Paul’s Catch-22 (Day 28)

A reading of Romans 10–12

In a nutshell: Paul interprets lack of interest in Jesus among his fellow Jews as an opportunity designed by God to bring in as many members of non-Jewish nations as possible before he once again calls Israel back into the fold.

In view of my being an envoy to the nations, I make large claims about my ministry in the hope that I may somehow provoke my kinsmen to zealous competition and [in this way] lead some of them to God’s fulfillment. If their rejection [of the world-changing message] means global transformation, what would their acceptance [of the world-changing message] mean but a return to life from among the dead!
—Romans 11:13–15

30 Days of Paul around the Web

There is a new page on the blog that you can use to navigate resources for each day’s reading. You can click Start Here on the top right corner of any page to find a list of resources by day and verse. As I mentioned way back when we started this challenge, we are all reading for different reasons. You may find it helpful to read the contributions by other readers.

  • An index of Glynn Cardy’s Facebook posts for days 11–20 is now available on the blog. My personal favorite is his entry on Day 19, because it’s yet another reminder for me of the sometimes forgotten importance of Jesus’ teachings for Paul, even though these are often embedded in Paul’s assumptions rather than in what Paul directly says: “There’s a well-known Bible story of 5 fish and 2 loaves being enough to feed a multitude. In the earlier version [Mark 6] there is no mention of the donor of the fish and loaves, unlike the later version [John 6]. The miracle in Mark is what happened when this gift was blessed, broken and given to the seated groups – groups one author calls ‘circles of compassion’. The miracle in John though also includes the donor – a child, one of the ‘nuisances and nobodies’ of Jesus’ culture.”
  • Justin DaMetz has powered through some of the more mundane moments in Paul’s letters and found a joyful person worth emulating along the way: “the apostle Paul is a man continually filled with the joy of God, embodying a spirit of love and compassion consistent with his assurance in the Message he was spreading. I think the common perception of Paul in the popular mind is a dry, academic, boring personality. But throughout this study of his works, I have found an engaging, relatable, intensely human Paul, a man who is happy and driven and sometimes defensive or a braggart, but always compassionate.”
  • Jack Gillespie takes a moment in his reading of 2 Corinthians to encourage readers not to elevate the Bible as God: “If we’re constantly saying, ‘The Bible says…’ as some sort of legitimacy for our harsh and hateful words and actions toward others then it’s quite true, ‘what’s written kills.’ I think Paul would be mortified if he saw that we’ve made the Bible into an idol, the ‘fourth person’ of the G‑dhead.”

How did Rome come to be so important?

David Eastman lists three reasons people wrote adventure stories about early heroes of the Jesus movement, stories that largely ended in the deaths of those heroes (The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul, xviii–xxi):

  1. Identity formation. What did it mean to be a Christian, a true Christian, among the early followers of Jesus?
  2. Liturgical and cultic development. How did certain days and locations come to hold special significance for the Jesus movement?
  3. Competing claims to ecclesiastical authority. Why should Rome have more authority than places with more obvious claims to authority in the New Testament, like Jerusalem and Antioch?

Such questions were to resurge in importance continuously across the first few centuries of Christianity, when it was still a young religion and the locus of its power was not yet settled. “On one level there was no novelty in the martyrdom accounts of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, which places the apostolic deaths in Rome,” Eastman writes.

Yet at the same time, the stakes that were riding on this claim had grown higher. If the churches of the East were tempted to ignore or claim greater authority than Rome, then they needed to be reminded where the blood of Peter and Paul had flowed on behalf of the faith. After Christ himself, these were the two greatest martyrs of Christianity. They had died on Roman soil, and their bodies still lay in Roman soil. In the minds of Roman Christians, and especially their bishops, this fact bestowed special authority on the Roman Church. The popularity of the apocryphal accounts of the martyrdoms of Paul and Peter, therefore, made these texts powerful political tools of pro-Roman propaganda. (xxi)

I’ve only read Eastman’s introduction to the vast array of stories about what happened to Peter and Paul, many of which he has translated into English for the first time, but this logic is very much in keeping with the findings of the Acts Seminar and the most recent Christianity Seminar discussion of martyrdom accompanied by Jennifer Wright Knust’s presentation on how Christians were actually using the martyr stories.

The letter to the Romans both encouraged early Christians to make Rome important and at the same time has retroactively become more important than it originally was. Readers have come to associate Rome with the leadership of the church because of the Vatican and its predecessors, but in Paul’s time Rome was not as important as Jerusalem. That changed after the destruction of Jerusalem during the Jewish War of 70 C.E.—the subject of the next session of the Christianity Seminar in Atlanta, Georgia (November 2015).

In taking on the weight of such history, this letter to the Romans has become almost too important, so that what was originally a more complicated situation for Paul transformed into fodder for anti-Semitism over the years. In fact, there is a much darker problem going on in the letter.

