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Why was Paul popular?

May 16, 2014

I’ve been thinking about the apostle Paul lately and there is one thing that puzzles me.  Why was he so popular, and so effective, in his early church ministry?

It certainly can’t be because of his charming personality.  This is the guy who had a rip-roaring argument with Barnabas, a man whose very name means encouragement.  This argument was over John Mark and Paul’s “one strike and you are out” dismissal of him as a helper; an argument he never backs down from even as he does much later call the guy “useful.”  This is the guy who ripped Peter up one side and down the other for sitting at the wrong table, the Jewish table, at the church potluck.  He is the guy who called the Galatians “foolish”, a word that would be better translated “brainless”, for getting a point of theology wrong.  No, personality was not the key.

Was it his wonderful teaching?  If you believe his modern critics that can’t be it either.  George Bernard Shaw and several others have criticized him for promoting celibacy among believers, an idea they see as foolish or even dangerous.  Others see him as a woman-hater putting harsh and unneeded restrictions on women.  Still others see him as homophobic.  Even his supporters don’t deny his teaching on these issues, they agree with him but say he is teaching the truth and it isn’t hateful.

And yet, somehow, in a culture that considered celibacy, particularly for men, as little short of insane they flocked to him.  In a culture where women were treated like dirt so many women flocked to Paul’s teaching that a charge frequently leveled against the church that it was too female.  (Our contemporary evangelical obsession with “the feminization of the church” echoes this charge from within.  Nobody outside the church sees us as too feminine.)  In a culture where homosexuality was accepted and even championed, albeit in a far different form then today, he didn’t seem to cause outrage on this issue at all.

To be sure, Paul had his problems and persecutions, a large portion of them coming from his own Jews and other legalists, so he was never universally popular.  But it cannot be denied that he, more than anyone, was influential is getting flocks of gentiles to seek the church and to want to know this Jesus he spoke about.  If his modern critics were right, this would be completely inexplicable.  He, and his teaching, would be no more popular to those outside the church than they are now.

His contemporary supporters praise, even lionize, him but they largely agree with the critics as to what Paul is teaching.  They just say that, unlike our sinful contemporary culture, the Greek and Roman pagans were more receptive to hearing the truth.  I find this claim ludicrous beyond belief.  Rest assured, that culture was just as sinful as ours if not moreso.

So what is the answer?  Why did people seem so attracted to his teaching?  Why was he so popular?  For me one answer jumps off the page.

Perhaps neither his critics nor his supporters actually understand what Paul was teaching.

Perhaps we are all getting him wrong or, at the very least, missing some key understanding of how what he taught was understood and received in that culture.  Perhaps there was some alluring thread in his life, ministry and teaching that called out to his contemporaries.  Perhaps we all need to rethink Paul.

Here is one point where I believe that something Paul was teaching would have been overpoweringly alluring to many in that culture but that is widely missed in our reading of him.

In I Corinthians 7:1-16 Paul gives instructions on marriage.  This is the very passage Shaw and others are furious about because he opens the door to life-long celibacy.  Personally I can’t blame Paul for the way this passage spun out in later years to a hyper obsession with virginity and “purity.” His advice seems more practical than spiritual on that issue but that is beside the point.

But in that same passage Paul teaches, in explicit detail, something that would have been stunning to that culture.  Paul is teaching that a husband has a right to expect physical pleasure and satisfaction from his wife and she has the same right to expect it from him.  Indeed, he teaches that sexual activity should always be by mutual consent.  That culture might have grasped that wife’s body belonged to the husband but would have been stunned by the idea that the husband’s body belonged to the wife.

This is a radical teaching that is more than 1,700 years ahead of its time.  The idea that a wife could and should expect physical pleasure from her husband never occurred to the Jews, the Greeks or the Romans and frankly was never seen as important by most Christians until well past the Victorian age.  It is not extreme to say that 1,800 years before Jane Austen, Paul was laying out the groundwork for romantic love in marriage.

Our contemporary culture accepts this principle of mutuality in marriage so deeply that they tend to see Paul as Captain Obvious as he teaches it.  Yet I am sure that this is just one of many misunderstandings we have about what Paul teaches.  I don’t claim to be an expert but I am sure there are others.

The problem is, to understand the attractiveness of Paul in his time, we will probably have to set aside, whether we love him or hate him, any number of things we are sure he is teaching.  Do we have the courage to do it?  Are we ever willing to say “Gee,I guess I was wrong about Paul.”

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