October 21, 2020

A Perfect Paul?

paulart.jpgAre evangelicals blind to the obvious faults of the Apostle Paul….and, consequently, to many of their own?

I’m reading Charles Freeman’s book “The Closing of the Western Mind.” It’s not exactly an unbiased presentation of Christianity, though Freeman’s thesis that established Christianity squelched the rational tradition of the Greeks is interesting and worth discussing. His early chapters on the source figures of Christianity, however, are another matter. The chapter on Jesus is, well, atrocious, but the chapter on Paul gave me a thought.

As one who seems uninvested in any kind of “pro-Christian” view of Paul, Freeman writes what I believe any number of intelligent people would write if they studied the New Testament without Christian assumptions that the documents being read were “the Word of God.”

What does he say about Paul? It’s a chapter you wouldn’t read from any evangelical source, because the cataloging of Paul’s imperfections would be too much of a challenge to their doctrine of scripture.

Remember that Freeman is partaking of the academic prejudices against Christianity and of the usual attempts to blame Paul for all that is wrong with Christianity. Even with these errors, however, Freeman gave me much to think about in terms of something we do believe….in fact, must believe: Paul was not perfect. He was as messed up as the rest of us. He had his edges. He had his limits. He had his problems.

“He could also be abrasive and deeply sensitive to any threat to his assumed authority, which at the beginning of several of his letters…he proclaimed to have come directly from God or Christ…He appears never to have married and to have been ill at ease with sexuality, above all homosexuality…but no one could pretend that he was an easy man to work with. His life appears to have been one of constant conflict. Gamaliel is believed to have been tolerant to Christians…so Paul’s early desire to persecute them must have come from elsewhere, perhaps from his own combative personality. He had violent confrontations with Barnabas, his companion who had put him in contact with the apostles in Jerusalem, though he traveled extensively with him, and even with Peter, the undoubted early leader of the Jerusalem Christians. In fact, he seems to have accepted that conflict with others was a normal part of life…This is certainly not a man who has any confidence in his ability to charm those he met. While Jesus drew people to him, Paul appears to have had the opposite effect; there was not one Christian community in which he can be said to have been fully at ease…The result was that although Paul could write, and perhaps speak, with great eloquence, he often failed to win over audiences, and may even have provoked their opposition with his manner.” (pp. 109-111)

“Paul appears to have known little of the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world outside Judaism and made little attempt in his letters to explain the Judaic concepts he used in a form that would have been comprehensible to those not brought up in that tradition…Buffeted by these conflicts, Paul seems at times to hardly know who he is. In particular, his identity as a Jew seems to fluctuate according to the pressures he encounters. ‘Paul’s Judaism was no longer of his very being, but a guise he could adopt or discard at will,’ as one influential scholar, C. K. Barrett, has put it. It is hardly surprising that on a personal level this highly insecure man became acutely sensitive to threats to his leadership…He is desperately afraid of competition…In fact, his desperation as he hears of rival Christian preachers breaks through again and again in his letters. He boasts, cajoles, threatens, and pleads his case, claiming that because of his hard work and suffering for the cause he deserves to be seen as the foremost of the apostles.” (pp. 112-114)

“…Paul’s theology, however, is confined in that it is shaped by his personal isolation, his acute insecurity about his authority, and his ambivalence about his Jewish roots. The difficult circumstances in which he wrote can explain much of the incoherence and contradiction in his letters, which have taxed theologians ever since. He seems to have failed to absorb, or at least express in his letters, any real awareness of Jesus as a human being, or to reflect his teachings, other than, significantly, the prohibition on divorce. It has always to be remembered that Paul is the only major Christian theologian never to have read the gospels, and one cannot be sure that he interpreted Jesus’ teachings, on the law, for instance, with accuracy. Can one assume that Paul preached what Jesus would have wanted him to preach?” (124)

If you are not used to reading the current non-Christian approach to Paul, those paragraphs probably raised your blood pressure, but stay focused. Do we idealize Paul to the point that we are blind to his faults, and also blind and justifying to those flaws in ourselves that are similar to his?

Defending Paul is a natural response for Bible believing evangelicals because they believe he is the author of holy and authoritative scripture. (Inerrant scripture for many evangelicals.) What he says- about anything- is the Word of God. How he says it is the Word of God. The complex of personality factors that frame a thought or a feeling before it is written in an epistle are the prelude to the written word of God.

For New Testament believers, therefore, defending Paul’s quirks, flaws, shortcomings and possible inconsistencies and errors is serious business.