In the book Catch-22, the bomber pilot Yossarian is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate, and tragic circumstances—he sees friends die and disappear, his squadron gets bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals volunteer their men for the most perilous battle in order to enhance their own reputations—and eventually is expected by his superiors to make a choice between two equally unpleasant futures.

The Seductive Power of Corruption

Something I like about the metaphor of the road from Rome to Jerusalem is that it can also be reversed. We can walk both ways. Thinking as a community rather than individuals, we can continually be walking both ways in a continuous exchange. That’s what I hear in today’s reading from Paul. God isn’t choosing one group of people at the exclusion of others. From a “Gods-eye view” all everybody needs is a little time. In Paul’s era, Paul felt God’s focus wasn’t on Jerusalem but on the non-Jewish nations. It was their time to discover a meaningful relationship with God and be adopted (“grafted”) into God’s people. (More cynically, I would say we can all be “drafted” into God’s army.)

As cynical as I can be, it’s impossible to ignore the compassionate notes in Paul’s voice here. He wants to see everybody come together in one community. He reiterates the importance of using one’s gifts for the benefit of all (12:5–8), a reprise of 1 Corinthians. Yes, a lot of this is the loyalty loop, but sometimes people show their loyalty to the group by attacking outsiders. Here Paul urges his community to “defeat what is evil with what is good” (12:21b) by doing things like blessing rather than cursing your enemies and refusing to entertain notions of superiority toward anyone but rather spend your days with ordinary people (12:14–18). Easier said than done.

I’m stretching now back across all the letters we’ve read. Paul isn’t saying people won’t suffer when Jesus the conquering hero comes back to seize the world for God. He believes God’s enemies will suffer and will deserve to suffer because they are morally evil. Most people would agree with Paul that people who commit evil deeds deserve to suffer, but would disagree on how they should suffer and to what degree and by whose hands. In previous readings I observed that Paul insists on leaving judgment to God and also, in some limited capacity, to post-resurrection loyal followers of God (presumably because they will know God’s wishes and be able to carry those out to God’s satisfaction).

So I hope you can appreciate why I’m fighting some majorly cynical voices in my head here as I read. I’m remembering Nietzsche’s dreadfully sexist comment about women that obviously alludes to Christianity, too: “Finally: woman! One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant—woman needs a religion of weakness that glorifies being weak, loving, being humble as divine” (The Will to Power, §864).

Once, when I was teaching philosophy, I posed a moral dilemma in which a group’s survival depends on the sacrifice of one member. The worst of the scenarios was a Silence of the Lambs-esque kidnapping. The kidnapped people are locked in a cell and told by their kidnapper that he will return in a few hours to kill one person. He will either kill the person the group decides should be killed, or he will pick one person at random. What would you do in that scenario?

One devout Christian man immediately spoke up. “I would volunteer to be the one who dies.”

But another male member of the group waved him off. “Here’s the reality,” said the other. “Let’s say it’s you, me, and this guy”—he gestured at an Iraq war vet also taking the class—“who are locked in that cell. You’re not a physically strong person. I can see that we’re both stronger than you. It’s as obvious to you as to us that you would not be able to win any sort of struggle that occurred among us in the event we choose you as the first victim, so you take the honorable way out by volunteering to be the one sacrificed.”

Both participants in this conversation were articulate and well-meaning. The second student’s comment may sound harsh, but he was pointing to the impulse to survive if we can. He argued that the choice to die by sacrifice was a matter of choosing how to die, not whether to die; he believed the other person already understood that he was not in a position with enough power to shape the situation further than that. Sacrifice is a choice made by people without the power to ensure the survival of what they hold dear (including their own lives).

It’s possible, in other words, that this was Paul’s position, too.

I really, really dislike this level of cynicism (some would call it plain common sense), but it’s an experience that has stuck with me ever since. I can offer one new insight into the scenario that I didn’t have available to me at the time. The sacrificial victim is responding to a lack of power, but so are the strong-arms. They can’t actually guarantee that the person who imprisoned them will follow through on his promise. They can’t necessarily escape from the cell. They, too, are powerless, but simply perceive (rightfully or wrongfully) that they are at least more powerful than that guy over there.

Yesterday I mentioned that Paul sees the earth as a place of decay slowly drawing us down into the mire. Paul is suggesting that on a sinking ship, we make a choice that is not self-serving so much as life-giving. It’s a how to die, not a whether to die. The main difference is that one person sees that while the others try their best to hold onto what power they can, while they can. That’s the seductive power of corruption Paul was talking about (so unhelpfully translated as “sin” in most Bibles). It’s seductive because it’s still leading to a dead-end; some people just haven’t given up on it yet.

I disagree with Paul that all of life is like the kidnapper’s prison cell. It narrows the view of reality too far, to the point of severe oversimplification. But my experience with my students tells me that Paul was right about people’s short-sightedness in the face of loss. The fact of the matter was that nobody locked in that cell had the power to simply walk away, and they all knew they were about to lose something.

