Why preach on Paul?

I was asked by the College of Preachers to contribute an article on ‘Why Preach on Paul?’ for their magazine The Preacher. It came out in the April edition, alongside some excellent explorations of Paul’s letters, theology, and presence in the lectionary. You can order a copy order here.

Sunday is coming, and we look ahead at the lectionary set readings. We have a passage from the Old Testament, a passage from the letters of the New Testament—often Paul, though sometimes one of the other letters or (worse still!) the Book of Revelation—and of course a gospel reading. Which shall we focus on? Most of us inevitably drift towards the gospel reading, and we think we have good reasons for doing this—but I believe we should be preaching on Paul more often. Here’s why, expressed as responses to seven common claims.

1. ‘Paul is not Jesus’

The most common reason for preferring preaching on the gospels rather than Paul is that we follow and worship Jesus—we are Christians, not Paulians! It is Jesus who is the sinless Son of God, the incarnate, tabernacling presence of God in the world, and not Paul.

That is all true, but it does not justify choosing the gospels over Paul. The gospels are not offering us the life and teaching of Jesus unmediated; they are setting out the gospel writers’ selection of Jesus’ life and teaching, and their apostolic interpretation of it. So in both the gospels and the letters of Paul, we are encountering apostolic testimony to Jesus, and we are reliant on their testimony to hear the word of God for us today.

Paul does include the challenging idea that his readers should ‘imitate’ him (1 Cor 4.16)—but only insofar as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11.1). Paul’s consistent concern is to point others to focus on Jesus, not on himself.

2. ‘People like narratives.’

The form of the gospels is narrative, whereas Paul is more propositional in his writing—and, especially in our ‘postmodern’ world, people prefer stories to ideas. And yet the form of the texts need not determine the form of our preaching. I don’t preach in a wholly narrative style when preaching on the gospels, and I do use a lot of stories when preaching on Paul.

The gospel writers do tell stories about Jesus, and Jesus uses stories (parables) in his teaching. But in both cases these are quite compressed, and are packed to the gunwales with rich theological ideas and biblical allusions. If we think they are ‘just telling stories’ then we will go astray! And Paul’s writings are full of vivid metaphors, as he uses the full range of rhetorical strategies to communicate the power and the passion of the good news.

We actually need very similar skills, and the same kind of careful attention, to read and preach well on the gospels and Paul.

3. ‘Paul is a bigot.’

I think this is a widespread conviction, in some places articulated explicitly, and in others hidden away: Jesus is radical, inclusive and progressive, whilst Paul is narrow, bigoted and exclusive. But a careful reading of the New Testament does not allow this kind of distinction.

On women, people sometimes think only of Paul’s comments in 1 Tim 2.11–12: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.’ Despite common readings of this text, Paul is actually inducting women into habits of learning which were largely confined to men in his culture; the qualities of ‘quietness’ and ‘submission’ were what were expected of all learners, male and female. The term used here for ‘assume authority’ is found nowhere else in the New Testament, and refers to a violent seizing of control over others. Paul prohibits this of both men and women!

We can see elsewhere in his writings that Paul values both the leadership and teaching of women, crediting a whole range of women leaders in Romans 16, and numbering Junia as ‘outstanding amongst the apostles’ in Rom 16.7. The complex arguments in 1 Cor 11 are presented in order to allow women to pray and prophesy in the gathered congregation, and the Spirit gives gifts in 1 Cor 12 without regard to gender. (For more details on this, see my Grove booklet Women and Authority: the key biblical texts.)

On sexuality, Paul’s explicit teaching in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 appears to be in line with the teaching of Jesus, who endorsed the patterns of sexual ethics found in the Old Testament, and in fact raised the bar, focussing not merely on outward observance but also on inner attitude. If we are troubled by Paul’s lack of condemnation of slavery, then the same applies to Jesus—though in fact Paul appeals to slave as moral agents, and appeals to masters to treat slaves ‘with equality’ (Col 4.1). All are free in Jesus, and all (including Paul) are slaves to Christ.

Whatever the challenges we have in reading the New Testament on these contested issues, we have the same challenges in the gospels as we do in Paul.

4. ‘Paul is particular.’

One of the challenges in reading letters is that they are ‘occasional’, that is, they are usually written to particular people at a particular time and addressing particular concerns. (This is less true of circular letters like James and 1 Peter, but even these have a particular context.) By contrast, the gospels appear to be written to a more general audience.

That is certainly true, but it is neither the radical difference between the gospels and letters we might suppose, nor is it without its own problems. I would argue that there are important parts of the gospels that we misinterpret—including Jesus’ teaching about ‘the sheep and the goats’, the parable of the ‘talents’, and even the infancy narratives—because we think they are speaking directly into our world, rather than belonging to another, ancient culture, from which they need to be translated.

In fact, what Paul offers us is precisely a model of making sense of the good news of Jesus in a quite different social and cultural context. Part of the complexity of Paul’s writings is that he is taking the good news of Jesus from a rural, Jewish context into a mostly urban Gentile one. He therefore has to undertake precisely the task of translation from one context to another that we ourselves must address—and so offers us some helpful models of how to do this. There were some major questions in the early church that the gospels did not address (including the vexed question of the status of Jewish food laws) but Paul is not afraid to tackle them.

5. ‘Paul is too difficult.’

Some of Paul’s writing is notoriously challenging. In Eph 1.3–6 we find one long, complex sentence packed full of theological ideas, which thankfully most English translations break up into shorter sentences for us—only for Paul to follow in Eph 1.7–10 with another one! And there has been much scholarly ink spilled on the language and ideas of his letter to the Christians in Rome. Perhaps it is a relief to hear even the voice of Peter admitting that ‘his letters contain some things that are hard to understand’ (2 Peter 3.16)!

And yet we could hardly accuse Jesus of being simplistic. His ethics in the Sermon on the Mount are demanding; his teaching on eschatology—the end of the world and all that—is often puzzling (though it is striking that his disciples found it less puzzling than his parables about sowers and fields); and his claims about himself in the Fourth Gospel were so offensive that it made people turn away (John 6.66).

