St Paul the Eccentric

In my files is the newsletter of a famous Episcopal parish in New York City. On one page is a sermon by its recently retired rector, in which he spoke of worship as ‘but the means of bringing us close to the source of our faith, and that source is very simply Our Lord Jesus ChriSt’ He then not only proclaimed his belief in the Virgin Birth but in the Immaculate Conception as well.

On the facing page was a response by the parish’s trustees to the assertion of the 1998 Lambeth Conference (the last meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops) that homosexual practices are ‘incompatible with Scripture’. The trustees declared their parish ‘a faith community in which membership and opportunity for lay and ordained ministry shall not be restricted on the basis of sexual orientation.’ By ‘orientation’, let me be clear, they meant to include the practice thereof.

And in his sermon, the former rector himself promoted the approval of homosexuality, as well as the ordination of women. These innovations, apparently in contradiction to the teaching of St Paul, he must have believed expressed the will of ‘the source of our faith’.

Separating Gospels from Epistles

What, one thinks, have we here? On the one hand a very, very high view not only of the Incarnation but also of our Lord’s mother herself, as deeply traditionalist as anyone could wish, and on the other hand a willful rejection of Scripture’s moral teaching.

This is a now common problem in Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant: the Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, and who also almost completely rejects the unfashionable teachings of the Bible found outside the four Gospels. As our society becomes more and more interested in ‘spirituality’, we find more and more people talking in very traditional terms about Jesus while assuming that the Scripture in which he is revealed has nothing to say about any part of their lives they wish to keep to themselves.
These people in effect separate the Gospels they accept – partly because they have not read them closely –from the Epistles they reject. It is usually St Paul whose words they reject. The other New Testament writers they usually ignore, perhaps because they did not say anything so offensive to modern ears as St Paul’s instructions on men, women, and sexuality. They do not reject even Paul’s Epistles entirely, of course, as they accept those useful verses, most famously Galatians 3.28, that they can take out of context to support some view one suspects they already hold for other reasons.
Those who think this way often divide Jesus the gentle prophet of inclusive love (or however the favourite Jesus of the moment is described) from St Paul the rule-maker, and sometimes also divide St Paul the apostle of freedom from St Paul the unreformed Pharisee. Sometimes they simply talk a lot about Jesus and pretend that St Paul did not exiSt The first tactic seems to have been the more popular some decades ago, while the latter seems now to be the more popular of the two. It is certainly shrewder to forget to invite St Paul to the party than to invite him and then pick a fight with him in front of the guests.

Separating St Paul
I suspect such people separate Jesus from St Paul because they do not want to obey the rule of life Paul gives us, and they do not want to believe that Jesus would agree with him. It is not an easy rule in any age, and in ours it can be a costly one, socially and professionally. You will make those at a dinner party in most suburbs flinch by saying of men and women what St Paul says of them in Galatians 5 and Titus 2 and if you are a cleric you will risk your future by treating the matter as urgently as the apostle suggests. You will upset many conservative Christians by speaking in the Pauline mode, because such speech is too pointed, too stark, too direct, too divisive.

Orthodox Christians look to Jesus and so look to St Paul, and listen to St Paul, because he reliably points us to Jesus. We assume that God gave us the Epistles as well as the Gospels, because the Epistles tell us something the Gospels do not, or make clear something we would not always see rightly in the Gospels. Of course, a man stranded on an island with only the four Gospels, or even just one Gospel, would know what Jesus has done for him and would have a very good idea of what Jesus expects of him. But he would not know everything Jesus expected of him, and not everything he knew would he know confidently and accurately.
A Rule for Discernment
Let me suggest a rule for discernment. A man who habitually speaks of Jesus Christ without also speaking of St Paul and the other New Testament writers is not speaking as a Christian, no matter how orthodox his view of the Lord.
He is not speaking as a Christian though he hold high office in a Christian body – and indeed he may have risen to such heights because he left out of his teaching most of the words of the controversial and discomforting St Paul.
In other words, a man who proclaims the most thorough belief in the historical facts described in the Gospels and proclaimed in the Creed but neglects, ignores, doubts, or rejects the implications of those facts as drawn out in the Epistles is not an orthodox Christian. He may love the Lord, or seem to, but he does not also love St Paul and the rest, and he who does not love St Paul and the rest does not love the Lord who became man in first-century Palestine, but an image he has adapted to his own desires.
The Scripture is a whole. It is all of a piece. It is a canon. Through St Paul and St John and St Peter and the rest we hear our Lord speaking. The wise Christian, therefore, will not follow the shepherd who does not himself follow St Paul and St John and St Peter and the rest. He will shun the man who talks in very traditional terms about the Lord but ignores or rejects the Epistles.

He who loves the General will obey his captains, even when they command what he does not like or want, and even when the wolves threaten. The man who disobeys the captains, though he has a picture of the general tattooed on his chest, is no friend of the general’s, but a traitor.

David Mills is a senior editor of Touchstone. This piece was abbreviated from an article in the October 2002 issue of that journal. His The need for the Creed will appear in the spring from Sophia Institute Press.