General CBF

Will the Real Paul Please Stand Up?

The following post is by Matt Richard. Matt is a CBF Fellow and the pastor of Eastwood Baptist Church in Gatesville, Texas.  He has a passion for preaching, reading and writing.  He has been blessed with a wonderful wife, a sweet daughter and a goofy dog.

By Matt Richard

There was standing room only during the presentation of Todd Still, professor of Christian scriptures at Baylor University’s G.W. Truett Theological Seminary during the opening workshop session of the 2013 CBF General Assembly.MattRichard

Still jokingly remarked that the inspiration for the title came from a 1956 television show where four panelists questioned and voted upon the identity of three contestants.  It was after choosing this title that he was informed by younger colleagues of its ability to grab their attention by calling to mind the popular song “The Real Slim Shady” by controversial rapper Eminem.

Perhaps due in part to the uniquely worded title, the diversity of age in those present was just as large as the size of the group.  The identity of this popular and controversial apostle seemed to have struck a chord with people across the spectrum. 

Another reason is likely due to the understanding among Cooperative Baptists that Paul and his writings are not simple to nail down.  Interpretations vary among those that have tried, causing J. Albert Harrill to speak of “many different Pauls rather than ‘the’ Paul.”  It is this dilemma that Still tried to address with only an hour of time and a room full of people with various questions and opinions.

In an honest but sincere fashion, Still began by acknowledging the difficulty that comes with approaching the apostle.  While this acknowledgement might create frustration and uneasiness among some, the group that gathered responded with understanding head nods and knowing smiles.

Still did not dance around source issues (disputable vs. indisputable letters), the complexity of Paul’s character or the subjectivity one finds when turning to various opinions.  He admitted that Paul was a round character with multiple sides and dimensions (and that every other human being is as well).

The most compelling and some might say the most “Baptist” part of his presentation followed when he simply let some of Paul’s writings speak for themselves.  After several passages were read by various people, Still commented on the particular aspects they brought to the table of Pauline study.

As the overflowing group read scripture after scripture in a way that you might experience in a Sunday School class or a Wednesday night Bible study,  I could not help but be thankful to be in a group that was willing to take these pieces of scripture seriously.  In spite of the frustration, confusion and uneasiness they have caused among us throughout the years, an attitude of reverence and respect for them also remained.

Following these readings, Still placed the proverbial ball in the court of his hearers, reminding them that when it is all said and done, each person has to decide who Paul is for themselves.

Some have and continue to see him as a “Christian posterboy.”  The sheer number of his writings and those attributed to him that comprise the New Testament corpus sometimes play a role in this tendency.

It seems, however, that this day is fading.

Unfortunately, in true reactionary fashion, some have gone to the opposite extreme and portrayed him as a “convenient whipping boy.”  Still referenced an assertion made by Tom Wright regarding the current state of Pauline studies: “A lot of noise is made on both sides by people that do not know what they are talking about.”

Still reminded us that the loudest person in the room is not necessarily the correct one. Finally, he shared his preferred understanding of Paul as a “flawed, yet faithful servant-apostle.”

As he came to a close, Still admitted that if not for Paul, we would not have some of the more difficult passages that many have used to subjugate women, promote slavery and justify damaging theology. On the other hand, Still reminded us, we would also not have the inclusive language of Galatians 3:28 and the affirmation that all believers are one in Christ Jesus.

It was a joy for me to see a room full of Cooperative Baptists that have not given up on Paul.  After wading in deep, scholarly waters for an hour, the group remained longer to further question Still about what he had presented and to ask about their own thoughts and struggles in wrestling with the Apostle Paul.

This willingness to listen, question and to continually examine all of scripture in spite of the way it has been used by those we disagree with is one of the hallmarks that makes me thankful to be a Baptist.

May we continue to hold Scripture in such high esteem and allow it to shape us as we seek to be the people of God in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship!

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