If we want an easy life, we are not going to find it in the gospels!

6. ‘Paul is a bully.’

Some people read Paul as hectoring and abrasive, throwing his weight around and asserting his views. In Galatians, he does not mince his words in his criticism of Peter, and he tells his ‘Judaizing’ opponents where to go and what to do in no uncertain terms!

And yet, all through his letters, Paul’s language is of appeal, rather than command. He never makes use of his authority as an apostle, but reasons with his readers on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus—most notably in the ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2. Paul is constantly seeking to heal divisions, bring unity, and restore fellowship amongst those he is writing to. He is open about his own past failures and present vulnerability. There is a great new exploration of this in Tim Gombis’ Power in Weakness: Paul’s transformed vision of ministry.

7. ‘Paul is judgemental.’

Paul is clear about the ‘wrath of God’ and the universality of human sin, the sacrificial death of Jesus which rescues us from judgement and the future ‘day of the Lord’ when Jesus returns and we will all give an account of ourselves. So is Jesus! No-one speaks more about judgement than Jesus, from the beginning of his announcement of the ‘kingdom of God’ and the need for us to ‘repent’, through language of ‘outer darkness’ and ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, to his final judgement parables. Paul and Jesus appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet on all of this.

Paul talks about the Old Testament scriptures as ‘God breathed’ and ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3.16–17). The early followers of Jesus decided that, in these letters of Paul just as much as in the gospel accounts, God had once again spoken life-giving words to his people in these writings, so they added them to what we now call the Old Testament. If we do not preach on Paul as well as on the gospels, then our congregations will be missing out on being ‘equipped for every good work.’

The picture at the top is Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, by the French tenebrist artist Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632).

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81 thoughts on “Why preach on Paul?”

  1. Whilst I agree with and commend most of the article I don’t support the analysis of the passages in 3. Paul is a ‘Bigot’.
    Why don’t I? Because neither does Ian. To be considered to have said something about Paul’s views about men and women Ian needs to tell us what Paul’s overall message concerning the sexes is and how it relates to the character of God. That’s what theology is. Without doing this Ian uses individual passages to attempt to prove the specific point that Paul is not a bigot. The interpretations he presents of individual passages are not constrained by his having formed an overall message about the sexes from Paul and from all of scripture.
    We are not supposed to place individual passages of the Bible in a maximum security cell until the passage comes out saying “the right thing”. Responsible analysis has two characteristicsn (neither present here):
    – it goes from small to big (it only admits interpretations of individual passages which are consistent with an overall message)
    – it goes from big to small (it only highlights individual passages which have a place in communicating an overall message)
    As part of seeking to form an overall messages of Paul about the sexes Ian could have drawn from a number of other passages which aren’t mentioned here (I am not saying that he should have mentioned every passage – I’m saying that if he should only quote individual verses then it should be noted that he did not quote any of the passages below):
    -Ephesians 5 – why does God give different directions to men and women in Ephesians 5? giving different directions to men and women is not proof of their having different roles in marriage (I can’t recall an egalitarian every positing why that is come to think of it) and the passage doesn’t mean what any non-interested party would say it meant if they read it.
    -Colossians 3:18 – wives are called to submit to their husbands in v18 and different directions are given to husbands in the next verse
    -Titus 1 – the requirement that elders be male
    -1 Cor 6:9-10 – whichs shows that behaviour whose ONLY fault is to ignoring sex differences is a sign one is not a Christian. This verse proves that any overall message about the sexes which portrays them as nothing more than part of the great contrasts of creation isn’t credible.
    Eph 6:4 – why does Paul only address fathers in saying that they should not exasperate their children?
    -Paul’s descriptions of members of the trinity – amazingly some attempt to say that two parts of the trinity being Father and Son has nothing to say about submission within the godhead and nothing to say about male headership – while at the same time saying that Paul treats women with importance!

    • I included words I did not mean to include (the three lines that start with “giving different directions to men and women” and end with “would say it meant if they read it”. Apologies.

    • Just a quick comment relating to your big-to-small and small-to-big comment in considering Ephesians 5:22-33. Wives are told to submit to their husband. We are all told to submit to one another (in v21!). Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loves the church. We are commanded to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34). So, in the instructions to wives and husbands we have particular instances of attitudes and behaviours to which we all, men and women who are in Christ, should conform.

      Perhaps we need to told to do the particular things we are most prone not to do. To take your example from Ephesians 6, is it not more likely that in the cultural context a father is more likely to exasperate his children? In considering this verse one needs to recall the context of a society which had true patriarchy – i.e. the pater familias had very considerable power over his children (including death, according to Wikipedia). Also, remember that in this context ‘children’ includes adult offspring (and these are probably thos being addressed in v1). I don’t think we have many sermons about how 40 year old folk should obey their elderly mother and father 🙂

        • Again you do what you are determined to do Ian. Instead of commenting on the heart of what I say in my first post concerning what is required to responsibly interpret scripture – concerning what theology is – you behave like a child hiding behind the bushes throwing stones at passers by. Instead of respond to the heart of what I am saying you merely endorse what amounted to a possible disagreement about one passage I listed.

          I’m not saying that you should feel obligated to respond to what I am saying Ian. It’s pretty clear what I am saying – I’m saying you have no theology of the sexes – I believe that only those who have an overall message about the sexes and sex differences which brings light to some aspect(s) of God’s character do. If you were to respond to that observation one would imagine that you would reply to say something to the effect of “You’re wrong. I do have a theology. This is what it is”. Until that happens let’s be under no illusions that your comments amount to a response.

          • My comment that you behave like a child hiding behind the bushes throwing stones was an observation of your behaviour over many months. It would only be an insult if I didn’t make it in the context of pointing out that you refuse to engage with the points I make here again – as I have now several times over months – in any way – ever. Does that count for nothing? Should it be considered to say nothing about your attitude? Nobody’s actions should be considered an insult only on the basis that you someone finds them insulting – we have to remind ourselves of this every day when people say they are insulted by orthodox Christian beliefs.