Question for the Road:

  • Have you ever witnessed a how rather than a whether type of decision? (We often see this when people are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, for instance.) What did you learn from the experience?
  • Is there anything actually wrong with being the person who volunteers to sacrifice himself or herself in the prison cell scenario? How should we handle power differences among suffering people?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Paul’s Letters sans Loyalty (Day 23)

A reading of Philippians 2:19–3:1a, 4:4–9, 4:21–23

In a nutshell: Paul preens Timothy as his successor in the event that he dies while in prison. Meanwhile, he send back Epaphroditus, whose illness raised concerns among his friends.

No one else here is such a kindred spirit, who will be as genuinely concerned about how you are getting along as I am. All of the others are looking out for their own interests, not the interests of Jesus the Anointed.
—Philippians 2:20–21

So if it’s not about loyalty…

There I went and opened my big mouth. Yesterday I talked about the loyalty loop and concluded by saying, “But I still think we can know what Paul cared about.”

“So,” you say, “what can we know?”

If I narrow my view down to just the evidence presented in this letter to the Philippians from prison, here is the content that stays behind when I pass it through the loyalty sieve. It’s not much, but it is instructive.

Observation #1: To whom or to what?

God is the one to whom we should be loyal, in the sense that whatever brings honor and praise to God defines the merits of our loyalty (1:12). Furthermore, we are also encouraged to be loyal to Jesus (1:21), or at the very least, Paul feels that his whole life is dedicated to Jesus and that his companion Timothy is also wholly loyal to Jesus—in fact, Tim is more loyal than all those other guys that are just involved for selfish reasons (2:20–21).

Sorry, yes, I just dropped a “Tim” like a youth pastor. Did I mention I still tune in to Christian radio sometimes? Am I the only member of the church alumni association that does this?

Yesterday I emphasized that loyalty always needs a buddy. Loyalty for loyalty’s sake is dangerous and sometimes even despicable. I really like that Paul is loyal to a person (albeit a deity) rather than any one cause or object or value. People can never be one-dimensional. Jesus is not one-dimensional unless you only read one story about him. Even if you restrict yourself to the Bible, you’ve got four biographies of Jesus. That leaves a lot of leeway in a dialogue with Paul: “You say Jesus was a divine king, but I say he was a healer. Let’s discuss.”

Observation #2: God has news

God has earth-shattering news (1:5, 7): the news is that Jesus is the Anointed (1:6, 10). We know this not only because the big event is named after Jesus—“the day of the Anointed”—but also because Paul has a long paragraph about what it means to go around “proclaiming the Anointed.” This isn’t a secret message, by the way. Paul is happy no matter who is shouting about it (see 1:15 onward). Paul is even happy that his imprisonment has brought more attention to the cause (1:12 onward).

Funny thing about this. It’s so familiar. I feel like I’m reciting my Pentecostal upbringing and singing Hosannas at Christmas. “Glory to the newborn king!” I’d like to say, “Aha, they were wrong and that stuff isn’t in Paul!” The newborn part isn’t in there, but the theme of proclaiming a new king certainly is.

Here Paul is happy to proclaim a message loudly and clearly, whereas back in 1 Corinthians 3 he claimed to have to hold back on some teachings because the communities in Corinth were like infants not yet ready for chewable food. That was Paul’s explanation for the misunderstandings that came between them. This isn’t a contradiction, in my opinion. The core of the public announcement could be, “Jesus is king and Jesus is coming,” while the details are reserved for those who have made a commitment to serving that king.

That’s pretty much how most community groups operate today.

Observation #3: Man against man except when it’s the other way around

The Anointed lends support to his assemblies by means of “the power and presence of God” (1:19). This is probably not metaphorical. Opponents of God and the Anointed are facing “ruin” (1:28), a reminder that like any king, Jesus is imagined as coming and putting down his enemies. Jesus will rule someday over the three-tiered universe of underworld, earth, and the heavens (2:10).

I’d like to say Paul was aware that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but I don’t really see evidence of that. This language is all militaristic. It really does sound like Paul is planning a coup.

In his defense, he believes Jesus is more fair and good than the leaders of the current regime, and that the God of Israel has generously offered to accept any members of the nations who are willing to be adopted into the fold. One might ask, “And what rebel government would say otherwise?”

Maybe the corruption of the reigning government was so obvious, so egregious, that nobody needed to be convinced otherwise. Nelson Mandela was somewhat controversial for his willingness to commit violent acts of resistance, but many people would agree with him that the apartheid-era conditions warranted strategic violence.

I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. (Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964)

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Roman Empire was violent, but we won’t get that evidence from Paul aside from the fact that he’s in prison and that, in previous letters, he described other ways he had been harmed. Like yesterday’s letter from Yves to Alex, we have to rely on external evidence to flesh out the situation.


