Getting to Know the Bible

In Circle of Hope we say in our proverbs “The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project” and one of the ways we are doing that is our “Getting to Know the Bible” dialogue series. The pastors and their friends are leading 90 minute zoom sessions to help anyone who wants to join get a few more handholds in their own Bible reading climb. It is one of our many Gifts for Growing. The next Getting to Know the Bible is on Romans and Galatians on August 11th at 8:00 pm.  Sign up now!

This post is a bit of a debrief from our last Getting to Know the Bible event on Paul and his letters to the churches that my friend Scott Shannon and I led. Of the 21 Epistles (fancy word for letters) in the New Testament, Paul wrote 13 of them. Nine of the epistles that Paul wrote were written to churches and four of them were written to individuals. We brought a storytelling approach which put Paul’s letters in the context of the stories Luke tells about him in the book of Acts. We want to interpret not just what Paul said, as has often been the pitfall for many theologians throughout the centuries, but also what he did. We began to wonder why he did and said what he did and said. Who is this guy, and what was he like? Appreciating him as a whole person, a lot like us, helped us relate to him as a brother, and not a dusty old jumble of words and ideas.

All Theology Has an Adjective

To Scott and I, it seems that much of what Paul was doing was very contextual. No surprise there since everything everyone does is contextual. Nothing can be done or said out of context. The fallacy of too much of Western theology in previous centuries was its claim, at least implicitly, to be a-contextual. I love how Pete Enns and Jared Byaz from The Bible for Normal People put it, “All Theology has an adjective.” Two big problems with much of the Bible reading that I have seen is that it 1) doesn’t fully understand Paul’s context and 2) it does not acknowledge its own. But here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone can adequately do number 1 and most people, if they are humble enough, will also admit they can’t do number 2 either. Most of our lives have a “you-had-to-be-there” quality to them. The more we show up to the depth of our own experiences, the better we can empathize with Paul’s who lived in such a different time and place. Our added benefit is that we have Jesus uniting us across that great chasm. Do not be afraid to apply your own understanding.

How Do Paul’s letter and the Book of Acts Line Up?

So here’s how the story about Paul lines up with his letters — what he did and what he said in one neat (and very undetailed) table.

Acts OutlineActs 1:8 Jesus’ map for the church

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1. The Church In Jerusalem (Chapters 1-7)
2. The Church in Judea and Samaria (Chapters 8-12)
3. The Church in Gentile Territories (Chapters 13-21)

1st Missionary Journey.

Then Jerusalem Council in chapter 15,

Then 2nd and 3rd Missionary Journeys.
Paul goes around planting churches and then he writes to them.

Acts 13:13-52 Paul preaches and the Holy Spirit comes down in Antioch. Titus is said to have been from Antioch.

Acts 14:1-7 Paul meets Timothy in Lystra — a kid in one of the first church plants. (1 and 2 Timothy) Later a pastor in Ephesus (Ephesians)

Acts 16:1-5 Paul and Timothy in Galatia (Galatians)

Acts 16:11-40  In Philippi (Philippians)

Acts 17:1-9 In Thessalonica (1 and 2 Thessalonians)

Acts 18:1-17 In Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians)

It is generally assumed that (Philemon) lived in Colossae; in the letter to the (Colossians), Onesimus (the slave who fled from Philemon) and Archippus (whom Paul greets in the letter to Philemon) are described as members of the church there.

Colossians is conspicuously not mentioned in Acts.

Hebrews was traditionally believed to be written by Paul but this is generally assumed to be unlikely. Pseudepigraphy was common in the ancient world (“pseudepigraphy” means writing under someone else’s name — though Hebrews never claims to be written by Paul in the text and lacks any of  Paul’s personal flair.)

4. Paul’s Trials and Voyage to Rome (Chapters 21-28) Back to Jerusalem and the powers-that-be in order to get to Rome.(Romans) Paul writes ahead of his journey there.

He ends up imprisoned by the Roman Empire. He writes many of these letters while in prison or on house arrest. (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon)

Paul’s Two Tiers

Scott and I had the group considering Paul’s context and our own. It seems that Paul often talks out of both sides of his mouth. What does he really mean? Is he contradicting himself? Which paul is the real one? We have a helpful way to think about that — we call it a two tiered approach. Check out “Paul’s Two Tiers and Social Action” on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Paul’s first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of Christ’s new creation. The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that in their real life, what it means to keep revealing this in the world in our time and place. Paul was empowered to give it a try in his context and many of the things some of my friends bemoan him for were actually more revolutionary in their moment than we can rightly understand in ours. The best way to tell the difference between the two tiers is to relate to Jesus yourself. It’s a vibe. You’ll know it when you know. Sorry, I do think it is really more like a feeling than something I can tell you. And sorry if you think that’s dangerous. 

It was much more dangerous for Paul, whatever our current consequences. Scott and I thought that much of Paul’s second tier teaching was consciously holding back on the throttle of status quo in order to keep a fragile new movement alive. Paul was cautious to not shatter all the conventional wisdom in one fell swoop. Or he might have been scared, too, though that seems unlikely given his unprecedented courage and boldness demonstrated elsewhere. Or he might have just not gotten to it. He had a plan to keep things moving and stretched people only so far as he thought they could go, and then he got killed. Or he just couldn’t see the full-scale societal transformation that the Gospel anticipated because he was too much a man of his own time. I don’t know for certain, of course, if it was any of these things, but I can understand if it were any of them or all of them. But, again, I think Paul was making concessions for a very real existential threat — living past tomorrow might have been the church’s best move which required some preservation of an incomplete social order.

Decadence is Our Existential Threat

But we are not under that same threat. Our choices in the United States are not “do or die,” but our faith may be dying or dead instead. Scott liked the word “decadence” for our own existential threat. We are so accustomed to the hollow husk of Christendom, so in love with the myth of a Christian Nation, so fat and happy on our spiritual junk food, that we have lost our way and our connection to The Way, Jesus himself. Too often we find churches designed to continue instead of to follow Jesus. “Keep calm and carry on,” is not a church slogan, especially not for a church sent into a rapidly changing world.

This moment for the Church in the United States ought to demand the creative thinking and inventive theological compromising that marked Paul’s relentless adaptation to his circumstances, but we are bloated with the demands of the past and of our own comfort and it seems unlikely that the whole Church will change before its already dead on the inside. (Parts of the body are definitely already necrotic.) 

What Would You Compromise for Love?

In the face of the existential threat of decadence we asked our participants, “What would you compromise for love?” Here is some of their wisdom:

  • In Circle of Hope I’ve had to evolve my thinking about LGBTQIA issues. It happened in community with LGBTQIA folks. 
  • My sense of theological purity. Every moment does not demand that i state my objection. I don’t have to set myself apart. I can even participate as who I am in Christ without public caveat, and I have found that beautiful things happen when I do.
  • Giving up conviction as a motivator for action. I desire black and white ideas to feel secure and powerful. I give that up to work in the gray of my real life with the real people I know. 
  • My anger, my vengefulness.
  • My own comfort.
  • Family traditions or rules.

What would you compromise for love? What does your context demand? Do you know your context well enough to discern? These questions are all great places to start. I pray that Jesus, the Way is with you on your way and you know it.