, but in the strength of God who had already carried a fallible and weak Paul so long, so far. And there is a lesson in that too.

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