An Open Letter to Paul

I have a confession to make.  Over the last 10 plus years of teaching sunday school, I’ve spent little to no time on a large section of the New Testament.  Basically, I’ve chosen not to give Paul any airtime.  I just don’t care for the guy.  And that’s wrong.  I admit it and I’m here to make amends.

But first, let me explain myself (and get in a few more digs).  First, I’ve got an authority problem.  As in, who is this guy and why do I have to listen to him?  As I understand it, Paul was born two years after Jesus’ death.  Ok, fine.  I suppose you can claim to be an authoritative expert on the teachings of a man you’ve never met.  Particularly if you do everything you can to soak up the first hand knowledge of those who did know Jesus really, really well, like his disciples.  Except, in Galatians, Paul tells us that he’s never spent any time with the disciples, except for a brief visit with James, Jesus’ brother.  Ok, so you’ve never met Jesus and you haven’t bothered to learn from those who knew him really well, but I’m supposed to base most of my religious life on your writings?  You’re losing me, dude.

Paul claims — I mean tell us — that he knows Jesus personally because Jesus spoke to him directly for a five year period (after Jesus’ death) while Paul was in Jerusalem.  Believe it or not, I’m ok with this.  I think Jesus probably did speak to Paul this way.  I think Jesus speaks to a lot of us in this way.  In fact, like Paul, I had my own five year period back in my mid twenties, where I was convinced that Jesus was interacting with me in a real and personal and very significant way.  So I have no doubt that Paul could have had this same sort of experience.  My problem is not that it didn’t happen, but that even if it did happen, it doesn’t make Paul all that unique.  Paul may be divinely inspired but I’m not sure he’s any more divinely inspired than a lot of other people who have interacted with God in real and personal ways.

And that’s my other problem.  Interactions with God are, by their very nature, unique and personal.  God interacts with us when, and how, God chooses.  It’s different for each of us.  So is our interpretation of those interactions.  The messages that we take from those interactions is subject to our own bias, prejudice, and misunderstanding.  At least I know mine are and I have no reason to believe that Paul wouldn’t be subject to the same limitations as I am.

And then there’s the whole persecuting Christians thing.  I get it that he eventually gave that up.  Good for him.  But, seriously?  One day you’re stoning Christians — or at least watching passively as Stephen is murdered — and the next you’re calling yourself the father of Christianity and telling us all how to live?  I got a problem with that.  It’s like the guy on the corner downtown.  One day he’s high on crack and the next day he’s passing out religious tracks telling me I’m going to hell because I wasn’t immersed.  Whatever.

And then, there’s the biggie.  I think you’re just too darn conservative.  I think you listened to story after story about grace, and redemption, and reconciliation and forgiveness and some how came away thinking it was all about homosexuality, adultery, alcohol and dancing.  I don’t get that.  Unfortunately, lots of your followers do.  You’d be amazed (but hopefully not proud) to see how many people seem incredibly dismissive of Jesus’ message of grace but are more than willing to lift high your banner opposing gay marriage (you do talk about gay marriage, don’t you?).  Whether you intended it or not, I think a lot of your writing has given people cover to be less than graceful and I think that’s unfortunate.

So there you go.  I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for years.  I’ve had my say.  Now it’s time for you to have yours.  The next few weeks, you’ve got the floor.  I’m going to do my best to give you a fair shake.


10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Paul

  1. I, too, am a Sunday school teacher. I teach “Personal Evangelism.” But on the subject of your post, Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord. That is why we should listen to him. Secondly, because he had that encounter, Paul was able “to go one day from being a murderer” to the next day to being an evangelist. Lastly, Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel, even when it cost him dearly. The following verses are from Acts 9, and they explain the beginning of Paul’s conversion and transformation.

    4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

    5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

    “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

    When one has had an encounter with Jesus, everything changes and “all things are possible.”

      • That’s the thing about “grace” or God’s unmerited favor. None of us deserve it. In fact, Paul would echo my sentiments. In addition, he referred to himself as, “the chiefest of sinners.” He knew how undeserving he was of God’s mercy.

  2. Thanks Scott! I appreciate your comments. You know, a lot of times what we don’t like in others are those things we see and don’t like about ourselves. I suspect that plays a big part in my problems with Paul (which, frankly, I’ve intentionally overstated for dramatic effect). Because when I read what you say about Paul (all of which is true and needs to be said) — that he had an encounter with the risen Lord, that he went from one day from being a murderer to the next day being an evangelist, and that he was not afraid of the gospel, even when it cost him dearly — I am reminded of how much Paul and I are alike. I, too, have had my share of encounters with the risen Lord (as I’m sure you have). Like Paul, I’ve had my transformation experience (I was never a murder but I surely was a hopeless sinner and now I am an also evangelist of sorts). And, like Paul, I’m not ashamed of the gospel either — though I admit that I’ve never been stoned or imprisoned for defending it. Like I said, I’m committed to taking a second look at Paul’s writings. At the end of it, I suspect we won’t agree on everything, but I’m confident we’ll be friends.

    Thanks again, Scott. I hope you’ll check back again and keep me accountable!

  3. I’ll be honest: the first time you told us you weren’t a big fan of Paul, I got a little mad. It’s one of those random offhand comments that has stuck with me ever since you said it, and I totally disagreed until pretty recently. Now I’m pretty much in agreement with you- Paul definitely isn’t the biblical dude I’d care to hang out with. And the passages about women and homosexuality and slavery and etc etc etc are pretty hard to figure out. I’ll stick with the OT and gospels. I can roll with Jesus.

    • And James. James seems like a good guy. We could roll with him too.

      Believe me, I was thinking of you when I decided to take on this little Pauline project. I’m mean, seriously, it’s not acceptable to just ignore the guy, so I feel bad about that. Fortunately, I’m confident that you correctly attributed the omission to your sunday school teacher’s insecurities and not to any failings on Paul’s part, so it’s all good.

  4. Pingback: I Give Up | skepticallydevout

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