Observation #4: Loyalty can become content

Paul lapses into a loyalty loop around Jesus in the creed of 2:6–11. Jesus was born “in the image of God,” which was probably Paul’s way of saying Jesus was a born noble like any Roman emperor (cf. practically every book on the royal family). Paul then says Jesus “accepted a servant’s lot” and “became trustfully obedient all the way to death, even death by crucifixion” (2:7, 8). “That is why,” Paul tells us, “God raised him higher than anyone” (2:9). In other words, Jesus gets to be king because he is obedient even when it seems to lead to utter shame.

I’m disappointed by this. I think Paul is missing an opportunity here. By describing Jesus as good because he was obedient, he collapsed loyalty into the content of his message and lost track of whatever more fundamental points make worthwhile the choice to pledge allegiance to this God and this king. Anybody can be obedient, anybody can be loyal. The sacrificial piece, the part about dying, is more extreme, but the people who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, blew up the London subway, and released sarin in the Tokyo subway were also pretty self-sacrificing. So what’s the real point, Paul?

I just get really, really frustrated when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rooting for. As we move into our final letter to the Romans, this problem weighs heavily on my mind.

Questions for the Road:

  • Let’s get inventive. Right now the creed in 2:6–11 gives obedience to God as the reason for Jesus’ importance. Try revising it so that it gives a different reason. Bonus: try giving a reason Paul might be willing to endorse.

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Thinking of You Always (Day 22)

A reading of Philippians 1–2:18, a letter from prison (part 1)

It looks like I have a typo in my reading plan (if you’re following it that closely). Day 23 will be 2:19–3:1a, 4:4–9, 4:21–23. Sorry about that! In the Day 22 and Day 23 posts I cover themes from the overall letter, so please don’t worry if you ended up reading it in a different order.

In a nutshell: Paul gives an update from prison that doubles as an appeal to unity between himself and the supportive community at Philippi. He quotes an early creed or hymn in 2:6–11.

See to it that you do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be above reproach and without guile, untainted children in the midst of a dishonest and devious generation, among whom you stand out like lights in a dark world.
—Philippians 2:14–15

Thinking of You Always

I’ve been meaning to revisit the “loyalty loop” I brought up while reading 1 Corinthians. A refresher: “You should be loyal and present a united front because it will make other people want to join us in being loyal and presenting a united front.” On and on, unto perpetuity.

There’s a subtle logic behind statements like, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” even though it’s corny. Social groups play the loyalty loop game at risk of forgetting the substance of their relationship. Can you be loyal for loyalty’s sake? No. Loyalty is a secondary feature of morality—it is a quality of mind or mode of behavior that depends on others. Loyalty needs a buddy. It begs a follow-up question:

“I’m loyal.”

“But to whom or to what are you loyal?”

Let’s look at a wonderfully simple example of how intimate letters often focus on loyalty, unity, togetherness, to the exclusion of the to whom or to what. If you simply plucked the letter below from a table and read it, what would you know about the people named in it?

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press. Found on Brain, from Liza Kirwin’s book More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press. Found on Brain, from Liza Kirwin’s book More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

My very very dear Alex

I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart


First of all, you might not be sure whether the writer and recipient are male or female. You won’t know where Alex lives, or what sort of work either person does. You know one tantalizing detail: Marrakech. Not only is this word written in the letter but the charming drawing brings the setting to life with the beautiful veiled woman and the geometrical designs in the background. The veiled woman suggests a female participant in the letter, but if you jumped to that conclusion (as I did), you would be wrong.

Now, if you happen to be a purveyor of fashion, you might have guessed that the charming “Yves” is none other than the designer Yves Saint-Laurent and “Alex” is Vogue art director Alexander Liberman. Although hints of these identities exist in the letter, such as the beautifully rendered drawing, it was also possible to reach very different conclusions. Also, are they friends or lovers? Why should loyalty be at the forefront of Yves’ mind? Was it business related or was it personal? What is the quality of the affirmation of loyalty in this letter?

Some of these questions may have concrete answers, but my point is that a letter like this, minus context, becomes very difficult to pin down in terms of the character of the people involved. Case in point, consider this letter:

Mein Liebes Tschapperl,

Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though perhaps a little tired. I hope to come home soon and then I can rest in your arms. I have a great longing for rest, but my duty to the German people comes before everything else. Don’t forget that the dangers I encounter don’t compare with those of our soldiers at the Front. I thank you for the proof of your affection and ask you also to thank your esteemed father and your most gracious mother for their greetings and good wishes. I am very proud of the honor—please tell them that—to possess the love of girl who comes from such a distinguished family. I have sent to you the uniform I was wearing during the unfortunate day. It is proof that Providence has protected me and that we have nothing more to fear from our enemies.

From my whole heart, your A. H.

