by Rev. Dr. Eric Smith -
Progressive Christians hate Paul. Almost any time I teach about Paul in academic or church settings, someone will raise their hand and confess their dislike of the apostle. Sometimes, they hate him because of his shame-based atonement theology, his stance on slavery, or the way his words have been used to defend the separation of families at our southern border. Other times, they hate Paul because of his negativity about relationships or his anti-Semitism. But most frequently, progressive Christians hate Paul because of his comments about women and homosexuality. It seems like most progressive Christians hate him for at least one of these reasons, and sometimes more than one.
Over a decade and a half in ministry, and about a half-decade in seminary classrooms, have prepared me for hearing these declarations of hatred for Paul. But as I’ve learned more about Paul and as I’ve taught about him in various settings, I’ve discovered that there’s a disconnect between what progressive Christians think about Paul and what the best of biblical scholarship says about him. For the past year or so, I’ve been researching and writing about the way Paul is viewed by progressive Christians, trying to use biblical scholarship (and especially the New Perspective on Paul) to help us understand him better. Many of the things people hate about Paul don’t actually have much to do with him. That harmful theology belongs much more to Martin Luther than to Paul. Paul’s stance on slavery was linked to his eschatology, and in the letter to Philemon, he seems to have been working hard on behalf of the enslaved person Onesimus. The use of Romans 13 to defend current US immigration policy is utter exegetical malpractice, and far from being anti-Semitic, Paul was one of the proudest ancient Jewish voices. For every one of the reasons progressive Christians hate Paul, current biblical scholarship helps us find ways to reclaim Paul’s voice and witness as an ally of progressive Christian values, not an enemy.
My book, Paul the Progressive: Learning to Love the Apostle You Love to Hate, will be published with Chalice Press in 2019, but I’m offering a preview of it in a free Webinar through DSF. On October 11 at 5:30 PST or 8:30 EST, I’ll be leading us in a discussion of Paul’s views of women and homosexuality. In both cases, we’ll see that Paul is not the enemy we think, and that he is much more of an ally than we have usually supposed. Not only have we misunderstood Paul all this time, but we’ve been missing out on his forceful witness for diversity and inclusion.
I hope you’ll consider reading my book when it comes out next year, but first I hope you will join me on October 11as we talk about Paul’s supposed misogyny and homophobia. And I hope that together, we can learn to see Paul as an ally for the church God is calling us to be!