        • Once again I point out:

          “In the Ephesians passage husbands are called upon to model their relationship with their wives on Christ; wives are called upon to model their relationship with their husbands on the church. These involve self-sacrifice, love, nourishment, cherishing by Christ towards the church and husbands towards their wives, and involve being subject to Christ by the church and being subject to their own husbands by wives. Because the Christ-church, husband-wife analogy is so closely coupled, and the notion of Christ’s authority in Paul’s thought is inescapable, the notion of the husband’s authority is likewise inescapable.

          There are several attempts by supporters of the ordination of women to counter this conclusion:

          Firstly, the view that verse 21: ‘..being subject to one another in the fear of Christ’ ‘controls’ what follows, so that the husband-wife relationship is one of mutual submission. We reply that this cannot be right since it would imply that the Christ-church relationship is likewise one of mutual submission because of the close coupling of the analogy.”

      • Hi David,
        Let me begin by agreeing that Ephesians 5 contains the concept of general submission of each sex to the other (v21). .
        But now read the verses below and tell me that they are intended only to flesh out that single principle of submission instead of establish an additional one:
        Eph 5:22-25 ESV
        Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
        Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
        But let’s imagine that even after reading vv22-25 you dare to tell yourself that these verses merely flesh out v21 – what would be the next thing you would need to do to be responsible? Well I put it to you that it would not be to quote John 13:34 which is about love not submission (unless you believe that submission is a complete summary of what it means to love like God loves). Instead you would look elsewhere in the writings of Paul (for the purposes of this article) or normally to the rest of scipture to see if there is any evidence for specific submission. Which I did in my first reply – did you miss it? I mentioned Colossians 3:18 in which again wives are told to submit to their husbands and husbands are given different instructions. If we had been looking wider we would need to consider 1 Peter 3:1 where again wives are told to submit to husbands but husbands are not directed to do the same. So I return to my original point – the only way to avoid facing the truths of scripture is to isolate verses from the overall message of the Bible. You appear to have been willing to look wider David but you looked wider before looking at the Ephesians passage to decide what questions it leaves you to confirm [elsewhere](http://elsewhere.to).
        As to your comments on Ephesians 6:4 I put it to you that if God has revealed to us via his Spirit that the bible is the word of God (which he does by using it to show us things about ourselves which we were unable to see without his help) we should be approaching scripture not seeking to find reasons why a passage has no relevance to relationship with God but seekly to see in what way it does have a purpose. Are you saying David that the reason Eph 6:4 is in the Bible is so God could tell us how in patriarchal societies men tend to dominate too much – so this passage isn’t about how adult men behave generally – it’s actually a fine point about patriarchy? Does it not trouble you when what you consider this to be the most likely interpretation of a passage – do you not see that in treating the Bible in this way you make it the play thing of those with PhD’s. You are admitting that a twelve year old who picks up the bible imaging that it is possible to read it and learn from it without the help of others will become dangerously confused. Sorry – I just don’t believe that.

    • Yes. Looking at I Tim 2:12 in particular, oude authentein andros – not to usurp the authority proper to the male – is a reference to Gen 3:16, as Paul makes clear in the next three verses, I Tim 2:13-15. This is what it means to read in context. Moreover, the last part of v. 12 ‘in quietness’ (ev hesuchiai) is stated as the opposite (alla) of oude authentein andros and is a repetition of ‘in quietness’ in v. 11. Men should pray rather than get angry or argumentative, while women should dress modestly and learn in quietness. It’s not just Paul’s teaching. Peter says almost exactly the same (I Pet 3:1-4): wives should be subject to their husbands, they should dress modestly and recognise that God highly esteems a gentle and quiet spirit.

      • And all should be subject to one another. David Wilson’s comment above is spot on.

        But so odd that people are picking up—at length—on this one point amongst about 12 others.

        • Maybe not so odd. I suspect there’s wide agreement (and approval) regarding your other points, and you will be aware that anything on sex and sexual differences attracts a lot of comment.

          I’m afraid ‘all should be subject to one another’ misses the point rather. Paul is affirming that Genesis 3 is true (itself a counter-cultural position today) and has applicability to the Church where authority is in question. So he does not go on to say, as he ought if you were right, “Let men too learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit men to teach or have authority over women.” Nor, in view of the appeal to the created order, can we argue that Paul is merely reflecting the culture of his day, or personal prejudice.

          For clarity, ‘men’ and ‘husbands’, ‘women’ and ‘wives’ appear to be denoted without distinction, i.e. the single person does not seem to be a category in this context.

    • Genuine question:

      The assertion of point 3 is that preachers may avoid Paul because their perception is that Paul’s teaching is bigoted on certain issues. Putting aside for the moment any argument about the examples used by Ian Paul, do you agree with that observation prima facie?

  2. I’m baffled too in the context of the whole article.
    What is depressingly significant to me is the seeming attempt (in scholarship?) to remove scriptural authority from Paul’s writings which are at one with the Gospels. Not being a scholar, I didn’t know the points of contention.
    And I am therefore grateful for Ian Paul, going against the flow in that regard.
    If St Paul, how much more the Old Testament, and lectionary readings, if it is not to be reduced to moralistic or character study sermons.

  3. Why not someone do a count of biblical contexts where the topic of specific gender is to the fore. First one could count places where differentiation is made between the 2 genders in terms of authority of some kind; and then contexts where they are treated the same. I am a firm believer that while one cannot by any means weigh such things like sugar, nevertheless counting never fails to serve some positive purpose however limited. I ought not to be lobbing out such suggestions while failing to fulfil them myself! – yet right now I don’t have time. I was reading ‘Knowing God’ this morning, and he was right that adoption and propitiation are central themes despite the concepts appearing each only a handful of times in the NT. So an impression gained from a few texts only is still not without merit. But it has to submit to a pan-NT perspective, and anyone who can summarise that while incorporating the data from all the relevant texts will be along the right lines. Many have gone before and succeeded wholly or partly in doing just that.

