This post originally appeared on Off the Page
If you’re a theology nerd like me, a book called Paul Behaving Badly: Was the apostle a racist, chauvinistic jerk? is something you know you have to own before even reading the description. My expectations were set high with such an eye-grabbing title. Though I found some of the authors’ arguments a bit lacking, I appreciate their acknowledgment that the struggle of being a Christian while having “issues” with Paul is very, very real – and completely understandable.
This book is not meant to be a comprehensive look at Paul and his writings, however. Authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien acknowledge in the introduction that there have been plenty of books published over the centuries that examine the subject much more thoroughly (let alone plenty of books that focus on just one of the accusations leveled against Paul, such as whether he was in fact a chauvinist). Rather, their book is intended to be a starting point for longer discussions about how we should respond to Paul, keeping in mind the context of his words as we read through the lenses of our own culture.
Each chapter presents an accusation – Did Paul hate gay people? Did he twist Scripture for his own purposes? – and the authors make their case both for and against the plaintiff, drawing upon what Christians know of Jesus’ character. Should we bother listening to a man who was not one of the twelve disciples, and never even knew Jesus while he walked on earth? Do we accept Paul’s words about issues such as homosexuality, when Jesus never said a word about it?
As a natural skeptic, I can’t stress enough just how much I appreciated this approach. It was fair, though not entirely balanced. This is a book written to ultimately defend Paul, so the arguments made in his favor are longer (though not by much) than the arguments made against him. Some of the most compelling counter-arguments are skimmed over, while arguments defending Paul are more detailed.
The chapter I devoured most dealt with the question of whether or not Paul was sexist. Complementarian Christians, who believe that women are forbidden to preach, justify their stance by quoting Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34: “Let the women keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in church.” Elsewhere, Paul states that men are saved by faith, while women are saved by childbirth. As a feminist, it’s hard for me to read those words without an increase in my blood pressure.
Richards and O’Brien argue that Paul was actually quite progressive for his era. They claim that, despite what 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, Paul offered more ministry opportunities for women than other religions at the time: in that same letter, Paul later offers suggestions about the “proper” way for women to speak and pray in church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Thus, the authors conclude that Paul’s restrictions were meant for a specific group of women in a particular circumstance: they were not intended to be read as a “one size fits all” command.
Also in 1 Corinthians, Paul makes the argument that women are weaker than men, but the authors insist this had nothing to do with gender. Instead, it is about order: Adam was created first, and Eve second. This, Richards and O’Brien argue, does not imply that women are second in value to men: only that Eve, specifically, was considered second to Adam. I had to close the book and ponder about this, because I had never heard that argument before.
The “Was Paul a chauvinist?” chapter ends on an encouraging note: both complementarian (those who believe in a gender-based hierarchy) and egalitarian Christians (who believe men and women should be subservient to each other) should be respected for their disagreements, as both groups can arrive at different conclusions while still taking the Bible seriously. Additionally, it is hard to critique Paul about women’s rights when he clearly was not writing from a 21st-century-based moral guide.
Still, if God is omniscient, He had to predict the ways that humans would twist these Scriptures over the centuries and use them to subjugate women, among other atrocities. If Paul could have written a brief “Hey Christians, just so you know, these passages address a specific situation in my life only, otherwise it’s totally cool for women to preach,” and perhaps another passage about women being deserving of equal rights, history could have looked quite different.
Most frustrating to me was the chapter addressing homosexuality (“Was Paul a homophobe?”). In Paul’s world, homosexual sex was a common practice among the Romans, but I wish the authors addressed the fact that these relations are not comparable to gay couples today wishing to get legally married. The authors explain that in homosexual couplings back then, there was a dominant partner and a submissive one; the dominating partner was seen as manly and commanding of respect, while the submissive one was in a position of shame, having essentially been “conquered.”
Paul’s anti-gay statements, then (referencing Timothy 1:8-11, in which he claims that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God) are framed in such a way that it is the exploitive nature of the sex that was sinful. The authors make no mention of same-sex relationships between two loving, equal partners, nor do they bring up any studies that show people cannot choose their sexual orientation. Other books on the Christian approach to homosexuality, such as Torn by Justin Lee and God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, cite scholarship that strongly suggests it was the lust and connection to pagan worship that was the real sin of gay sex – not the act itself. It struck me as somewhat dishonest that O’Brien and Richards did not mention this, even if they disagreed with the findings.
All things considered, I recommend this book as a catalyst for those who have ever read Paul’s writings and thought, “What is this guy’s deal?!” The authors acknowledge that part of being a Christian (a large part, I’d argue) is arguing with God and arguing with Scripture. Faith isn’t meant to be easy, and the Bible is an intentionally complex collection of writings. The book’s takeaway message is that it’s okay to wrestle with Paul and even be angered by him at times. It’s okay to find him a frustrating person. But that doesn’t mean he has nothing to teach us.
Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.