If you guessed that this letter is from Adolf Hitler to Eva Braun, you would be right. He sent it to her shortly after an attempt on his life on July 20, 1944. Notice once again that the actual content of the letter gives no hint about what it means to have a “duty to the German people.” For Hitler, that involved annihilating a whole group of people he felt were a threat to whatever he and his friends defined as “the German people.” That goes unmentioned. And why shouldn’t it? The purpose of this letter is to affirm loyalty and fidelity between lovers. In that respect, Hitler behaves as a perfect gentleman with perhaps a bit of a dramatic touch in his choice to send along the ill-fated uniform.

Loyalty in Paul’s Letters

I have just given two examples of very brief letters to make the point that appeals and affirmations of loyalty, unity, or fidelity (all appropriate words) can override everything else when communicating with your own partners and posse. Paul’s letters fall into that category. The good news is that most people let the substance of their loyalty bleed naturally into the way they talk about it, so Paul’s long letters give us more opportunities to observe that. Even though Paul talks a lot—a lot—about unity and loyalty and fidelity, he also drops enough hints and midrash into his letters that we get a feel for the shared content between himself and his communities.

Here are just a few examples of appeals to loyalty in today’s reading, Paul’s letter from prison. The content of the loyalty is not presented or celebrated or urged in these appeals, only the loyalty itself:

Whenever I pray for you all I pray with joy, because of your partnership on behalf of God’s world-changing news ever since we met. (1:5)

God knows how I long for all of you with a depth of feeling like that of the Anointed Jesus. I am praying that your love [for one another] may continue to grow in understanding and discernment, so that you will be able to recognize what really matters, be absolutely genuine and innocent of any offense on the day of the Anointed, and be filled to overflowing with the benefits of the integrity that Jesus the Anointed inspires in us. This is what will bring honor and praise to God. (1:8–11)

Just make sure you conduct yourselves in a manner that is worthy of the world-transforming message about the Anointed … [be] resolutely one in heart and mind, contending side by side with the unconditional confidence in God that the world-transforming message inspires, not intimidated in the least by our opponents. (1:27–28)

So if [you know] how uplifting it is to belong to the new community of the Anointed, if [you know] something about being motivated by love, if [you know] something about the spirit of fellowship and genuine compassion, then make me completely happy by sharing the same attitude, showing the same love toward one another, and being united in heart and purpose. (2:1–2)

Paul uses words like “fellowship” and “compassion” (literally, “suffer with”). He speaks of being “united” and “side by side” in “partnership.” Even the creed in 2:6–11 can be read through a unity lens, although there is other content in it as well.

The loyalty loop in Paul’s letters leads me to the following key observations:

  1. Paul’s focus on loyalty doesn’t mean his letters are devoid of other content. For example, I think it’s obvious that Paul’s answer to the question, “To whom or to what?” is Jesus and the God of Israel. What’s less obvious is what that means.
  2. Paul’s focus on loyalty is a normal human practice that is easily found in other letters written by and for people who are neither Christian nor often even religious. Loyalty is not unique to Paul or even to Christianity.
  3. Even though loyalty isn’t unique to Paul, Paul makes absolutely wonderful, beautiful statements about loyalty. Loyalty isn’t automatically bad; we just need to answer the question, to what and to whom?
  4. When we make claims about Paul’s thought and theology, we need to notice appeals to unity and ask why Paul included them. Sometimes they serve as pledges of fealty to the God of Israel and God’s chosen king Jesus. Sometimes Paul appeals to unity in order to bolster his own authority, quash dissent, and minimize attention from the authorities (often to protect his people from harm).

Questions for the Road:

  • When is loyalty at its best? What are you loyal to?
  • The danger of loyalty lies in uncritical “loyalty for loyalty’s sake.” Where do you see the risk of that in your life?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

“I’m a free man, am I not?” (Day 10: 1 Corinthians 9–10)

In a nutshell: Paul treads a delicate line between freedom and one’s obligation to God and others in response to questions about eating meat sacrificed to other gods.

Are you unaware of the fact that those who work in the temple service get their food from the temple, and that those who officiate at the altar of sacrifice receive a share of the sacrificial offerings? In the same way the lord commanded that those who proclaim the news about God’s Anointed should receive their living from their work of proclamation. But I have never made use of these legitimate claims, nor am I writing this so that they will be given to me.
—1 Corinthians 9:13–15a

30 Days of Paul around the Web

  • Justin DaMetz on Running Dirt Roads tackles the tricky balance of unity amidst disagreements in 1 Cor 3–4: “We still have this problem today. I don’t mean this to be a screed against denominationalism; I think denominations can serve a good purpose, in that we all experience and find God in different ways, and diverse communities can help people find an authentic church home. But too often, we let our disagreements stand in the way of being One Church under One God.”
  • At the Community of Saint Luke, Glynn Cardy draws upon the Maori practice of mana to give Paul’s concerns in 1 Corinthians 9–10 a sense of context: “In a dispute, the wise resolution is not just one that uses reason and argument, but one that builds honour. The ‘winners’ of an argument need to ask themselves the question: “How, in winning, can we build up the mana of the ‘losers’?” For if the ‘losers’ honour is not built up, then the good of the whole community will suffer.”

