Over-Thinking the Apostle Paul?

26 Jan

I have become convinced lately that for most Christians, we are guilty of over-thinking pretty much everything, from our theology to our approaches to evangelism. No wonder churches in the West are having such little impact on their communities, or in the words of Stephen Fry at the 2009 “Intelligence Squared” debate, the church is “not a significant force for good in the world today.” And in fact, I believe that precisely because we are over-thinking mostly everything, not only are we not a significant force for good, we might be in danger of actually doing more harm than good. How so? Please let me explain.

Take for example the ‘Pauline theology’ approach to the Bible, which tries to take into account all of Paul’s writings in the New Testament and from that construct a comprehensive theological construct from that body of literature. Now don’t get me wrong; I love doing biblical theology, particularly in the Old Testament as an inductive study. Let me be clear that this isn’t about the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ here, but rather a critical assessment of a particular approach or mentality.

Even more pointed in this regard are the massive tomes analyzing, commentating and theologizing just one of Paul’s letters, such as the letter to the Romans. Much ink has been spilled and trees turned into paper so that some theologian could write the definitive word on Paul’s theology in Romans or whichever other epistle you want to name. While I certainly agree that the writing of such works has added value to the already vast body of knowledge concerning Pauline theology, I have to ask: could we possibly be over-thinking this whole thing?

Consider by contrast a ‘narrative theology’ approach to the letters of Paul. In other words, looking beyond all of the theology and controversial statements made by Paul, perhaps there might be a simpler way to look at this whole situation. What I’m saying is that with the letters of Paul, there is a story, a narrative, behind each one. Let us not forget that Paul was a Jewish man, living in the first century AD, who felt human emotions exactly the same as we do today.

Paul experienced personally on his journeys around the Mediterranean world what it felt like to evangelize in a city and then plant a church, to help it struggle through the initial growing pains, and then set it up on its feet like a tottering baby taking its first steps. He knew how hard it was to leave that city where he had planted that church, established and trained its leaders, and he also felt the acute pain of leaving them and travelling on to the next place simply to do it all over again.

On more than one occasion he later received reports of how others came in after he left, undercutting his authority as a legitimate apostle, preaching a different gospel and in the process nearly destroying all of his hard work. Still other churches he planted, such as the one in Corinth, descended into chaos, riven with factions, divisions, sexual immorality and all kinds of other pastoral and theological problems needing his attention. In response to these vexing concerns he hoped that by writing letters to these fledgling churches just maybe whatever practical theological advice he had for them would help set them back on the right path again.

Did his letters always solve all of the problems? The reality is that for most of the New Testament, we simply do not know if what he wrote to them were effective in accomplishing their goals or not. In the case of the man involved in heinous sexual immorality referred to in 1 Cor. 5, it would appear that the actions of church discipline taken by the church were indeed effective. Later in 2 Cor. Paul writes and urges the church to take the man back into the fold, as the punishment he had suffered was enough. But this is a fairly rare case and of course, is disputed by scholars.

As if the pastoral burden on Paul wasn’t enough, several times on his journeys he experienced the physical and emotional anguish of whippings, public stoning and imprisonment. What was the reason for all of this abuse? The main reason was that his opponents—who often followed in his wake constantly stirring up dissension—hated him that much for not abandoning his convictions. One major faction followed behind him, dogging his steps, denigrating his authority as a true apostle and urging the new churches Paul had helped to plant to adopt Jewish laws and customs such as circumcision.

Paul also knew what it felt like to be forsaken and betrayed by those he thought were his supporters and friends in his hour of need, both before and during the time when he was awaiting trial before Caesar in Rome. Finally, he experienced what tradition informs us was a martyr’s agonizing death at hands of the mentally-unbalanced emperor Nero.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that we need to stop over-thinking Paul and simply learn from his example. To use common theological buzzwords of today, how exactly did Paul live an ‘incarnational’ and ‘contextual’ life? Even though he had every right to earn his living from preaching the gospel, he stated that he freely gave up that right and supported himself by making tents. I think that Paul never once saw tent-making as a drudgery to be endured and quickly finished so that he could get back on the evangelism and church-planting trail. Rather, tent-making provided one of the main opportunities to come into contact with non-believers wherever he went. Rather than compartmentalizing ‘secular work’ and ‘ministry’, Paul viewed every aspect of life as ministry, regardless of what he was doing.

Recently I was chatting with a friend who lamented that because of his erratic work schedule at a retail store, he no longer had the available time to ‘do ministry.’ I challenged him on this and questioned whether or not God had put him in this particular ‘secular’ job precisely to do ministry. What an opportunity to meet so many people he never would have the chance to meet outside the confines of the church building! I suspect he may be over-thinking things.

Paul also knew that each part of the body of Christ has been given different gifts, and that we as a church function best when each element of the body does what it has been designed to do. When it comes to evangelism, for example, Christians are often guilty of over-thinking this fairly simple principle. I recall an elder of a church telling of how he went into a certain restaurant at lunch specifically because he had been told that the owner was a non-believer who was apparently ‘a seeker.’ Relating his experience of ‘evangelism’ to the church afterwards, he reported that as he came through the front door and saw the owner behind the counter, his question was: “What’s my opening line going to be with this guy?” Again, this is an example of over-thinking things. Evangelism shouldn’t be like an elaborate pick-up line in a bar!

In conclusion, my advice to you involves simply two things: first, be aware of over-thinking things. If you find yourself arguing with other Christians about theological minutiae, and maybe even dividing over it, you are definitely over-thinking it. Paul said in Ephesians 4 that above all else, believers must preserve the unity of the body of Christ in the bond of peace. We are not here to argue with other Christians and be divisive. And think about it–what sort of example does that set for non-believers anyway?

Second, if you have been trying to evangelize and have failed miserably because of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of approach, then you are likely over-thinking things. To use Paul’s image of the parts of the body in 1 Cor. 12, ask this question: are you a big toe in the body of Christ? Then be the best big toe you can be, and simply being who you were made to be will be far more compelling as a witness for Christ than trying to be someone, or something, that you are not.

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