Can you name a statement of Paul, which if made in your own ministry or church would be inappropriate, rude or outrageous, that isn’t defended by evangelical preachers and theologians as acceptable?

Would you tell your congregation to follow you as an example? Would you tell the women of the church to be silent and ask their husbands at home? Would you call your critics names and invite them to emasculate themselves? Would you preach entire sermons defending your ordination? Would you focus on your critics to the extent Paul does?

Would you allow a church planter sponsored by your church to be as divisive as Paul? Would you allow him/her to change target groups in frustration? Would you accept his “parting of the ways” with his/her partner in ministry (Barnabas)? Would you be comfortable with the constant appeal to personal experience? With the inability to bring new congregations to the point of having solid and dependable leadership?

Of course, many of you reading the preceding paragraphs already have a response to each one of these questions, and that is well and good. I probably agree with much of what you would say. The larger question is, however, if we justify all of what appears to be Paul’s flaws and issues as a fallen, imperfect man, then how do we treat our own?

What happens to our rudeness, insecurity, self-justification and inconsistency if we excuse it completely in Paul? If we have to have a “perfect Paul” to have a “perfect revelation,” do we then whitewash and baptize sins in ourselves that should be admitted and repented of? Have we made abrasiveness, divisiveness and contention into virtues because we see Paul doing the same things in the cause of Christ? Have we decided that a lack of insight into our own meanness/motives/actions, and stubborn loyalties to our own conclusions is just another name for being a “serious” Christian?

Frankly, I’m tired of meeting and experiencing people who are simple immature, rude, mean jerks, and having to listen to what great Christians they are. Paul may have confronted Peter, but did anyone ever need to confront Paul? Or had he run them all off?

Paul wasn’t perfect. Far from it. It may take non-Christians writing about Paul to make the necessary points, and to remind us that we can’t excuse ourselves from the example of Jesus by citing the example of Paul.


  1. Certainly Paul was not perfect and in several places Paul points out in his writings what is from God and what is his opinion. However, I take issue when Freeman says “While Jesus drew people to him, Paul appears to have had the opposite effect;”.

    Did Jesus not partake in conflict? Did He not call people names? Did He not overturn tables? Did people not call out for his death?

    Christ had followers but he also had enemies. And when he delt with them, he didn’t always reason with them and draw them to him.

  2. The more I’ve read Paul, the more I’ve taken his claim to be chief among sinners at face value. I think he was deeply aware of his own inadequacies and sins and perpetually overwhelmed at the grace shown him by God in using him so powerfully. Paul’s emphasis on grace is not rightly understood if it is understood apart from his constant awareness of his own falleness. If Evagnelical readings of Paul miss this, then Freeman has done us a service indeed.

    I don’t agree with Freeman’s take on Paul’s zealous guard of his own authority. Paul understands that it is God’s gift and grace that give him this authority. He knows himself an apostle (not by anything he did to deserve it). As an divinely appointed ambassador, Paul could hardly back down on the authority given him. Ultimately, it’s God’s authority, not Paul’s.

    Further, is Paul divisive or zealously nurturing a plant threatened to be choked by weeds? Is he the source of divion or are the weeds. I think Evangelicalism may have missed boat thrice on Paul. First, in not taken his own profession of falleness seriously. Second, in not taking the guarding of the church as seriously as Paul.

    The issue of Paul’s abrasivenes is an important one and I don’t know what to think about it. I’ve certainly seen people appeal to it for their own abrasiveness and I’ve been sure they were wrong.

  3. Some time ago, there was an emphasis at my church on “finding your spiritual gift.” This involved a “spiritual gifts quiz” that, in realty, was a pop-psychology personality quiz. Of course, being a Bible-believing church, we based the spiritual gifts off of those Paul wrote of in Scripture. I think the main verse quoted was 1 Cor 12:28. Based on the results of this quiz, you would be primarily a: “prophet,” “encourager,” “administrator,” “teacher,” and some others. The idea was that people would find out their “spiritual gifts” and better know where they could serve in the church.

    The main thing I remember being the result of this quiz was that, for a long time afterward, if someone was criticized as being abrasive, divisive, and contentious (as well as judgemental, graceless, etc.), others would defend the person saying, “Well, that’s just how he/she is; he/she’s a prophet.”

    So, not only were those things regarded as virtues, they were ordained of God!

  4. While I agree with aslanskeep’s critiques, lets not miss Michael’s main point here. He’s once again dared to ask one of those questions that we don’t ever ask in polite evangelicalism: What do we really think of the apparent rudeness, arrogance, and self-obsession of Paul? Michael’s questions are valid…we really wouldn’t like having someone like Paul in leadership in our churches. If a Christian leader wrote us emails anything like some of Paul’s letters, he’d be crucified all over the ‘net. So what do we do with this obnoxious guy who happened to write 2/3 of our New Testament?