Creed and Conscience

Today’s reading is a continuation of a discussion Paul opened in 1 Corinthians 8. He began, interestingly enough, with what was likely an early creed of the Jesus movement. Compare 1 Cor 8:6 with other still-used Western creeds:

Jewish Shema (Deut 6:4)
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Muslim Shahada
There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.

1 Cor 8:6
There is one God, our Creator and Benefactor
through whom all things are and for whom we live
and one lord, Jesus the Anointed
through whom all things are and through whom we live.

This short creed with strong parallels for easy memorization is certainly more manageable than the later-developed Nicene Creed, which reads as follows:

WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.


The Nicene Creed reflects its context: it ballooned into this large and flowy style in order to respond to other diverse attempts to understand who Jesus was and what it means to pledge allegiance to him. The pleasant way of saying this is that the composers of the Nicene Creed sought to give order to a growing movement; the unpleasant way is to say they were shutting out people who didn’t think like them.

I was first turned onto the parallel between 1 Cor 8:6 and the other Western creeds by a 2003 On Being interview with Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University. Before he passed away in 2006, he collected and studied Christian creeds across both history and culture, a life’s work that is distilled in his book Credo (Yale, 2003). Pelikan’s perspective on Jesus is notably pious—he describes Jesus in terms of salvation, for instance—but his attitude strikes me as a natural outgrowth of being steeped in creeds, as it were. Creeds for Pelikan are a place of belonging. Consider his response to interviewer Krista Tippett’s question, “Tell me what you value when you say the Nicene Creed?”

I’m very wrapped up in the whole history of the Church and particularly in the history of its teaching, so that, I cannot come at any question as though it had never been approached before.

Partly because of that, the singing of the creed is a very important and cherished way of indicating a universality of the faith across not only space, but time. To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.

It’s ‘we’ all of us together. And in a more profound sense, that also forms an answer to your — to your question. My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe? And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see. What do I believe today?” No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, “We believe in one God.”

Yesterday I complained a bit about Paul’s “loyalty loop,” and you can see here that the same thing risks being true of Pelikan. One may indeed be simply participating in Le Corbusier’s “detritus of dead epochs.” But I feel the need today to temper my complaint with an equal plea not undervalue participation in an ancient community and its traditions.

Sacrifice of Iphegenia
Sacrifice of Iphegenia. Mark Rothko. Learn more.

In today’s reading, 1 Corinthians 9–10, the creedal spirit is given concrete application. The Corinthians feel, and Paul agrees, that there is nothing inherently morally wrong with eating meat sacrificed to other “phony” gods. The one God (of Israel) provides the sustenance, and human beings of course may partake in it with gratitude. The problem, of course, is that other people believe in other gods, so misunderstanding can result from this behavior. It looks like disloyalty to others, so it’s not a good practice.

Paul wants to encourage a spirit of freedom tempered by conscience. He offers himself and Barnabas as extreme examples—envoys who have a right to claim support according to the instructions of the lord (that is, Jesus), but who don’t do so because they want to keep the barriers to their message as low as possible. This is the context of Paul’s famous declaration in 1 Cor 9:20–22:

To the Jews I behaved as a Jew so that I might win over Jews. To those who are subject to the Mosaic law I behaved as one not subject to it, not because I am not subject to the law of God, but because I am subject to the law of the Anointed, so that I might win over those who are not subject to the law. To the weak I behaved as if I were weak, so that I could win over the weak. I have accommodated myself in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people so that by all these means I might save some.

There’s no way around the salvation language here, so we shouldn’t try to domesticate Paul for our era by eradicating it. Paul thought people needed to be saved from a corrupt world, and he thought Jesus was the “knight in shining armor” who made that possible (the “how” of that process is more flexible).

Rather, I am interested in Paul’s care in guiding his community through deepening layers of commitment. I’d like to believe there are times when we can and should make commitments. Since we’re dealing with a loyalty loop anyway, it pays to ask whether we like Paul’s approach. If you’re going to ask somebody to be loyal to a cause, is Paul employing morally acceptable strategies to go about it?

Paul’s appeal to conscience to me is a bit of a saving grace after my frustration with him yesterday. He didn’t have to express concern about causing others to stumble. He could have urged communities to flaunt their willingness to eat whatever they like. He shied away from that, though. Okay, maybe this is a social acceptability issue, an issue of Paul not wanting his communities squashed by the authorities. That’s also possible. But it that, too, may come out of a place of conscience and caring.

To offer a modern parallel, I don’t think Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, wanted people to be harmed in their nonviolent resistance. They took precautions to minimize risks, and participants came to the process voluntarily.

Or perhaps this is a better parallel: I don’t think new religious movements necessarily set out to have violent altercations with authorities. There’s a good reason that, early on, the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) pressed further and further West to establish their community—they were being harassed and killed for their beliefs. Does a sense of concern for one’s community somehow imply that a movement isn’t “radical” enough? I think not. Surely compassion, empathy, and loyalty are values that rightfully belong in any religious or spiritual system worth supporting.

