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Moral Teaching of Paul
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Moral Teaching of Paul

by Victor Paul Furnish

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In this expanded and updated third edition of an important work, respected Pauline scholar Victor Paul Furnish presents an analysis of some of Paul's most famous yet often misunderstood ethical teachings.

Dr. Furnish enriches his discussion of key Pauline topics including: sex, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, women in the church, and the Church in the world


In this expanded and updated third edition of an important work, respected Pauline scholar Victor Paul Furnish presents an analysis of some of Paul's most famous yet often misunderstood ethical teachings.

Dr. Furnish enriches his discussion of key Pauline topics including: sex, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, women in the church, and the Church in the world. He pays particular attention to the socio-cultural context of Paul's ministry, the complexity of his thought, the character of his moral reasoning, and the way his thought and reasoning may inform and challenge us today.

Victor Paul Furnish is University Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Emeritus at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and general editor of the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries.

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The Moral Teaching of Paul

Selected Issues
By Victor Paul Furnish

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-33293-9

Chapter One

The Sacred Cow and the White Elephant

The Apostle Paul is doubtless one of history's most controversial and misunderstood figures. His dramatic and unexpected conversion—from being a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church to claiming that he had been authorized as an apostle of Christ-not only alienated him from his former colleagues in Judaism but also made him immediately suspect even within some Christian circles. Subsequently, as his mission to the Gentiles took on momentum and gained in significance, his dealings with the venerable and venerated leaders of the Jewish-Christian congregations in Judea became increasingly tense and difficult. To his Gentile converts, as well, he often posed a puzzle. How, for example, could he declare (as in Rom) that belonging to Christ both frees one from the law and claims one totally to obey the will of God? Or how could he say (as in Phil) that believers have important worldly responsibilities, even though their true citizenship is in heaven?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Protestants, especially, took a dim view of Paul's theological claims. Some charged that the apostle had corrupted the "religion of Jesus" into a "religion about Jesus" by imposing concepts and practices drawn from Greek and Roman religions. Others argued that he had imposed on it the burden of rabbinic concerns and methods. In Germany, William Wrede (1859–1906) spoke for many when he identified Paul as "the second founder of Christianity," and lamented that, while Jesus' teaching had exerted "the better" influence on Christianity, Paul's had exerted "the stronger."

More recent studies of Christian origins have shown that it was quite mistaken to label Paul the founder of Christianity, as we know it. He was converted by and into a Christian movement that already had a rich theological tradition and that already had been nurtured by various religious and cultural sources. Although he made his own important theological contributions, the church was neither "founded" nor "refounded" on his doctrines. Its foundation was in the "Easter faith" of Jesus' earliest followers—their experience that the crucified one lived among them still, as the risen Lord.

The old complaint about Paul's theological doctrines has, in our day, been replaced in part by complaints about his ethical appeals and directives. Many readers find them to be arbitrary and expressed in an authoritarian way. It is true that the apostle was often bold and blunt in the directions he gave, the advice he offered, and the opinions he expressed. Moreover, much of his moral teaching seems completely removed from twenty-first-century realities and concerns. His general appeals present no special problem; it is easy to agree that we should "pursue love" (1 Cor 14:1), "bear one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2), and "hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thess 5:21b-22). Yet we begin to have problems whenever Paul's admonitions become specific and concrete, as they so often do: men should not wear long hair (1 Cor 11:14), while women should (1 Cor 11:15); one should not use the secular courts (1 Cor 6:1-11); one should accept the social status in which one finds oneself (e.g., slavery, 1 Cor 7:17-24); it is better to remain single than to marry (1 Cor 7:7a); and many more. How are we to understand these concrete instructions? In what way, if at all, can they help us think through the moral issues with which we are confronted today?

Where Do We Find Paul?

Anyone who attempts to understand Paul, whether it be his life, his ministry, or his thought, must begin by making some decisions about sources. The earliest and most important evidence for understanding who he was and what he thought is provided by the New Testament—above all in Paul's letters, and secondarily in the book of Acts. There are no Christian or non-Christian sources for Paul's life and thought that are as early or as valuable as these.

Since the second century, church tradition has attributed the writing of both the book of Acts and the third gospel to Luke, whom Paul identifies as one of his "fellow workers" (Phlm 24). Although there is no question that Luke and Acts constitute a single, two-volume work produced by one person, whether that person was Luke is quite uncertain. Even if the tradition is right about this, however, the accounts of Paul's ministry and especially of his preaching disclose primarily the author's views, not those of the apostle himself. Thus, as helpful as Acts is concerning aspects of Paul's travels, it offers little help concerning his theological stance or concrete moral instruction.