    I’m developing some thoughts that this is one more leg of a stool being worked on by Dr. Pete Enns (of Westminster Philly) in his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Enns proposes that rather than try to explain away or “harmonize” well-recognized problems in Scripture (such as the weird hermeneutic of the New Testamnet writers use of the Old; very different accounts of the same events, etc.), we embrace them as being exactly the way God chose to reveal himself. He proposes an “incarnational analogy” of Scripture: just as Jesus Christ was (and is) fully God and fully human, so the Bible is of both divine and human authorship, with neither cancelling out the other. In other words, God chose to reveal himself through fallible human authors who wrote from within the perspectives of their own times and cultures. Enns proposes that this is not a mistake; that the word of God is not hidden somewhere behind or above the sometimes crazy-quilt writing of the human authors, but that God chose to actually reveal himself in and through those culture-bound writings.

    So isn’t it possible that we are to read Paul not as “super Christian” but rather as one more example of God’s obsession with entering into his own creation and revealing himself through it. Perhaps by idealizing Paul, we have missed the opportunity that may be present in his writings to learn as much from his bad or faulty examples as we do from his good ones and his theologizing.

  5. We have the dual problem of both knowing Paul’s sinfulness and shortcomings as being theoretically true, while at the same time having all of the information presented by him and about him in God-inspired Scripture.

    1 Corinthians 11.1 says Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. which indicates that Paul’s Christian life and beliefs are definitely to be imitated by us.

    1 Timothy 1.15 says …Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost which obviously indicates Paul’s own sinfulness.

    I suppose together they point out the need for faith in Christ and commitment to God the Father. We are like Paul in his sinfulness and shortcomings, but we should also be like Paul in his commitment to the Gospel of Christ.

    Freeman’s thesis is very difficult to hold. There are many holes in his arguments, not least the explicit assertion that modern scholars know more about “the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world outside Judaism” than Paul did. This pov is not just a problem for someone who believes that Paul’s words are Spirit-inspired, it is also difficult from an academic and scholarly perspective.

    I naturally think of Paul’s writings as being the inspired word of God, infallible yada yada yada, but there is no doubt that they do not reflect everything that Paul knew or believed. It was God’s choice that Paul’s letters were restricted to the ones we have in the New Testament.

    In the end, if we are to imitate Paul then we are to be zealous for the Gospel, be thoroughly grounded in the Word of God and honour God with our daily lives. That’s essentially everything that Paul says.

  6. Both of Paul’s letters to Corinth which are in our Bibles make reference to other letters he wrote them which did not end up in our Bibles. I often wonder about this. Perhaps could they actually have contained wrong instruction? Was he not inspired by God in writing those letters?

  7. Brett,

    Yeah I’ve often thought that too. Whatever the reason for God not including it in the canon, obviously what we have now is enough. Sola Scriptura and all that.

  8. I think Internet Monk is oversimplifying, and in general, twisting the situations from which is he is accusing Paul of being abrasive, divisive and contentious. The truth is that there are times when we find ourselves in places of contention, not because we are being contentious, but because we are being obedient to the will of God. Paul never advocated divisiveness, nor would he compromise the truth for the sake of false unity. And having read his letters, I never found Paul to be abrasive.

    I’ll agree that no christian should defend such behavior, least of all in himself. The Apostle Paul would have told us as much, and did is several places in his letters. But I found the passage from Freeman’s book to be insulting, and wholly lacking in any nuance or familiar understaning of the book he was critisizing. And, I think IM’s thoughts on the matter, to some degree, are lacking in the same understanding of Paul and his epistles.

  9. >And, I think IM’s thoughts on the matter, to some degree, are lacking in the same understanding of Paul and his epistles.

    I would be interested in a specific example of where I am lacking in understanding of Paul and his epistles.

    I said that Freeman’s piece was thought provoking. I didn’t say it was a great revelation of the truth about Paul. I suggested that Christians might have some blinders on regarding Paul’s short-comings.

    Your statement that you never found Paul to be abrasive is interesting. Gal 5:12? I mean, Paul is abrasive all the time, on purpose. He says so frequently in many of his letters. “Do you want me to come visit you with a stick?” I mean, c’mon. Who did Paul get along with? Letter after letter makes it clear that he was an intense, argumentative, contentious man. I’m not suggesting he’s useless. Far from it. I am suggesting that he’s a lot more honestly human than we are about ourselves.