I think the question I’m trying to pose here is this: Is it possible to belong to a tradition while retaining the level of flexibility Paul models here? Isn’t it ever acceptable to settle on a set of beliefs and stick to them? As Krista Tippett put it (I’m paraphrasing), how can we overcome the secular fear of proclaiming a truth that negates another person’s truth?

Questions for the Road

  • Do you have a creed? To ask the question a different way, what are your non-negotiables in life? Is it important to be able to commit to a set of beliefs shared in common with others?
  • Can you relate with Paul’s concern to protect his communities from harm? Have you ever urged members of your family or community to temper their activities in order to prevent harm?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

What Does Sex Have to Do with God? (Day 9: 1 Cor 7–8)

In a nutshell: Paul delves into detailed issues experienced by the Corinthians in their attempts to emulate Jesus, first dealing with sexual and familial obligations, then communal meals.

The married man is concerned with earthly life, how he might please his wife. His interests are divided. … In saying this I’m trying to be helpful to you. I do not want to impose a restriction on you, but want your devotion to the lord to be admirable and constant and undistracted.
—1 Corinthians 7:33b, 35

30 Days of Paul around the Web

  • I came across a new 30 Days of Paul contributor today! How exciting! Please welcome Jack Gillespie, who is contributing on his blog, Celtic Odyssey. Here is Jack’s entry on Day 8, 1 Corinthians 5–6: “Right off the bat of chapter 5, Paul brings up some really disturbing activity among this community. Apparently, a man from the community was having sex with his step mom and the community seemed to approve of it (5.1–2)! Holy crackers! This sounds like a headline from the local nightly news! But what are we to make of Paul’s recommendation for discipline?”
  • Justin DaMetz continues his series on Running Dirt Roads with a meditation on the Foolishness of God: “We are called to be in solidarity and at one with the poor and the forgotten. The only way we can serve others is through truly walking in their shoes, not just sympathizing with their struggles, but joining them in it as fully as possible. We can’t just do that by sending money overseas, or by donating food to a pantry. We must join their struggle for liberation, we must work to dismantle those institutions and structures that keep people in chains, even if that institution is the church itself, or America itself.”

On the surface, there seems to be no reason why, today, some Christians should be so alarmed about sex. Nevertheless, the single most popular article on the Westar website is “What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality,” by William O. Walker. Christians seem to talk about sex all the time, but what possible bearing can it have on their relationships with God? What does it matter if two men or two women get married to each other, adopt children (or, as is becoming increasingly common, have children with the help of a donor), and generally speaking live out their lives together? Where is the threat in this? In short, what does sex have to do with God?

I’ve been avoiding sex in Paul’s letters so far, but today I woke up ready to tackle this problem. Deep breath, everybody. I know this is a sensitive and painful topic for many of us.

An Overview of Sex in Paul’s Letters So Far

For starters, this is NOT Paul on Sex. In the collective judgment of the authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul that the following relevant texts are NOT written by Paul because they are (1) inconsistent with statements made by Paul about sex as part of larger, more integral arguments in his letters, and/or (2) they use language such as “church” and “congregations” that reflect the more developed church characteristic of the second century. Paul himself wrote in the early first century before there were church positions such as “deacon” or “elder.” In some cases, the verses in question also interrupt the flow of Paul’s arguments.

  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • 1 Cor 11:2–16
  • 1 Cor 14:33b–38

Most of these texts are laundry lists of rules about women covering their hair, men being the “head” of the woman, stuff like that. As we will see, this doesn’t give Paul a “get out of jail free” card and we shouldn’t look on excluding these verses as a way to simply avoid the problem. Even after excluding these verses, Paul is still an uncomfortable and confusing contributor to the conversation about sex.

This IS Paul on Sex. Paul discusses sexual relationships in depth in 1 Corinthians 5–10, mingled with what Paul perceives to be related problems about (1) food sacrificed to—in Paul’s words—phony gods and (2) proper behavior at communal meals, especially meals modeled after the last supper. Paul briefly discussed appropriate sexual behavior in 1 Thessalonians 4. Let’s stick to these sections for now. We can tackle anything new that comes up pertaining to sexuality in later letters when we get to them.