  4. Out of 7 (in my view) good points we seem to be siezed up at number 3.

    Whatever disagreement there is here over Paul and “women” the title “Paul is a bigot” is surely an absolutely spot on observation as to why he is so often dismissed. It’s an assumption “in the pew” about his teaching which exists in evangelical churches not merely “others”.

  5. Regarding women in the church, I remember reading (unfortunately cant remember where) that the words (or similar root) that Paul uses re ‘not permitting’ are only ever used elsewhere in application to a temporary and indeed unwanted situation, for example, in ‘permitting’ men to divorce their wives. I had never heard of that view but I found it rather convincing.

    If correct it means for whatever reasons, Paul was limiting some things, but that should not be viewed as the norm or what God normally wanted.


  6. I thought this was a very good summary.

    My observations have likewise been that preachers tend to avoid Paul because he makes them uncomfortable, irrespective of exactly why that is. I read down the list and apart from point 6, which I’ve never really thought of before, my gut reaction was “yes, all of the above!”

    I find Paul harder work than Jesus primarily because he requires more work to place in context (points 4 and 5); people are generally less familiar with the wider Greek world of antiquity than they are with 1st century Judea, which the article explains a bit better than I am.

    I don’t have any issue with your examples in point 3, as I think the observation is spot on. I have encountered plenty of people who avoid Paul because they find some of his teaching objectionable, just as I have encountered plenty MORE who don’t find it objectionable per se, but nonetheless feel that teaching it themselves would be objected to…… There’s an element of fear perhaps, that a faithful exposition of Paul would draw unwanted attention when the reality is that we’d much rather be left in peace and not talk about these things…


  7. As an analysis of where most churchgoers are at, this article strikes me as very perceptive. If I have, despite that, a certain unease, it comes down to the basic question of the status of Paul’s writings. True. But the authority of Paul’s writings did not stem from the followers of Jesus in the early Church (if not today) according him recognition as an inspired communicator, but directly from Jesus – from the commissioning on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:16). Paul was primarily a witness. He did not get his wisdom from discussions with the apostles – indeed he avoided them (Gal 1:18-2:2). He emphasised again and again that what he was teaching was what Jesus had revealed to him by special revelation. “Not I, but the Lord.” “The gospel that I preach I received through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” “If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” That’s partly why he can seem bigoted, judgemental, even egoistic. Whether or not we think that Paul was bigoted, judgemental, difficult, he wrote what, in his view, the Spirit impelled, commissioned and equipped him to write – including when he wrote long sentences. If we agree, then we should allow his words to judge and school us, so that we come under his authority, not he under ours. Who knows, we might even get to appreciate why he bundled Eph 1:3-14 into one very long sentence!

    • The word ‘True’ in my comment refers to Ian’s words ‘The early followers of Jesus decided that, in these letters of Paul just as much as in the gospel accounts, God had once again spoken life-giving words to his people in these writings, so they added them to what we now call the Old Testament’. Unfortunately my original quotation marks resulted in their being omitted.

  8. Quote from your article, Ian:

    “On sexuality, Paul’s explicit teaching in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 appears to be in line with the teaching of Jesus, who endorsed the patterns of sexual ethics found in the Old Testament”

    Can you quote anything said by Jesus in the Scriptures that mentions SS Relationships?

    • What I said was: ‘Jesus endorsed the patterns of sexual ethics found in the Old Testament’. In fact, he heightens them if anything. In Second Temple Judaism there was a universal rejection of SS sexual relationships, and given Jesus’ quotation from Leviticus, it is not possible to believe that he contradicted that. If he had so much as hinted at it, then we would know. In the debate between (more liberal) Hillel and (more conservative) Shammai on marriage, he sided with Shammai.

      Could you point to anything in Jesus’s teaching or action suggesting the opposite—that he endorsed SS sexual relationships?

      • Ian. By upping your claim about Jesus’s endorsement of OT sexual ethics – ‘ he heightens them if anything’ – you make it even more necessary to actually answer Ron Smith’s question please.

      • Yes, Simon,
        (1) I do believe that the 10 Commandments were given to Moses. I’m not so sure about the traditional additions in Leviticus.
        2) I do believe that Jesus is God, and that his mother Mary is, therefore (as attested to in mainline Catholic and Orthodox theology) ‘MotherGod’.
        Q: Do you believe this latter codicil?

  9. Ian, I found this a helpful article. As someone involved in theological education, albeit at a fairly elementary level, I have encountered all of these assumptions about Paul. Could I ask for a clarification please?

    You say that “On women, people sometimes think only of Paul’s comments in 1 Tim 2.11–12: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.’ Despite common readings of this text, Paul is actually inducting women into habits of learning which were largely confined to men in his culture; the qualities of ‘quietness’ and ‘submission’ were what were expected of all learners, male and female. The term used here for ‘assume authority’ is found nowhere else in the New Testament, and refers to a violent seizing of control over others. Paul prohibits this of both men and women!” Please could you clarify where Paul prohibits “a violent seizing of control of others” analogous to this teaching in 1 Timothy?
    Thank you.

    • Hi there Philip! In the immediately preceding verses, Paul commands that men should pray ‘without anger or quarrelling’. In Rom 12.17 he prohibits the taking of revenge, and in Phil 2 he urges that we all adopt the attitude of Christ, who ‘took the form of a servant’.

      Within marriage, Paul is clear in 1 Cor 7.4 that men and women equally exercise authority over each other [‘s bodies].

      I was not intending to point to a specific command using these words, but rather to note that always and everywhere Paul rejects the idea that any group should exercise exploitative control over any other group—and idea that is unavoidable in the term authentein.

  10. Paul appears in holy scripture because God wants the Bible to comprise firsthand accounts as much as possible, and Paul tells what it is to be transformed by Christ – something that Christ himself could not do firsthand, for He was sinless.