Our most valuable sources for Paul's preaching and teaching are his own letters. Seven of the thirteen New Testament writings that bear his name can be accepted with confidence as his. In their present canonical order, these are Romans (Rom), 1 and 2 Corinthians (1, 2 Cor), Galatians (Gal), Philippians (Phil), 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess), and Philemon (Phlm). We may think of these as the undisputed letters.

The other six New Testament writings that bear Paul's name are often called deutero-Pauline because, while they show the influence of Paul's thought, their authenticity is at least doubtful. In canonical order, these are Ephesians (Eph), Colossians (Col), 2 Thessalonians (2 Thess), 1 and 2 Timothy (1, 2 Tim), and Titus. Ordinarily, scholars attribute these six disputed letters to at least four writers and date them (variously) to the decades following Paul's death, from as early as the 70s to as late as the first decade of the second century. Those who judge these letters to be deutero-Pauline often describe them as attempts of later writers to interpret and apply the apostle's teaching to needs and situations that he himself had not confronted and could not have foreseen. Opinions vary on how well these interpreters did their job and on how much they may have altered, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Paul's actual views. (See further, "The Problem of Sources" in ch. 4.)

In this and the following chapters we must give our chief attention to the seven letters of undisputed Pauline authorship. It is in them that we shall find the apostle, to the extent that he discloses himself to us; and it is in them that his thought will be most accessible to us if we pay careful attention.

What Do We Do with Paul?

Locating the writings in which Paul and his thought are most accessible is only the first step. The second is to try to understand what he was aiming to communicate in his letters. Doing this is not a simple task. It requires knowledge of the circumstances that occasioned each letter, an awareness of the broader historical and cultural contexts of Paul's ministry, and an appreciation of his Hellenistic-Jewish heritage—to mention just a few examples. But while Pauline scholars will continue to differ on various points of interpretation, understanding Paul is by no means a hopeless task. There is, in fact, no other first-century Christian about whom we can know as much as we know about this apostle, and no other whose thought we can understand as fully.

But understanding Paul is one thing, and deciding "what to do" with him is another. At the very least, he is to be acknowledged as a seminal figure in the history of Christianity and, therefore, a person of considerable consequence in the development of Western civilization. Moreover, from the second century forward the Christian community has accorded his letters scriptural status, viewing them as, in some respect, authoritative for its faith and life. It is necessary to include here the qualifying phrase in some respect because there are, in fact, different views of how Scripture is authoritative, and each of these has particular consequences for how we assess Paul's concrete moral advice and instruction. At the risk of caricature but for the sake of clarity, we may contrast two very different ways that his concrete moral teaching has been approached. There are some who venerate it as a sacred cow and others who dismiss it as a white elephant. As each of these positions is characterized and the errors in each identified, it will become clear that the approach in the following chapters can be identified with neither.

Paul's Moral Teaching as a Sacred Cow

Some people believe or at least read the Bible as though they believe that Scripture is the written deposit of God's revealed truth, mediated through inspired writers in centuries past but valid in both general and specific ways for all times and places. I am calling this the sacred-cow view of the Bible. It leads to the conclusion, when applied to the concrete ethical teachings of Paul, that they are, in fact, God's commandments and thus eternally and universally binding. They are not to be touched, disturbed, or in any sense explained away. They are to be taken at face value. Proponents of this view of the Bible often cite 2 Tim 3:16-17, which refers to Scripture as "inspired by God." This is offered as "proof" that the teachings of the Bible are of divine origin exclusively and, therefore, in no way conditioned by the cultural setting of the biblical writers. It would seem to follow, then, that if we are uncomfortable with what Paul says—for example, about slaves, women, or civil authorities—that is our problem, not the Bible's. If Paul's words are really God's words, then Christians have no business trying to accommodate them to modern views or sensibilities. Rather, Christians must accommodate themselves by obeying the apostle's teachings as the universally and eternally binding commandments of God.

The fundamental problem with this way of approaching the Bible, including Paul's moral instruction, is that such an approach seriously misrepresents the understanding and intentions of the biblical writers themselves. It is true that the Hebrew prophets, for example, had uttered their oracles as spokesmen for God. But it is also true that those same prophets were conveying God's word for particular situations, and that they understood it to be addressed to people who lived within a specific span of time and a particular geographical area. Neither they nor those who later compiled their oracles and committed them to writing presumed that the prophets' words could be isolated from the particularities of the situations in which they were originally spoken.

