Scholars Defend Apostle Paul's Teachings

( [email protected] ) May 22, 2004 01:52 PM EDT

As the gay marriage issue is receiving much attention from the public across the nation, Christian scholars are debating on the teachings of the Apostle Paul, who strictly condemned lesbian and gay relationship. Whereas some leaders say his teachings, such as homosexuality and wives submitting to husbands, fell short of modern standards, two conservative scholars are defending the Apostle Paul, who was at the forefront in spreading Christianity to the Western world.

The two scholars are Ben Witherington of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary and Tom Wright, No. 4 bishop in the Church of England. Essentially, both authors assert that Paul wanted the tiny Christian movement to impose great impact on ancient society with a totally new outlook toward love and justice in household relationships.

Witherington focused on three main disputed passages in a column he wrote for Bible Review magazine.

n Colossians 3:18-4:1: Paul tells wives to "be subject to your husbands" and slaves to "obey in everything those who are your earthly masters." (Children are likewise directed to "obey your parents in everything.")

n Ephesians 5:21-6:9: Again, wives are to "be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." Slaves are to be obedient to their masters, and children to their parents.

n Philemon: Paul sent this brief letter to accompany Onesimus, a runaway slave who had become a Christian and was returning to his owner, Philemon. Paul appeals for kind treatment.

Witherington noted that we should realize that Paul was using three different levels of directness and "moral discourse."

He said Paul is requesting for modest cultural changes to Colossians and Ephesians in effort to make “family structure more egalitarian.” The verse from Philemon is Paul’s direct plea to a close friend.

He looked deeper into the passage by explaining that Paul is not stressing on just submission but submission in love. He said Paul tells husbands to love their wives as they do themselves and as Christ loves the church. He added that fathers are never to "provoke your children to anger” and masters are to do good to slaves, "forbear threatening" and acknowledge them as equals in God's sight.

As Witherington reads Philemon, Paul "pressures" his friend to set Onesimus free, whereas in Colossians and Ephesians he "simply tried to ameliorate the damaging effects of slavery." Wright agrees that when Paul said he knew Philemon would "do more than I say" (Verse 21) this "can only refer to giving Onesimus his freedom," though that wasn't stated explicitly.

Wright deeply explores Paul’s viewpoint in his book, "Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters" (Westminster John Knox).

Wright sees Paul's viewpoint as revolutionary during the period he was living. As for spouses, Wright acknowledges Paul's teaching that "the husband is to take the lead ... seems outrageous to today's culture." But he wonders, "Do modern societies, in which marriage is often a tragedy or a joke, really offer a better model?"

Referring to Philemon, he noted that Onesimus would have been subject to harsh punishment and even death.

Wright said that it was “simply the way the world worked” for many households during that time which would continue for 18 more centuries.

"Paul could no more envisage a world without slavery than we can envisage a world without electricity," Wright said.