  11. “Can you quote anything said by Jesus in the Scriptures that mentions SS Relationships?”
    -Father Ron

    “Could you point to anything in Jesus’s teaching or action suggesting the opposite—that he endorsed SS sexual relationships?”
    -Ian Paul

    Neither can, because such a saying doesn’t exist, just as you both and every other commentator here knows…. 😉

    This is hardly the trump card people seem to think it is! Jesus’ silence on the question of same-sex relationships is no more an endorsement of them than Jesus’ silence on infanticide, usury, battle tactics or any number of other unrelated issues is an endorsement of those… By the same measure we cannot say they are condemnations either.

    But that is the crux of this oft-repeated argument! The simple fact here (which surely we’d all agree on?) is that the accounts of Jesus we have in the gospels leave a lot of things unsaid, for a wide variety of reasons. The question, “what did Jesus say about ‘X’?” is clearly redundant.

    We should instead be asking “given what Jesus said about [issues the gospels do cover], what can we fairly assume Jesus would have said?” and arguing from that point. This is hermeneutics 101!


    I am not unsympathetic to the argument that Paul’s ‘expansion’ of specific condemnations of sexual behavior, otherwise absent from the gospel accounts, is perhaps novel, even harsher than what Jesus may have said. But please let’s not pretend we can have any certainty either way.

    We’re making judgements based on what’s consistent with the speech we do have, and on the implications for wider issues.

    It’s beneath all of us to act as if we have anything verbatim.

    • Oops, my comment cut of the final few lines, which was simply to summarize and return to the original question…

      Of the speech we DO have of Jesus responding to questions of the law, Jesus is entirely consistent with it, save for the few occasions when he offers an interpretation in excess of what the OT law required.

      It takes a far greater leap to assert that Jesus would have been supportive of Same-Sex relations than it does to assert he would have condemned them, but both are steps outside of what can be known, prima facie, from the text we have. A bit more honestly about that would be helpful from everyone.


  12. Is not the sitz im liben of the culture, of the birth life death of Jesus, the Gospels and Paul and his letters not known sufficiently well known to make a judgment on the balance of probabilities ?

    • I would argue yes of course, but that’s the point. 😉

      What’s annoying about the above exchange is not that things are being questioned, but (1) that the evidence being asked for (explicit quotations from Jesus supporting/condemning SS relationships) doesn’t exist and (2) that all the commentators in the exchange know that.

      • To be honest I have more respect for people who come out and say, ‘Yes, Jesus had the typical morals of a Jew of his time, but we know better now.’

        They’re not Christians, of course, but they’re much more honest.

      • I agree and share your frustration Matt. But what I think Ian is being asked for when he claims what he does about Jesus, sexual ethics and the OT is not ‘show us the texts that prove this’ (there are none – and yes, both sides play that game. Ron knows that and so do we). I think he is asking – ‘show me your method’. How do you drive at such firm conclusions in the absence of actual texts? Both sides need help with that. Anyone like to actually respond to him here?

        • Thanks David. In fact ‘show us the texts that prove this’ was what was I was asked for, and I agree with you and Matt that this is a dead-end question.

          I have previously ‘shown my method’ in writing, as I think have you. My observations would be:

          a. that Jesus consistently treats outsiders and the marginalised with particular attention, and goes places where the religious leaders and teachers would not.

          b. that his motivation is compassion, and his goal is for their restoration and full incorporation of those into Israel once more—the lost are to be found, and sinners called to repentance.

          c. in relation to the ethical framework of Torah, I see four dynamics at work. First, Jesus moves beyond the external expression to the heart or intention of Torah (‘You have heard it said…but I say to you…) which is often expressed as a heightening of its demand. Second, in making this move Jesus is putting compassion at the centre (healing on the Sabbath). Third, when Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees, this is always about the interpretation and practical application of Torah (walking through the fields on the Sabbath) and not a setting aside of Torah itself. Fourth, in anticipating ‘many coming from the East and West’, Jesus is marginalising Torah in some sense—not setting it aside, but as Roland Deines says ‘Jesus takes the central role that Torah had, and Torah itself now plays a supporting role’.

          d. The question then is whether any of moving from form to heart, focussing on compassion, the question of interpretation, and the gentile mission led Jesus and his followers to abandon the OT ethic of marriage as between one man and one woman, and the consequent absolute rejection of same-sex sexual relationships.

          e. In Jesus’ teaching, as John Holland points out, he makes issues of sexual morality prominent. They are front and centre in the Sermon on the Mount, and sexual terms feature near the top of each one of his ‘vice lists’. In particular, he turns to the Genesis account of one man and one woman to define marriage, and as a result makes divorce less easy (and in context therefore also makes life more secure for women).

          f. Paul’s writings are not irrelevant here, since his letters are obviously earlier than the gospels. There is simply no evidence that his absolute prohibition on SSS relationships were out of step with Judaism, or out of line with the implied teaching of Jesus—and this is no mere argument from silence. All the historical evidence is that the early Christian communities took this line. To follow Jesus was always and everywhere understood as moving from gentile views to accepting the Jewish rejection of SSS relationships. Paul, like Jesus, frequently appeals to the OT, and to Torah, and sees the intent of Torah ethics as part of God’s word to gentile Christians, even at the same time as believing that the particulars of festivals and food laws (the things that make someone ‘Jewish’) are not required. I think this reading is what has led to the Anglican differentiation between the moral, civil and ceremonial law, the first of which is seen as binding though the other two kinds are not.

          g. I can see that the four moves of Jesus (intention, compassion, interpretation and incorporation of the Gentiles) could open an argument for the acceptance of SSS relationships…but only if these things are removed from the actual context of the NT. I think the picture is clear and consistent: marriage as between one man and one woman are at the heart of God’s ethical intention for his people, which is why this ethic was non-negotiable in the Gentile mission. It was actually a core part of Christian identity, and radically counter-cultural, for the first four hundred years.

