Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? (IVP, 2016). That’s a title that will sell! Paul’s behavior is a hot-button issue. Many people think Paul was a racist, a chauvinist, a jerk or more! Just take a survey of the internet, and you will find no shortage of guilty verdicts for the apostle on several charges of bad behavior: Paul was a racist, a chauvinist, a homophobe, and a hypocrite; he supported slavery and twisted scripture; he was a killjoy and just a plain old jerk. But was he?
Randy Richards (my beloved professor at PBA) and Brandon O’Brien take up these charges against Paul. They approach these accusations as Christians with a high view of scripture, but they don’t simply dismiss the charges against Paul. In fact, at the beginning of each chapter they do their best to build a case against him. And to be fair, it is not very difficult to do. The tension is there; there is a reason that so many people think Paul was a miscreant. I mean, Paul does tell slaves to obey their masters (see Ephesians 6:5-8). At face value, that sounds like Paul supports slavery!
Once they’ve built their best case against Paul, Richards and O’Brien come to his defense as biblical scholars. They bring the reader into Paul’s context: not only the context of Paul’s world but also the context of his ministry, his churches, his gospel, and more. The result is not only that Paul is not guilty of these charges but often that in fact the opposite is true of Paul.
Again, take for instance the charge that Paul supports slavery. (For their full treatment of the subject, you will have to buy the book.) Paul never condemns the institution of slavery and actually commands Christian slaves in Ephesus to obey their human masters. So clearly Paul condones slavery. But it is not that simple. In fact, that very passage shows the exact opposite. In the first place, Paul was addressing slaves in his letters. Addressing slaves in a letter was radically inclusive in Paul’s first century setting! Moreover, Paul calls them “slaves of Christ” (Eph 6:6) — a warning to their masters that they belong to Jesus and must be treated as such. But most significantly, Paul then commands the slave masters (Eph 6:9) to treat their slaves the same way that their slaves are to treat them (that is, the way Paul tells the slaves to treat their masters in 6:5-8), going back to his earlier command that in the church everyone (including masters) is to submit to everyone (including their slaves) (see Eph 5:1). From this passage and others (see especially their discussion of the book of Philemon), we see that while Paul didn't attempt to do away with the institution of slavery (Paul probably never even conceived of a world without slavery), Paul demanded that in the church slaves and free be considered as equals, a view so radically different from his culture. And in fact, as the authors point out, even though Paul did not call for the end of slavery, he set history on the trajectory toward a world free of slavery — an end which has become more realized but sadly has not become totally realized. Paul’s ideal was that in the kingdom “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV, emphasis added).
In the end, does Paul behave badly? Yes. For one, he called himself the worst of sinners. He was just as human as we all are. But he also behaved badly in other ways. Sometimes in his writing Paul behaved badly in the eyes of his culture, and sometimes he behaves badly in the eyes of our society. He sometimes even behaved badly in the eyes of his churches. But in his letters Paul does not behave badly in the eyes of God, and that is what counts.
Paul Behaving Badly has obvious apologetic value (however valuable you think apologetics is). But I think the greatest value of this book is for our understanding of Paul and his letters. By taking serious and critically engaging with the charges made against Paul for various misbehaviors, this book helps us to consider Paul in his context. After reading Paul Behaving Badly, you will have a better understanding of the Apostle Paul, his gospel, and his letters which are preserved for us as God-breathed scriptures — especially those passages that might at first seem problematic. This is an important contribution to Pauline studies and it will encourage your own faith as well. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to better understand Paul or to anyone wanting to help someone else do the same.