This Past Sunday I had the privileged to preach at Old West United Methodist Church. It was a challenging experience as I was given a question and not a bible passage. However, I am really proud of how I did. I would like to share my sermon as my reflection for this week.
“I don’t like everything that Paul says. Why does Paul have so many books? Do I really have to follow all of the teachings of Paul and can I just follow the teachings of Jesus?”
Paul, oh Paul.
We have in our new Testament a collection of writings from this guy who went around and started churches all over the ancient world. Mind you I said ancient.
Back then they didn’t have email or facetime. They didn’t even have the phone. They had letters.
Paul’s letters are his way of keeping in touch with the people he had connected to. He was answering their questions, and addressing the issues that were arising in the baby churches he had planted.
Some of them he was probably bored during. Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon were all written when he was incarcerated by the roman empire. He had a lot of time on his hands to reflect, and to write.
Paul’s letters are simply put, letters. It does not do us good to read them without understanding the context. Since we do not have the letters from the churches
Hey Paul, so uh, we have been having some problems here. People are like fighting over who can speak in tongues the best and uh, it is getting awkward in here. Do you have any advice?
We do not have those letters, so we have to do some digging.
We also have to remember that so often when a passage is read in church it is taken out of a broader work. Often the things that happened before hand in the book help to explain what is happening in the passage read.
So now, let us talk about the problems with the stuff that Paul says.
I have chosen for us today two of the passages I personally have wrestled with in my own life.
The first one is
1 Corinthians 14: 34-35
34 Women[f] should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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.[g]
This has actually been used against me on several occasions. When I was living in Maryland and I was teaching swim lessons on the weekends, I had a mother ask me casually like what I was doing with my life. At the time I was attending the college of Southern Maryland, and I told her I had plans to then go to Boston University and Study anthropology and religion. She asked me what I wanted to do after that. I said that I was planning on going to seminary and that I would then go into the ministry. She immediately said “well what about what Paul says about women should not speak in church and that they should ask their husbands.” I was dumbfounded. I was shocked to my core. I stumbled around some words and said something like “uh, well, my tradition, we um subscribe more the the part where um Paul says there is no Gentile or Jew, Slave or free, Male or female…that we are all one in Christ.”
That answer was evidently not what she wanted to hear. She ended up removing her son from my swim class.
We first have to admit openly to ourselves that over the course of history and even still today certain parts of the bible have been used to hurt people. It is foolish to try and deny this and it is foolish to try and excuse it away.
Having said that let us talk about women and slaves.
Ladies first so we will start here. What is going on here? Well The Corinthians were having a lot of issues maintaining and establishing hierarchy. They were all wrapped up in spiritual gifts, and like who was better and who is speaking in tongues honestly and who is faking and it was all a big mess. Paul was like “um, I basically enlighten you to all of this, and you are still somehow missing the point. It should be all about radical love.”
There are several interpretations of what Paul is saying when is says that women can’t speak in church. Scholars discuss the translations of “speak” and what they could all mean. Some say that maybe they were squabbling or gossiping. Others think Paul is still talking about Speaking in Tongues and who can do that and when.
But rather than trying to excuse or erase what has been said, I think we should look at the text.
We can also do this thing that feminist and postcolonial biblical scholars often do called reading against the grain. If Paul is telling women not to speak then obviously women are speaking in Church. Obviously they are taking on leadership roles. Maybe Paul is telling them to stop, but there is also so much else going on here that it is hard to really tell. He also in this letter tells women that we should never cut our hair, and that we should have it covered when we pray.
We still have to remember that letters are a part of a dialogue. We have bits and pieces of a dialogue here. We know mostly what Paul said but he also is responding to and drawing from the letters to him. Sometimes even scholars can not tell what is Paul and what is a Quote.
Which conveniently brings us to Colossians. Colossians and Ephesians are books that are disputed among scholars as to whether or not Paul actually wrote them or if someone writing in his voice wrote them. Back in ancient times plagiarism was not really a thing. In fact it was a great honor to write as someone else. It was a way of paying homage to the person’s authority, as well as a way to tap into it a little.
Having said that, we still need to make sense of Colossians and slaves “obey your masters.”
As someone who finds the exploitation of life as a whole pretty horrific, I will say that I have spent many years of my life trying to figure out why for thousands of years human beings have had the capacity to see another human being as nothing more than property.
It is completely horrific for me to try and understand. Perhaps I never will. But what we must understand is that Slavery happened, in ancient history and in our history. However, it is also a reality that is not completely behind us. Human trafficking, child labor, sweatshops, the exploitation of foreign labor, the exploitation of farmers around the world who are being cheated out of their living.
Slavery is not something that we have yet to overcome, nor can we pretend that it never existed.
This passage in particular was used in the American South to reinforce slavery. It was preached to slaves, and it was used to put down and prevent uprisings.
This is a part of our history. We have to accept that it is in our scripture, and in our narrative as humans. That does not mean however that we must uphold it.
Paul or whoever was writing this, starts out with a wonderful unified “We are all one in Christ.” Then a few verses later re-enforces the social hierarchy and the power dynamics that existed at the time.
Yes we can contextualize this verse. Yes we can say “Oh well this applied when slavery was more widely accepted.”
But what do we say to people exploited today? What do we as the body of Christ tell people who are slaves in today’s world?
Would it be too radical to accept a moment of weakness? If we believe that the holy spirit is present in our lives, and present in the development and the journey of the church, than we must understand that we are looking at people. People who struggle with Authority, and social norms, and power dynamics. People, who maybe didn’t always get it right. People who were trying their best to follow the radical love of Christ and go where the Holy spirit led them.
Are we not just as much at fault for how the Church has hurt people today? WE can blame scripture and the Conservative Right.
But that is dangerous. It is just as dangerous as pretending these scriptures and this pain doesn’t apply to us.
People love to watch Christians. In an ever increasing atheistic generation it is more critical now than ever that we name these struggles.
We can not uphold problematic scripture. We can not ignore it because then people will use it against us. We can however, acknowledge that it is problematic. We can say yes we as the Body understands how these verses have led to harmful practice. We understand the pain that Christians before us, and Christians today still continue to inflict on all communities of people.
However, we stand with the oppressed as Christ called us to. We stand with you in Christian love.
So to the question I was asked. Can I just follow the teachings of Jesus?
The Gospels themselves are written with specific intentions at various points in the early history after Christ.
We should follow the teachings of Christ. We should follow this radical rabbi who ran around and told us that all were equal and loved. Yes that is good.
But we can not ignore the rest of the New Testament because it is hard, (not that Gospels are completely easy either). How are we to grow in understanding and compassion if we are not challenged? We have the Holy Spirit. We are guided in interpretation. We are given the struggles and challenges of those that came before us. That is valuable. These models for interacting with each other have great value. Paul may have said some problematic things. It is okay for us to struggle with those things. They were mentioned because obviously the people Paul was writing to were struggling also! We share that bond. The letters from Paul give us radical love as well.
11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
We have to look at the whole picture. We can not ignore things, and focus on others. We can not throw the baby out with the bath water. This thing called the bible is a package deal. Yes, it is hard, yes it is uncomfortable to sit with, and yes it is problematic. All of those things are okay.
Those that came before us struggled. We struggle. Those that come after us will struggle also.
No one said this would be easy. But let us go forth, love radically, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and remember that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.