          Is that clear enough? I suspect there might be points here you would want to question or come back on.

          • Thanks for this thoughtful response Ian. It is actually a reply to Ron in fact – if he is still here. Neither of you play text games. So no, I don’t think you were asked for a text actually. I read his question as posed with the same directness as your original assertion. But thanks again. Would be interested in how Ron might respond.

          • So no, I don’t think you were asked for a text actually.

            Out of interest, how do you interpret:

            ‘Can you quote anything said by Jesus in the Scriptures that mentions SS Relationships?’

            other than as a request for text?

          • David, in some sense it is a reply to Ron…but I am not sure from his comment below he will engage.

            But you pressed me for an answer—so I’d be very interested to hear your reflections on this.

          • Greetings Ian. I hope you had a good Easter. Not sure how your question to me falls within your rules – ‘engage with the content of the post’? I acknowledged then that you responded to me in that previous discussion.
            Forgive me – this has to be brief and I will struggle to sustain a fuller debate at this time. But let me briefly respond to your post to me on March 18, 2021 at 9:34 am
            I broadly agree with your a, b, c.
            I think d remains an open question. We do not know. And where that is the case, we need at least to ask what predisposes us to opt for one reading rather than any other. I think it possible that the wider narrative of the scriptures allows us to faithfully proceed ‘beyond the scriptures’ at this point (cf Howard Marshall).
            e and f – yes, vice is condemned. It always is. But what we are debating today is not vice (which all still condemn) but faithful, loving, committed etc … Staying with f – I do not find anywhere in Paul an ‘absolute prohibition on SSS relationships’ – only vice and abuse.
            g you acknowledge your reading could lead to an acceptance of SSS. I think they do. When Jesus speaks of man and woman he is talking about man and woman. I don’t see grounds for attaching to his words unspoken prohibitions or judgment on faithful expressions of human commitment he does not directly address.
            Much more to be explored on both sides … grace and peace.

        • David, now that you are back from your Lenten comments fast, I would be very interested in any reflections you have on my exposition of Jesus, Torah and sexual ethics.

      • Not annoying – just conversation – and it begs the questions whether the question was a question or a statement – in which case, a question that is making a statement can be met with another question which is a statement

          • Thanks Ian – I found your overview very helpful

            I think Ron & David are of course right that Jesus does not directly cite the Torah and address SSS. But the presupposition both from the texts in which Jesus does treat the law, and marriage show he upholds the law.

            I really do struggle when people attempt to drive a wedge between the OT and the NT – Jesus and his eternal Father. God gave the Law, Jesus is God, Jesus gave the Law. As Law giver he can interpret, modify, expand the law and certainly challenge the oral interpretations and applications.
            He says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees – and he said not one iota of the Law will pass away. He also stated he fulfilled the law, not annulled it.
            The Apostles at their first council were very clear that the burden of the law was not to be placed on Gentile converts (whilst they themselves as devout Jews certainly kept Torah) – but the Apostolic council’s instruction to Gentile converts explicitly said abstain from ‘sexual immorality’ and it is surely beyond question that the Mosaic laws are the framework to interpret what the Apostles understand by this.

            I especially like your point about compassion – the God who gave his word is very kind

  13. Thank you, Simon.
    Do you think thatJesus ‘fulfilled the (requirements of the) Law’, because He, being sinless, knew that we were incaable of doing this? What then might be the consequence of this reality?

    I’ve just been re-reading an op-ed piece that reminds us that the word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in any translation of the Bible until the RSV of 1946. Did the Evangelical scholars want to bring a new – maybe mistaken – emphasis to a word originally meaning ‘perversion’ And how has this affected the understanding of faithful same-sex relationships of today?

    • You really don’t get it do you Ron? The essence of Christianity, nor who Jesus is within the Holy Trinity. And the necessity for his incarnation in the history of redemption, and the fulfilling of the covenants, his substitutional active and passive obedience.
      Sin is what it was, is, called as you know along with much else, in a fallen state as sinners. As opposed to salvation -transformation, holiness, sanctification.
      Go back to Ian’s developed comment prior to Simon’s.

    • Could you clarify the precise passages/verses where you think modern English translations are incorrect and do not reflect the meaning of the original Hebrew/Greek (OT/LXX) and Greek (NT).



      • Peter. I think any verses that use the word ‘homosexual’ to translate Greek and Hebrew word relating to sexual activity.

        • David,
          What I find deeply significant is that, above, you ask Ian to respond.
          He does, with a big picture, narrative.
          You do not respond, except indirectly, to Peter.
          Therein lies the gulf and it is in the meta-narrative.
          The meta metanarative is the starting place for Kevin DeYoung, in his book, What does the Bible Really teach about homosexuality?
          In it, one point is that the controversy commenced not with evangelicals, but with revisionists.
          Sexual immorality of all kinds is never in scripture considered to be a matter of indifference.
          “No positive arguments for homosexuality can be made from the Bible only arguments that the texts don’t mean what they seem to mean, and that specific texts can be overridden by other considerations.” DeYoung.
          But to get back to the start, it would be good if you could articulate a metanarrative just as Ian has.

          • Geoff. I asked Ian to ‘show his workings’ behind an assertion he made here. He kindly took the trouble to do that. I thanked him. Not sure what is ‘deeply significant’ in that?
            In passing, my response to Peter is the same I would make to you and DeYoung. I am very familiar with DeYoung’s line of argument. I think he is wrong. To be a homosexual is not the same as being sexually immoral. You will find that view (recently espoused by the Archbishop of Nigeria) strongly challenged by your fellow conservatives – and rightly so. It is as offensive as it is untrue.