    He was an Apostle…attitude and all. He was justified by faith, not by being nice. But I am sick of people whose whole approach on the net and in life is to beat people down, and then claim they are just being like Paul. The egos of people who have a Paul-complex are a curse in the church.

    Paul said he was the chief of sinners. Can I agree?

  10. believingpagan says


    I think you are making a valid point critiquing Bibio-idolatry. But I can’t help but notice something about the nature of Mr. Freeman’s comments. It is not just that they are critical (as an unbeliever might indeed make), but they are flat out insulting. Something makes me think that Mr. Freeman would never talk the same way about the Buddha or Muhammed with the same derision and scorn. (Even though with Muhammed there is much more to criticise).
    Sure, St. Paul had his problems. He wasn’t perfect. There are instances where he sounds like such an attractive personality and then says something completely off the wall. But I find the grace manifested in his life so much more attractive than the condescending “observations” of secular scholarship.
    But then that is the real problem, something that goes with your whole idea behind this website. Would Mr. Freeman (or most Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, etc) like the real Biblical Jesus or any of the Church’s saints? Not really. Because these people would be just as authentic and (non-compromising) as Paul. Saintliness seems to not always go along with popularity.
    I guess though that goes to the heart of what you want to do, what I am trying to do. To actually construct an orthodox, authentic, and real Christianity but by throwing out whatever was not Christian from our background. In my case though, it is Catholicism not evangelicism. I guess the only question remaining for me is can I be authentic enough to actually achieve the humility to really attain real charity…Oh well. (There is something after all in a name.)

  11. Galations 5:12 reads rather differently in the KJV than the ESV, and being no linguist, I’m not qualified to say which is most faithful to the original language.

    I can say, that in context, Paul’s statement doesn’t come across as abrasive, just practical. Two verses down you find him passionately exhorting that people love one another. The ESV rendering doesn’t make sense in context to the rest of the passage.

    Keeping in mind Paul’s position and responsibilities as an Apostle, it is not surprising that he would become forceful at times when dealing with heresy and false doctrine. Paul has every right to speak with authority and to do so boldly. But Paul always tempered his forceful language with statements of his love and intense caring for those he wrote to.

    Look, I’d have the same problem with people today taking the same tone Paul sometimes did in his letters. Using Paul to excuse a lack of tact and compassion is sinful. What I object to is the insinuation that Paul was that way in his letters. I think he was fully justified when used bold or seemingly harsh language.

    You say he was an “argumentative” and “contentious man”. I think your conclusion is simplistic at best. Large portions of his letters are devoted to his gratitude for what people have done, his love for the churches under his care, his wish for grace, mercy and peace, and his desire for unity. I think his epistles paint a picture of a man given a great responsibility, who suffered much for his faith, and who had to defend a gospel that was much despised by many and that went against the mainstream of religious and political thought in that day.

    To say Paul was argumentative and contentious is a conclusion that can only be reached if you fail to consider the times Paul lived in, the responsibilities Paul was given, and the enemies Paul faced. And Christians who use Paul as a defence of contentious, argumentative and abrasive behavior suffer the same lack of understanding of Paul.

  12. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Paul got along with Timothy to go by 1 and 2 Timothy. But, since we’re talking about outsiders and their assessment of Paul, the pastoral epistles are often assumed to have NOT been written by Paul himself. Even Philemon, while fairly nice, has a lot of implicit rank-pulling from Paul.

    I’ve known lifelong Christians who have found Paul abrasive, especially in passages where Paul says things like, “If anyone is disposed to think differently there are no other churches that agree with you”, which is roughly what he says to the church in Corinth.

    I don’t expect non-Christians to entirely or even partly get Paul. As Paul put it himself, there are some things only the Spirit enables you to do. It may very well be one of the gifts of the Spirit is that Christians can read Paul in a way that a non-Christian can’t. I can think of a few atheists who think 1 Cor 15 is really Paul’s big argument AGAINST physical resurrection.

  13. Quick comment on the KJV vs. ESV on Gal 5:12 – The KJV translators, along with most of the early Reformers in their commentaries, deliberately softened what they found to be an “indelicate” statement of Paul. Yes, the literal Greek verb is “to cut off” with no object specified, but the rhetorical pun in Paul’s argument in the Greek is pretty clear, as the verb (apoktopto) was pretty commonly used as a eupamism for emasculation. Nearly all modern translators agree that Paul was jestingly suggesting the Judaizers go “all the way” with their circumcision.