But then what of the statement in 2 Tim 3:16-17 that is so often quoted in defense of a sacred-cow conception of the Bible? (Most scholars today attribute 2 Tim and the other so-called Pastoral Epistles—1 Tim and Titus—to an anonymous Christian of the late first or early second century.) In Greek, the opening words of verse 16 are grammatically ambiguous. Is the writer claiming that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful" (NRSV) or that "every scripture inspired by God is also useful" (NRSV alternative translation)? In either case, the primary claim is about the function of Scripture: that it is useful "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." By "scripture" this writer probably means, as Paul had, only the Jewish Scripture, which Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament. The description of Scripture as "inspired by God" (literally, "Godbreathed") calls attention to its divine origin and, hence, its authority. But in and of itself, this description says only that the biblical writers were in some way moved and guided by God. It does not identify their words as God's own words. People who interpret the expression to mean "historically accurate," "inerrant," or the like impose their own ideas on the text. To accept the Bible as in some way "inspired" does not require us to think of it as infallible, entirely unaffected by the cultural settings in which the writers labored, wholly consistent, or unconditionally binding for all times and in all situations.

This idea is confirmed with special clarity in the instance of the Pauline letters. The apostle understood himself to be an interpreter of Scripture, not one of its authors. He could not have imagined that his letters would in time be reckoned as part of Scripture. His aim in writing was to address the particular needs of specific Christian congregations, in specific locations, involved in specific situations, at specific times. Since we are not the readers whom Paul had in mind, we must interpret his letters, including his moral instructions. They are by no means automatically and entirely applicable to us in our situations. We may speak of Paul's ministry, and therefore of his teaching, as "inspired," but this does not alter the fact that his words were directed to first-century people and situations, and that what was pertinent in their times and places may not be in ours.

The New Testament scholar Willi Marxsen (1919–1993) illustrated this point in the following way. Suppose that Paul dictated his letters to the churches in Galatia and Thessalonica on the same day (although this was not actually the case). And suppose further that when his scribe addressed the apostle's letters for delivery, he mistakenly wrote "To the Thessalonians" on the one bound for Galatia and "To the Galatians" on the one bound for Thessalonica. What would have happened when the Thessalonians, between whom and Paul there were strong and mutual bonds of love and affection, opened up the letter addressed to them and found the angry and sarcastic words intended for the Galatians? And what would have happened when the Galatians discovered that they had mistakenly received Paul's letter to the Thessalonians? Now, certainly, the Thessalonian and Galatian Christians had much more in common with each other than twenty-first-century Christians have with either. Yet even in the Galatian churches and in the church at Thessalonica some careful interpretive work would have been required in order to make those misdelivered letters intelligible and meaningful. How much more are we in the position of needing to interpret Paul's letters precisely because they were not intended for us but for others!

Interpretation is rendered all the more important because the social, cultural, and political contexts and circumstances of the apostle's first-century congregations were vastly different from the contexts and circumstances of Christian congregations today. Our world is different from theirs; the challenges and opportunities of our times are in significant respects different from the challenges and opportunities that they faced. As a result, what made Paul's letters intensely relevant for those to whom they were addressed makes them problematic for us. Here one sees in operation what I have ventured to call the law of diminishing relevancy: to the extent that something is specifically appropriate in one particular situation, it is less specifically appropriate in any and every other particular situation. We must keep this in mind, especially when considering Paul's moral advice and directives.

There is yet another reason why one must avoid turning the apostle's moral teaching into a sacred cow. Paul himself allows for differing ethical judgments, given the differing circumstances of individuals even within the same congregation and at the same time. He sometimes shows a remarkable tolerance of rather differing behavior within the Christian communities. He accepts the fact, even affirms it, that some Christians will eat meat that has been ritually slaughtered in a pagan temple, while others will feel bound to abstain from it. He allows that some Christians will marry, while others will remain single; that some will divorce, while others will maintain their marriages, and so forth. Some of these points will be examined in more detail later on. Here it is enough to emphasize that Paul nowhere lays down a rigid, legalistic code of Christian conduct. Taking his moral teaching as a sacred cow, therefore, simply will not work.

Paul's Moral Teaching as a White Elephant

If, as suggested, the sacred-cow interpretation of Paul's ethical teachings is not in accord with the apostle's intentions, is our only alternative to dismiss them as constituting a bulky white elephant? We often apply this image to possessions or ideas that have turned out to be useless and without value (any neighborhood garage sale offers numerous examples). According to some, although Paul's moral teaching may have been valuable in other times and circumstances, it is now obsolete, a curious relic of the past that does not address current issues or meet present needs.


Excerpted from The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor Paul Furnish Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

VICTOR PAUL FURNISH is University Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of New Testament at Southern Methodist University. Some of his other books from Abingdon Press include 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians in the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries series, of which he is the General Editor.

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