Are the Words of Paul and the Words of Jesus Equally Important? | Dreaming Beneath the Spires

David O’Connell

Are the Words of Paul and the Words of Jesus Equally Important?

Were we baptised in the name of Paul? Did Paul die for us?

Would Paul, who called himself a bondservant of Jesus Christ, be horrified to find that his words were given equal weight with his Master’s?

Or in some circles, greater. For the words of Jesus cause little controversy. They are just death to obey.

But all our bitter theological disputes, today and through the centuries—whether women and gays today, or disputes over infant baptism, justification by faith alone etc.–are over the words of Paul, never the words of Jesus.

When there is a conflict between the words of Paul and the spirit of Jesus, what should we do?

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Paul says, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Tim 2:12).

He speaks about women in harsh, misogynistic, almost contemptuous terms. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.  Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?  But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. (1 Cor 14 34-38).

 But Jesus’s ministry was an inclusive one.  After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8 1-3)

We always see Jesus take the side of women. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus as the woman impulsively spent a fortune in anointing his feet. “Why are you bothering her? Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matt 26:13). He takes the part of the woman who has led a sinful life (Luke 7:50). He finds a way to save the woman caught in adultery (John 8). And tells the outcast woman at the well the way to be permanently spirit-filled (John 4 13-14).

Jesus does not rebuke Martha who gently reproached him, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary received more thorough commendation than any of the disciples, “Mary has taken the better part.”  

Women stood by him at the cross, buried him. And after his resurrection, he appears first to women, before he appears to his beloved disciples.

Can you imagine Jesus speaking in the harsh dismissive tone of 1 Cor 14 34-38? Me neither. I believe he would wince.

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Jesus is silent on homosexuality. How would he have treated homosexuals? We do not know, but can make an educated guess based on the way he treated other folk whom the religious people of his day considered outcasts–tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, or embezzlers like Zaccheus.

So this issue which is splitting denominations was never mentioned by Jesus, but largely by Paul!

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Was every word that Paul wrote in his letters personally dictated by the Spirit of God? Could there have been occasional errors in the transmission? Could he have been certain that he was discerning the mind and will of God—and simply have been wrong—as every human before and after him was?

While he was mostly in step with the Spirit, was he capable of interjecting his own opinion, prejudices, anger, harshness, and misogyny into his letters, just as no matter how much we have prayed, human personality, prejudices and preconceptions creep into our blogs, books and sermons?

Were his instructions to women to cover their heads in church dictated by God? We now read it as a directive to first century women. As we should read his directives that women do not speak or teach or lead in church.

He split with Barnabas rather than give Mark a second chance. Later in his life, Mark became invaluable to him.

Could he not have been wrong about other things?

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I believe that Paul’s letters were inspired by God. But I  do not believe that every syllable Paul wrote was personally dictated by God. For instance, did the Holy Spirit, for instance, dictate, Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. Phil 3:2 Or “I wish those troublemakers would castrate themselves.” Gal 5:12.

When there are contradictions between harsh Pauline statements, and the gentleness of Jesus, isn’t it wise to go with the spirit and practice of Jesus, rather than the letter of Paul’s letters?

                                                           * * *

Paul had an intense experience of Christ on the road to Damascus. He spent fourteen years in the desert getting to know him better. He had visions and revelations. He knew the love of Christ deeply, and discovered joy in appalling circumstances, for instance in the Mamertine dungeon. I have the deepest respect for Paul, and love for almost all his writings.

But Paul was a human being. He was not God. Jesus was.

It is when we take his words addressed to first century churches as normative for twenty-first century churches–his instruction to slave to submit to their masters; to women to submit to their husbands in “everything;” to cover their heads in church; to be silent; to not teach or have authority over men–that we get ourselves in a tangle.

For these are letters addressed to particular first century churches, not normative for all Christians for all time.

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 People say, “How do you know which directives were addressed to the Ephesians and which to women of all time?”

People say, “Oh, will you pick and choose what to believe?”

People say, “Beware of the slippery slope.”

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

I trust the Holy Spirit who led me to love and revere Christ and Scripture will enable me to read it accurately

And if—after sincere prayer and diligent study–I get it wrong? Well, intellectual error is not an unforgiveable sin.

There was grace for the Prodigal Son, and there will be grace for the stupid daughter.

As there will be grace for the Women who Dare to Speak in Church.

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