This is an article for those who have difficulty reading the bible yet are drawn to it just the same while wondering about claims of biblical inerrancy. The rest of you can skip it. Go do something else.
For the last several weeks those of us in liturgical churches have been hearing portions of Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy read as the epistle lesson in church. This Sunday we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Most biblical scholars agree that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul, but in Paul’s name, well after his death, yet remembering many of the things he said and wrote to Timothy. On the other hand, First Thessalonians is the earliest Christian document that we have in our possession. It predates all of the gospels, so it gives us a clear picture of what Paul believed and taught fairly early in his ministry. It would be wrong to assume that it tells what all early Christians believed, for as is known, there were disagreements between Paul and those in Jerusalem, and even between Paul and his missionary partner Barnabas. Having said that, First Thessalonians gives us our earliest insight into the beliefs of Paul and the lives of his little flock of brand new non-Jewish Christians in Greek Macedonia.
A common mistake made by some readers of the bible is to assume that something once published in it must be incontrovertibly and eternally true as written. The greater truth is that scripture gives us the unfolding story of humanity’s growing relationship with God. It’s easy to forget that Paul was a human being growing into his faith, setting aside old ways of thinking as he learned new ones. In other words, as one reads through Paul, one encounters the story of a person’s growing, changing understanding of who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian. I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself more about that as you read through Paul on your own, but here are some hints. His first letter to the Thessalonians anticipates the end of time and the second coming to be imminent, perhaps a few years away but close. Years later he had set aside that thought in favor of living into the “already but not yet” of an indeterminate second coming in which the last day is likely to be the day of death for each of us. In his early years, Paul was disinterested in whether the authorities approved or disapproved of Christianity. He would take them on as they came. By the time Timothy was written, the Church had grown and prospered enough to be the target of occasional persecutions. It seemed wise to do what one could to keep a low profile, behaving and acting in public in ways less likely to draw unwanted attention. Thus Paul’s early championing of the role of women in the Church gave way to restrictions on women more in keeping with local customs. After all, these were the normal cultural values with which his new Christians were familiar and comfortable. With those two hints in mind, I’ll leave it to you to dig deeper with questions of your own about how Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to be a Christian developed over time. Paul’s letters in the bible are organized from longest to shortest, so you will have to do some research on your own to put them into chronological order. It’s not hard. An internet search will give you several versions that are mostly in agreement with each other.
Like Paul, we too mature in faith. What was taught in Sunday school isn’t adequate for life in the adult world. Moreover, with age and study our ability to hear God’s Spirit speaking though the words of scripture improves greatly. And lest we be too hard on the early Church for adopting more than they should of Greek and Roman culture, consider how we have so thoroughly integrated our Christianity with the American way of life. A classic in 20th century theology was H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. In it he reviewed the important ways in which Christ is above culture, yet in culture, but stands against culture, while transforming culture. It isn’t just one way, but all four at the same time, and we, as Christians in our own day, are called to walk along the same balance beam.
And there you have it. At least for now.