Forgiving Paul of Tarsus

‘Pauline’ Christianity, that group of religions built around both the Gospels and the writings of Paul of Tarsus, has, at its core, a message of love and hope for everyone. The problem that many have when they approach this message is that it is also bound up with messages which degrade women and condemn homosexuals. 

Many today view the complete package of messages contained in the New testament as backwards and incompatible with science because of those two points. Today we know that women are indeed equal with men, despite some general physical differences. Science has also also shown us that homosexuality is rooted in biology, with hereditary tendencies and structural differences in the brain. It is not a moral choice.

If God is God, why would He condemn homosexuals for being born the way He made them? If God is God, why would He create one of the sexes to be inferior to the other, setting them up for victimization? He wouldn’t, and in the New Testament, He didn’t.

Jesus, the embodiment of Love, Divine presence walking among us, never condemned homosexuals. He never said a single degrading thing about women. He instructed those who asked for guidance to love God completely, and love each other as He Himself loved them- even at the expense of their own lives.

It makes sense to me. If Jesus was the Divine, He would know that homosexuals were born that way, by His design. If He knew women were equal- as all are equal- then why would he pronounce their gender to be beneath men? Neither teaching would be just. Neither teaching would reflect the Love that He is and performed

Neither teaching would promote the universal love He came here to exemplify.

The teachings which degrade women, relegating them to subservience and quietude, and keeping them from teaching and leading, come from Paul of Tarsus. The myriad of New Testament statements decrying homosexuality can also be found in the writings of Paul.

This would seem to contrast sharply with, and outright contradict, his teachings on love, which echo and elaborate upon the message of Jesus. Paul tells us that love is the fulfillment of the Law and that all the Law can be summed up in the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself”. He gives us a beautiful elaboration of what it means to do love in the oft-quoted 1st Corinthians chapter 7. Paul gives us profound teaching after profound teaching about the primacy of Love. Love is everything… but does Jesus really mean Paul’s selective, conditional love?

It wasn’t long ago, in the history of science, that psychologists believed a woman’s mental capacities were diminished while she was menstruating. It wasn’t long ago that most members of our enlightened secular society still thought homosexuality was a lifestyle choice. 

Paul is not God himself. He could not have known what science has shown us today about women and homosexuality. When he wrote to the churches abroad, and tried to guide them in their affairs, he taught from his very specific and subjective cultural and personal perspective. Does this mean he was wrong?

He spread Jesus’ message of love. He was a success in that regard. In his letters (for this is what his ‘books’ of the New Testament were- not scripture) he did his best to guide his flock with the knowledge his life experience and education had given him. Jesus, according to the bible, did not instruct Paul to go and teach people how to live and what to think about everything. Paul was tasked with bringing the message- the Good News- to the rest of the world.

He was a man. He was not Jesus. We cannot expect perfect knowledge and wisdom from him in all things. Paul continued to experience what it was to be human, with our internal battles and weaknesses, even after receiving his commission from Jesus. 

I think if I look past the cultural influences on his letters- those statements about women and homosexuality- Paul’s beautiful and wonderful messages about love and charity shine like the sun.

If I forgive Paul’s ignorance in one area, I can better embrace his God-inspired words of wisdom in another. It does not degrade his message at all to pass over the ignorant teachings of his society that seeped into his letters. Some may think this is ‘massaging’ information, pruning it to keep it relevant, and dismiss my argument.

Do we not do this all the time in our secular society? Plato may not have realized the difficulty in applying his democratic systems to a nation of hundreds of millions… In fact, we break from one of his main ideas- the city-state- all the time while continuing to credit him with democracy. In science, physical and social, we don’t dismiss an entire body of work by someone just because some of their theories turn out to be wrong or incomplete. If you are ignorant or wrong in one thing you express, shall I dismiss out of hand every other piece of wisdom and knowledge you utter?

Some will argue that the Old Testament supports Paul’s views on women and homosexuals. Again, the Old Testament authors were not God Himself. They also existed in a specific cultural and historical context, and wrote from it, even if inspired. Besides that, Jesus himself points out Isaiah’s statements about the nation of Israel in prophecy: “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.” Some teachings, He also says, were given to them because their hearts were hard, such as the ability to divorce their wives in the book of Deuteronomy, which Jesus attributes to Moses– not God. So we see that Jesus Himself shows that Bible authors injected, in some instances, their own teachings into their books. 

Letting Paul’s lack of understanding on a couple of minor topics fade away from my sight, I now turn to what is, arguably, his most famous, and most beautiful, piece of writing…

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

3 thoughts on “Forgiving Paul of Tarsus

  1. I love how you see the bigger picture here. I also love how you forgive Paul and don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
    I was wondering if you had any views on Mary Magdalene? I have this idea that behind every great man is a great woman. Could Mary M. be a great woman behind Christ?
    {{{hugs}}} Kozo

    • While I was checking my facts, before writing this post, I came across an interesting point.

      Paul was a widower, but was celibate when he was called by Jesus and converted. He vigorously advocated for, and defended, this non-sexual lifestyle choice. He felt it was a great way to serve his Lord. He also called members of the early church to follow HIS (Paul’s) example in remaining celibate.

      Most Christians perceive Jesus as having been celibate, and we have no outright mention of a wife in the gospels. However, it would seem that Paul, who knew much about the early church (as he was active in persecuted it), and was a contemporary of Jesus, *seems* to have not known Jesus to have been celibate.

      If Jesus had been known to be celibate by Paul, and it seems very likely Paul would have known the truth of this, SURELY Paul would have called early church members to follow CHRIST’S example in staying celibate. He would likely have said something like “See how I follow Christ’s example in staying celibate. I urge you, brethren, to do the same”.

      Certainly no one can thoroughly disprove the possibility of a wife for Jesus. I don’t think any part of the bible says that the messiah would be celibate, or recorded that He was.

      Perhaps, a little unrelated… I have also thought that Jesus embodied many of the feminine qualities Himself- receptiveness, patience, acceptance, yielding, forgiveness, gentleness… He even accepted and tolerated the abuse and torture heaped on Him by the world he loved and sought to save, like a mother who loves her child despite anything that child could do… I guess it could also be said that God *Him/Her*self possesses these feminine qualities as well.

      • I love this. I have always thought that if Jesus was God in human form, he would have to experience all aspects of humanness including sexuality. Mary Magdalene had such a primary position in the Gospels. She must have been an important figure since women at the time were not as big a part of history as men.
        I also love your analysis of the gendered qualities of Jesus and God. If we are created in God’s image and God is a creator, it would make sense that God is more like a woman than a man.
        Lots of interesting, poignant, and controversial material here. Book in the future?
        Thanks for the eye-opening conversation. {{{hugs}}} Kozo

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