Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Team Paul Versus Team Jesus

If you’ve hung around a non-denominational church, chances are that you’ve heard a preacher or other leader brag about following God, not man. As Christians, we strive to be “of Jesus” and not of anyone else – Paul, Apollos, Cephas, etc. (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11-13). This is especially true within the Restoration Movement independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. Many members despise the term “Stone-Campbellite” precisely because it implies the sort of denominational bickering over manmade doctrines and ideas that Calvinist, Lutheran, Mennonite, and a whole host of other non-biblical names suggest. Well, I’ve got news, people. We’re most definitely “of Paul.”

What do I mean by that? When the New Testament canon was debated over and organized, the question was whether or not a particular book conformed to the “Synoptic Gospels” (i.e., the accounts written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke). That was the standard up to which all teaching and preaching was to be held (cf. Galatians 1:6-9).

Unfortunately, the norm tends in a different direction. The words of the Apostle Paul are used to introduce pet doctrines and generally serve as the final word in debate. He’s the go-to person for discussion about the purpose of baptism and the nature of grace. Arguments on dispensationalism and predestination pretty much stand or fall on his word. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Paul provided us with more material to work with than any other first century church author. However, I’ve seen how fanatical Christians can get as they use their understanding of Paul as the foundation for interpreting the rest of the New Testament.

Why not go in the opposite direction? Because the Gospels and non-Pauline Epistles are considered inferior to Paul’s letters. First, everyone is still subconsciously in lock-step with reformer Martin Luther’s decision to base his theology entirely on Paul and tear James out of his Bible. Second, many Christians consider the Gospels to be less relevant to the Church today than Paul’s letters because Paul addresses so many practical issues. Third, Peter and James are shunned as perpetual sinners because of the situation involving the Judaizers (cf. Galatians 2:1-14), which somehow nullifies everything else they did and said. I’m not sure what excuses are used for Hebrews and Jude, but it’s apparent that all five of John’s books are treated as mere eschatologically appendices to Paul’s books.

Not only does this elevation of Paul’s letters above the rest of the New Testament force a particular method to interpretation (e.g., “What does Paul say?”), but it also allows people to rely too much on their sense of a “plain reading” of Paul. Peter did tell us: The things Paul speaks of are difficult to understand, and the result is false doctrine (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). I’m not going to outright claim who is and isn’t too ignorant to understand, but I will suggest that, before any personal or group Bible study on anything written by Paul, Christians should ask, “What about me?”