The stuff you’ll find in these passages include:

  • Treat your partner with respect, not like an object. (1 Thess 4)
  • Do not deceive others about sex. (1 Thess 6)
  • Expel people from the community who engage in immoral sexual behavior. Paul’s example of this is a son sleeping with his stepmother. (1 Cor 5)
  • Sexual immortality by one person affects the whole community, like leaven in dough. (1 Cor 5)
  • Sexual immorality within the community should be treated differently that it would with people outside or transitioning into the community, even if these outsiders are considered immoral by respectable society. In short, it’s okay to judge the behavior of insiders who have already made a commitment to the community, but judgment should be reserved against outsiders. (1 Cor 5)
  • The freedom given by the Anointed is not freedom to do whatever a person wants sexually. (1 Cor 6)
  • Sexual promiscuity is an offense against your own body, which is a temple. (1 Cor 6)
  • Celibacy is a matter of maintaining your focus on God instead of “earthly matters.” It is, however, a graduated level of commitment. You don’t have to be celibate if you don’t have that level of self-control. It is better to remain with a partner, or even get married, than to resort to prostitution (sex outside commitment). (1 Cor 7)
  • The rule of thumb is to retain the commitments you made prior to your commitment to Jesus, as long as it doesn’t compromise your loyalty to Jesus. Stay with partners, remain a loyal slave (but go ahead and become free if you have the opportunity), remain a virgi if you have enough self control to do so. If your partner dies, don’t get remarried but remain a widow/er (1 Cor 7)
  • Marriage is a right on some level, and other messengers of God even have wives, but Paul models and encourages celibacy as a higher form of commitment. (1 Cor 9)
  • It’s possible that illicit sex and other behaviors could lead to ill fortune. (1 Cor 10)

Sex as a Loyalty Problem

Le Corbusier wrote in his classic Towards a New Architecture (1923), “Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.” His larger point was that we should focus on designing buildings that serve the present world instead of reinstating the architecture of past eras—a lesson that might be applied to Paul and sex. No doubt we sometimes feel what some Christians are after today is what another architect, Mies van der Rohe, said: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”


There is more applicability to sex in that idea of architecture and “dead epochs” than what initially meets the eye. A common and persistent human longing resides in the claim that “we are all stardust.” We long to participate more permanently in the cosmos, which persist even when our individual lives end. Throughout human history we have seen ourselves as microcosms, literally “little universes.” As Karen Armstrong observes so often in her work, ancient people used myths to express their longing to participate in that greater whole and indeed their faith that they could participate in it in a meaningful way. In religion the microcosm both reflects and affects the greater cosmos.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep in view the idea of the human body as a little universe when reading Paul’s discussion of sex. Paul is first and foremost concerned with loyalty. When I first started reading Paul, I thought he was stuck in what I dubbed a “loyalty loop.” You should be loyal so other people so how loyal you are and want to become loyal, too, without every discussing what the content of that loyalty really means.

Yesterday, in discussing Paul’s Jesus, I was fighting that impulse in myself to dismiss Paul as stuck in a loyalty loop. When it comes to sex, this impulse is especially strong. When I scan down my list of Paul’s points (above), I do feel this is largely a commitment problem. In such cases, I like to appeal to bioethicist Margaret Battin’s wonderful rule:

Unprovable, off-scale, self-interest-gratifying theological claims are to be considered suspect when their central function is to excuse violations of moral norms. (Ethics in the Sanctuary, 172)

Paul tells us, more or less, “Keep your current commitments so long as they don’t impede your commitment to the Anointed (Jesus) and through him, God.” For obvious reasons, then, you can’t keep participating in rituals and activities associated with other gods. Another fairly straightforward issue with sexual relationships is simply that they are a distraction from serving God.

Less obvious, though, is precisely what makes promiscuity, sex outside of a marital commitment, so wrong in Paul’s eyes. I think this is where the microcosm-cosmos observation comes in handy. Paul puts it like this:

Don’t you realize that your body is a temple of the presence and power of God within you that is God’s gift to you, and that you do not belong just to yourself? You have been ransomed at a price. So honor God by what you do with your body. (1 Cor 6:19)

Once you accept the premise that each human life is a tiny version of the cosmos, you see how pollution of one extends to pollution of the other. Baptism is not merely intellectual exercise of saying, “I accept these beliefs.” In Paul’s eyes it has a physical affect. The baptized person passes from one sort of belonging (to the corrupt world of the Roman Empire) to another (adopted by God to serve in God’s Empire). Paul doesn’t want corruption carried over.

But it’s a loyalty loop all the same! “Commit, because if you don’t commit then you’ll risk prioritizing other commitments, and we just want your commitment to us take top priority.” Battin’s warning about self-gratifying rules tells me that what we have here is not specifically a Jesus movement teaching but a group dynamics issue. Paul doesn’t want his communities to engage in anything that strains their commitment to staying together. This is the same issue that spurred Paul to insist that his communities maintain good behavior and not attract the attention of authorities (I registered a complaint about this back in my audioblog for 1 Thess 4–5).

My conclusion: don’t get stuck in Paul’s loyalty loop when it comes to sex. Focus instead on what he is trying to emulate of Jesus’ teachings and consider how that might be applied to sex in today’s world.

Questions for the Road

  • Were you soured on Paul by his teachings on sex? Does sifting through authentic and inauthentic writings of Paul alleviate this problem for you, or is Paul’s loyalty loop too disruptive to rescue him?
  • Do you see other instances where Margaret Battin’s moral rule of thumb might be helpfully applied?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.