          • David,
            A lack of Biblical metanarrative is deeply significant, as a starting and end point. Ian took the trouble. DeYoung does so too bringing in holines and unholiness and Holy God. You haven’t reciprocated.
            As for conservatives, not sure who you are referring to but they mustn’t be the ones who endorse DeYoungs book.
            They include Wesley Hill.
            Neither do you answer the other points.
            Nor for that matter do you make any specific point in relation to the burden of Ian’s article.
            Finally from a non Anglican conservative? (not sure if he’d appreciate being lumped in as a conservative) comes this endorsement of DeYoung’s book
            ” Kevin DeYoung is always worth reading and this book is no exception: timely, clear, warm, gracious and right. Superb.”

          • Geoff: I’m sure that DeYoung’s writings will find lots of endorsements. So too will David Runcorn’s. Have you read any of David’s?

            And to follow David’s observation with a question to you, if I may. Do you think it is immoral to be a homosexual?

          • Geoff. Ian invited my response only yesterday to his post the day before. Why not be a bit more patient? And in the meantime don’t assume an absence of (immediate) response means an absence of considered opinion. Andrew Goddard would challenge DeYoung’s statement. I suspect Ian too.

          • Andrew,
            I agree that there will be support for David R’s position, but I was putting some balance to his further contention relating to his assertion about “fellow conservatives”.
            It would be good if you could articulate a whole canon Biblical meta narrative, too.
            Again it is becoming less than remarkable that most of Ian’s articles draw no comment from revisionists unless it relates to sexuality or gender. This article of Ian’s is but one example.
            What, where, why, who is the source of morality.?

          • Hi Geoff. I asked two questions and wonder if you could respond?

            1. Have you read any of David Runcorn’s books on this matter?
            2. Do you think it is immoral to be homosexual?

            I’d be grateful for replies before I comment any further.

          • I’d be grateful for replies before I comment any further

            I’m not sure that’s the threat you seem to think it is.

          • Andrew This is a familiar cul de sac. Geoff expects others to answer questions but does not feel obliged to answer questions put to him. But, Lord have mercy, my Lent meta narrative included fasting from blogs like this (and I am quickly remembering why). I am resuming my fast. Grace and peace to all.

          • David,
            I’d suggest that you follow the threads; who asked what and why and at your lack of rejoinder to Ian Paul and the meta -narrative starting point, which it seems you may now be withdrawing from.
            As Andrew interjected, I similarly ask him for an /his a priori Biblical meta-narrative starting point as I ask of you, into which this question sits. It is not stand-alone, silo thinking.
            So your comment about me not answering questions is somewhat rich, both from you and from Andrew.
            ‘Trust you are benefitting from Ian’s Lenten lectionary exegesis.

          • I’ve offered that on these pages several times before Geoff, but happy to do so again. It’s no secret. I think I asked you for your answers first though, so I will happily wait.

        • But modern English translations like the NIV don’t use the word ‘homosexual’. The nearest is ‘practice homosexuality’. All of the relevant passages are very much action/behaviour explicit in the original languages.


          • Peter I owe you a parting response. Firstly, not all modern translations stress ‘practice’. The picture is not consistent, which itself is a caution. Notice how Geoff is quoting someone who makes no such distinction. Check multiple versions of, say, 1Cor 6.9 or 1Tim 1.10. But I am challenging whether the very modern word ‘homosexual’ and our understanding of it in the context of contemporary, faithful, commitment loving same-sex relationships can be accurately used to translate texts that condemn, invariably, forms of abusive and exploitative sex – that both straight and gay Christians would condemn.

          • David R
            Where does DeYoung draw no distinction in the context of his whole book, which is also endorsed by Sam Allberry and Rossaria Butterfield.
            It is an assertion without evidence, so far.
            You are quick to break your Lenten abstinence, again.

          • David, I am curious that you use the term ‘invariably’ here in relation to same-sex relationships.

            You surely are aware that not all SSRs in the ancient world were asymmetric or abuse, that in Greek culture the relationship between the erastes and the eramenos was not regarded as immoral, and that Paul makes no reference to the power dynamic in his use of language, but instead draws on the very general terminology of Lev 18?

    • Several things here Ron. First, ‘homosexual’ is a modern word, and it relies on a modern psychological construction of ‘orientation’. Translations like the RSV assumed that this was the appropriate mapping onto modern understanding of what St Paul is referencing here, and in doing so it projects modern ideas onto the text. It is clear that there was acknowledgment in the ancient world that there were people who had a settled sexual attraction to members of the same sex, though I don’t think there was terminology to describe such a thing. But, as some have noted in this thread, it is striking that the consistent, total, prohibitions in Scripture are of actions, not of a group of people. So recent translations seek to reflect that focus on activity in their terminology.

      The question of the New Calvinist view of ‘orientation’ is separate from this question of language, but related to it. The theological assumption here is that, if an action is wrong, then consistently being drawn to that action is also wrong, making use of the Reformation slogan ‘concupiscence hath of the nature of sin’. The analogy is that, eg constantly having the desire to steal things is wrong because stealing things is wrong, and as the Spirit of God transforms us then the desire to do wrong should disappear.

      I think that view fails to make the biblical distinction between temptation and sin; it fails to understand the difference between patterns of attraction and actual desire; and it is deeply offensive to ‘Side B’ gay Christians, who are aware of their settled pattern of attractions, yet are committed to biblical teaching. And it seems to me to be pastorally inept.

      Scripture says nothing that would suggest it is ‘immoral to be homosexual’; but then Scripture does not deal in such categories. I don’t think this is a mere cultural accident; I think that biblical anthropology does not elevate sexuality to be part of human identity, and that suggests we should not either. I never in conversation use the words ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ for precisely that reason. Interestingly, there is a strong move (which has been around for some years in secular circles) to reject this language too, since many argue from research evidence that ‘orientation’ is not actually stable, especially amongst women, and that the argument for same sex sexual relationships should be made on the grounds of freedom and rights, and not on grounds of immutable identity.

      I look forward to reading David R’s comment on the case I made for reading Jesus in the gospels.

