What Would Paul Say?

Journal 2005

I have been taught all my life that we are to believe and follow every word written in the Bible. But we are inconsistent. We decide which rules and principles we want to follow and then gloss over the rest. (See The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight.) And if we question some portion of another person’s pet doctrine or rule, we’re accused of going against the Bible.

There’s a reason, obviously, why the Apostle Paul’s letters are included in the canon, but one must keep in mind that he wrote to specific individuals or churches about specific issues in the context of their culture. How different would these letters read if he were alive today and wrote to the American church or the Korean or Ethiopian or Brazilian? Different needs, different pastors, different times, different issues.

Would Paul, for example, still address the role of women in the church? Would he still preach, “Women, don’t usurp authority over men,” or would he instruct, “Exercise your God-given gifts, and don’t hinder each other’s spiritual growth”?

Would he still say, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” or would he say, “Be mutually respectful of each other”?

How would he address the subject of clothing, hairstyles, and modesty? Would he tailor his words to the country he’s writing to?

All the instructions regarding the widow list don’t apply so much to us in our U.S. culture where widows have more resources. Perhaps Paul would preach about ministering to the homeless instead.

Would Paul address employee-boss issues in the USA instead of slave-master dynamics?

Would he still need to give instructions on the use of spiritual gifts?

A 2022 Update. How politically correct do you think he’d be? I suspect Paul would not mince words to the churches about his opinions on issues he didn’t address in the first century, such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, transgender choices, and gay marriage.

The Blue Parakeet

Blue parakeetFrom my 2009 Journal. I just finished reading a thought-provoking book The Blue Parakeet—Rethinking How You Study the Bible by Scot McKnight. The author sets up two traditional ways of interpreting the Bible. The first is what he terms the “return and retrieve” approach: we return to what is literally taught in the context of the history in which it was written, and we try to obey it. This puts me in mind of another book I just finished—The Year of Living Biblically in which A. J. Jacobs humorously attempts to adhere legalistically to every command in the Law. The second approach is to “fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism.”

Why the title? Parakeets make wonderful pets, so we tame them, cage them, or clip their wings to keep them where we want them. McKnight contends that many of us attempt to do the same thing with the Bible. Instead, he proposes three better ways to read the Bible: Story, Listening, and Discerning.

With Story he suggests that we read the Bible like peering at Magic Eye photos  (take the flat, two-dimensional words off the page and see its three-dimensional depth) or like stepping into a picture on the wall and entering into it as an alive scene. He then suggests that we often try to do this with five ineffective shortcuts.

  • Morsels of Law (the dos and don’ts of Scripture). i.e. legalism—which results in our own superiority, being more concerned with being right than being good, and becoming judgmental. [I’m relating big time to this one.]
  • Morsels of blessings and promises (e.g. daily promise calendars). Dividing the Bible into chapters and verses contributes to this. “These people become optimistic and upbeat and wear big smiles . . . until something bad happens . . .” (p. 47).
  • Mirrors and inkblots. “Reading the Bible as an inkblot is projecting onto the Bible our ideas and our desires . . . it’s finding our story in the Bible instead of finding the Bible’s story to be our story” (p. 49).
  • Puzzling together the pieces to map God’s mind (systematic theology).
  • Maestros—following one “master” whether it be Moses, Jesus, or Paul. “One-chapter Bible readers develop one-chapter Christian lives.”

If we frame our relationship to God or the Bible as “authority,” then our response is going to be “submission.” But if we frame it as “love,” then our response is one of “love.” We’ve spent a lifetime being told to obey God—a term we use for a child (obey Mommy). But when we mature, our relationship to a parent grows to one of friendship, mutual respect, appreciation and love. I had to learn to obey my heavenly Father and to trust Him that He only wanted the best for me; and once I learned that, I could enter into the delights of getting to know Him better. He’s done everything for me, so relationally, I respond back to Him. I crave His attention; I crave spending time with Him—not just being subservient to Him.

If we read the Scriptures as a dialogue, a story, each author weighing in on a conversation, we get the bigger picture. For example, Paul says justification is by faith whereas James emphasizes works. This shows us that “James is in conversation with Paul or someone like Paul, or with someone who is distorting Paul.” Let’s say we had four theologians sitting around my dining room table chatting about their favorite subject. There would be banter back and forth between them, some saying one thing, another one correcting or honing in or asking questions. If we took just one statement off the table and wrote it down, out of the context of the conversation, all we’d have is a quote. We’d miss the larger picture, and we certainly wouldn’t experience the relationship that produced this quote. So . . . what’s our relationship to the Word? Love THE Word. I remember being jolted awake when I first heard the term “idolatry of the Bible”—where we worship God’s words instead of Himself.

McKnight says, “Words on a page are not just little squiggles of information on paper. Written words are personal exchanges, personal deposits of a person. Our words come from the depth of our heart and soul, and they extend who we are. That is why we care what others think of what we say . . . If you are doing good works, you are reading the Bible alright. If you are not doing good works, you are not reading the Bible alright” (p. 112). If you’re in the first group, keep it up; if you’re in the second group, make some changes!

And further: “We don’t follow Jesus literally; we  . . . pick and choose what we want to apply to our lives today, and I want to know what methods, ideas, and principles are at work among us for picking what we pick and choosing what we choose” (p. 122). The answer? Discernment.

If I were in a book club, I’d recommend this book for a conversation starter.