Paul and Christian Social Responsibility
WN: New Testament scholar Chris Marshall first published this piece in 2000.
This, read conjointly with Pamela Eisenbaum’s previous piece on this site, points to my belief that other than Jesus, Paul was the most radical social reformer the world has ever seen! He was decidedly not:
– perverse founder of a new faith called “Christianity” over against Judaism
– socially status quo
He was quite the contrary on all accounts. To read Paul is to hold unholdable for long fiery hot potatoes. I will never remotely recover from the sheer energy of Paul’s profound radicality! Atheist philosopher Alain Badiou also argues that the “Pauline figure of the subject still harbors a genuinely revolutionary potential today: the subject is that which refuses to submit to the order of the world as we know it and struggles for a new one instead.” (from back cover of: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.)
Sadly, I have known one couple (representative of so many) who for years insists on reading Paul as misogynist, status quo, anti-Semitic, founder of a new sect contrary to Jesus, etc. I long since left them to their own perversions about Paul. If they wish to read him that way, they are welcome to stew in their own ignorance. That I have told them all along that I dislike their Paul too!, but one academically is not bound to that distortion of Paul, while giving them direction to much scholarship of alternative readings, that this is all ignored thereby makes their ignorance wilful as well. Sigh…
A great recent (2018) publication about Paul by N.T. Wright (who gives a profoundly historical and judiciously favourable reading) is entitled simply, Paul: A Biography. And of one thing I’m sure: Dr. Wright knows a tad more than the fundamentalist-mindset couple I mention, knows more on all things Paul – indeed on all things New Testament, naw… let’s throw in on all things Bible and on all things related as well! 🙂
Many Christians today attach a high priority to social responsibility. The biblical underpinning for this is commonly found in the Old Testament prophets and in the teaching of Jesus. The apostle Paul has sometimes been seen as irrelevant or even hostile to this area of ministry. Christopher Marshall challenges this misconception. The theology of Paul is in fact a rich resource for Christian thought and action on questions of social justice and environmental concern.
But neither option — neither the championing of Paul against justice commitments, nor the ignoring of Paul in favour of justice concerns — is satisfactory. Both assume that the premier Christian thinker of all time counted social justice commitments to be, at best, secondary to Christian faith, or at worst, a positive threat to it. But such a conclusion, I believe, does a grave disservice to the great apostle, and offers little hope for overcoming the dichotomy between personal faith and public life that afflicts so much of the church today. It is not possible here to offer a thoroughgoing interpretation of Paul that corrects the prevailing understanding of him as either a social conservative or an otherworldly mystic. All I wish to do is point to three emphases or themes in Paul’s writings which, I believe, have great potential for contributing to a Christian theological basis for social commitment. I can only offer a thumbnail sketch of each, but I hope to say enough to call into question the common neglect of Paul in Christian social ethics.
Please click on: Paul and Christian Social Responsibility