      • And my last word to Ian at this point to honour this exchange. No record exists of what the RSV editorial committee in the US in 1946 intended – or considered to be ‘appropriate mapping onto modern understanding’ – when it made its novel choice to use a relatively recently coined ‘homosexual’ for a word in the vice list of 1Cor6.9 – becoming the first English translation anywhere to do so. But in the States at the time homosexuality was being treated as mental illness and was illegal in most States under sodomy laws. Those were the ‘modern ideas’ projected onto the text by the use of that word. It was clearly not reflecting a move to a positive or accepting understanding in any sense – and that was certainly not the influence it exegetes on subsequent translations. The fast resumes. Grace to all.

      • Thank you for that Ian,

        Not sure if your reference to New Calvinists is an allusion to DeYoung’s book.
        I’d have thought an endorsement by Sam Allberry, would place his book outside the illustration of theft that you gave.
        Somewhat simplistically, the crime of theft has two elements; criminal intent and criminal act. Without the act there is not a crime, Temptation is not an offence.(expanded by DeYoung in appendix 2, below).
        Maybe I need to look at the book in more depth. That would require rereading the whole book.
        But, at this stage here is a brief look at:

        Appendix 2: Same-Sex Attraction: Three Building Blocks
        Is it of itself sinful?
        What is meant by Orientation. Attraction and Desire?
        This has become more prominent “as more and more Christians who experience same-sex attraction are, in a powerful picture of God’s grace, choosing to live celibate lives rather than violate the clear teaching of scripture.”
        “More work needs to be done to help Christians to think through the issue of SSA in a way that is biblically faithful, pastorally sensitive and culturally conversant. I confess I don’t have all the answer, nor am I even sure of all the questions.”
        He offers three categories that may help lay a good foundation for further reflection and application.

        Block 1: Biblically Faithful

        SSA as a “lustful desire” is sinful, just as it would be for lustful heterosexual desire (Matt 5:28)
        Here, however, there may be neutral ground falling short of that sinful desire, recognising attractiveness of both male and female (created in the image of God).
        Care here needs to be taken as such sinful thoughts may bubble up by looking at dwelling on the object of attractiveness. “This goes for all of us, no matter our orientation.”

        After the fall homosexual desires are “disordered”. That is more than simply desiring same sex company. “Desires are deemed good or bad not just by their intensity or sense of proportion, but based on their object. For a man to desire to have sex with another man (or a woman with a woman) is not the way it was meant to be.”

        Block 2: Pastorally Sensitive

        “If we stop here, we will crush the spirits (or worse) of brothers and sisters who experience SSA through no conscious choice of their own.
        “Every Christian wrestles with thoughts we can’t understand and feelings we never wanted. This is not a homosexual problem; it’s a human problem…”we are not the way we should be…God can use our struggles for our good and glory and to bless us and others…disordered desires can arise in us unbidden and that finding yourself attracted to persons of the same sex does not destine you for a lifetime of guilt and self-loathing.” (Though if it were a 50-year-old planning to leave wife and kids he may say something different).

        Block 3: Cultural Conversant

        Here it gets trickier because we are not dealing with what the bible says, but “with the wider world thinks we are saying with the words we say”.
        “Defining terms is crucial, as is discerning how others are using the same terms” such as orientation and gay, being used to signify much more than sexual activity or desire… though it probably doesn’t hear “less than sex”. And
        “we must at least be clear about what we mean when we talk about matter so emotionally charged and verbally complex.”

        David Runcorn, from the above I think you have wrongfully misrepresented DeYoung’s book, by your assertion without evidence.

        Grace and Truth in Jesus Christ to you.

      • Ian
        Just a question. Has any thread on your excellent website ever debated in depth what are all the consequences of the Fall and Original Sin, both spiritual, moral and physical? Sorry if I have missed it.

        Phil Almond

      • Ian
        The last phrase of Article 9 is “yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin”. Are you saying that this view that fails?

        Phil Almond

    • I think this article is interesting on the question of translation, which I have answered above, but it also includes the usual list of false claims:

      . That the Acts 15 admission of gentiles is analogous to affirming same-sex sexual activity
      . that ‘we were wrong on slavery so we are wrong on this’
      . that ‘First century people had no context of same-sex, committed monogamous relationships, therefore they would not be able to have the perspective we are able to see after 150 years of studying homosexuality.’

      These arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny; there is plenty of literature on them; but they remain persuasive to those seeking change, mostly because such people in churches only talk to people who agree with them, and they don’t engage with the literature.

  14. Interesting. I was thinking Jesus says love one another, do not judge, treat others as you would wish to be treated, regard others as better than yourself, if your enemy is hungry feed him, no clothes clothe him, two men in a temple; one says “I’m glad I’m not like the sinners” the other man says, “God don’t look at me I’m a sinner” Jesus said the humble sinner not the man happy with himself went away in right standing with His Father. Accept one another as God accepts you, mercy triumphs over judgement… or was that Paul?
    God the Father through the lips and life of Jesus his son gave guidance on how we treat others with whom we may not agree.

    • Jesus also talked about the narrow way, outer darkness, and judgement. And the writings of Paul we have were believed to be God-breathed Scriptures testify faithfully to Jesus. Perhaps you disagree..?

  15. Hi and thank you for your reply. I do believe Paul’s writings are God breathed and I do believe Paul definitely met the risen Jesus. Paul’s writings are of the Holy spirit which Jesus said he would send. Jesus spoke and lived a PERFECT Life so perfect he became the saviour who rose from the dead. Paul is beyond valuable for his teachings especially his God inspired words on Grace. However as he was not perfect even though saved, his writings could possibly contain some of his own thinking. But thank God for Paul and his loyalty Love and sacrifice toward his Saviour. He was a man changed beyond all recognition once he met Jesus. And this was his heart, to share this Jesus whom he had met with his readers.

  16. Depende de la cultura, en México, se predica más a Pablo que a Cristo, se es más pablocentrico que Cristocentrico.

    It depends on the culture, in Mexico, Paul is preached more than Christ, it is more pablocentric than Christocentric.


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