Second Sunday after Pentecost

Paul’s Authority Issues

June 6, 2010

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24

Paul’s Authority Issues

Have you ever had issues with your pastoral authority? What is your authority based upon? Why should anyone listen to you? How can we congregants tell if your gospel is Jesus’ gospel?

Paul is in a bind in Galatia. He founded the churches in that area and then, as he was wont to do, moved on to preach the gospel elsewhere. But not long after he left some opponents arrived and cast doubt upon Paul’s apostolic pedigree and proclamation. Often referred to as “Judaizers,” these adversaries accused Paul of preaching “Christianity Lite” because Paul insisted that the Gentile Galatians did not have to become Jews to be Christian. That is, the males did not have to be circumcised and the Galatians did not have to keep kosher in order to attain the promises of the covenant. The Judaizers were insisting on circumcision, however. They further undermined Paul’s message by questioning his authority.

Let’s face it: Paul never saw the earthly Jesus. Unlike the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, he was not part of Jesus’ terrestrial in-group. What is worse, he spent a fair amount of energy trying to wipe out the church to the best of his extreme, zealous ability (a point made twice in a mere 13 verses, verse 13 and verse 23). The Greek word there for extreme is hyperbole, which we have taken over in English with, well, hyperbole.

His self-defense begins from the first verse of Galatians: “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” Thus already he shows that his call derives directly from Jesus and God. It does not get any more serious than that, does it? None of Paul’s other letters open so defensively. In addition, Paul’s other letters move from the greeting section of the letter into what is known as the “Thanksgiving Period,” which serves three purposes: 1) to give thanks for the positive attributes of the churches being addressed; 2) philophronesis–that is, re-establishing the bonds of friendship and warm regard across the miles; and 3) to indicate the major themes of the letter (see Romans 1:8ff.; I Corinthians 1:4ff.; and Philippians 1:3ff.).

But in Galatians, notoriously, there is no Thanksgiving Period; instead Paul immediately lambastes the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (1:6-9). I must admit, I find it funny that the English translations launch into the Queen’s English whenever Paul’s language gets salty in Greek. “Let that one be accursed”? More like, “Damn them!”

Just as the letter begins with his defense, so too it ends: “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (6:17).

Paul’s Call–Not Conversion
Paul’s call is pretty unusual. Maybe yours is too. No one saw it coming, least of all him. Paul claims to have experienced a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Greek is a bit obscure here: is it a revelation about (the objective genitive) Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ (the subjective genitive)? Or does Paul mean both at once?

In any case, Paul makes it abundantly clear that his call and ministry came directly from Jesus and God–not through human means and institutions. What does this mean for apostolic succession and laying on of hands and direct lines of approved authority? These are difficult and important questions. Paul does an end-run around them all. He honors his own experience and he refuses to budge in the face of human “trappings.” Now, we may agree or disagree with Paul (surely the record shows that at every turn in his ministry folks disagreed with Paul–Jews, Gentiles, Romans, and so on), but he does make us ponder our structures of authority.

Paul never speaks of his “conversion”; rather, he refers only to his “call” (Greek, kaleo), borrowing the language of the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of his own call. Paul was not “converted” from one religion to another. When he became a Christian, he believed in the same God, drew upon the same Scriptures and moral code as he did in Judaism. Paul was called into Christian Judaism rather than Pharisaic Judaism. This is quite a different experience from his Gentile converts who were, indeed, converting from one religion to another by becoming Christian. They had to be taught about the God of the matriarchs and patriarchs and introduced to the categories of covenant, messiah, Scripture, righteousness, and law.

Futhermore, we often hear testimonies of those who were living salacious, degraded lives before they heard the call of Jesus and became Christians, even pastors. Those are good stories, but they are not Paul’s story. He was doing quite well, actually, before his call. Just read Philippians 3 and you will see what I mean. In the words that I heard David Bartlett preach once in a colleague’s ordination sermon, Paul “gave up what was good for what was better.”

Paul Doesn’t Pretend to Be Something He’s Not
That Paul is on the defensive (he has a rough go of it regarding pastoral authority in many of his letters, by the way) is clear in his statement at 1:20: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” Clearly, someone is accusing him. But notice that Paul faces the problem with his authority head-on: “True, I didn’t hob-nob with the earthly Jesus–my opponents are correct about that. But I know and understand and devote myself to my call as I know it. Period. And I will go to the wall on that and die for it.” And he does. Martyrdom tends to give a person credibility.

He also does not deny the obvious: he did try to destroy the church, continually, habitually (this is, of course, the force of Paul’s use of the imperfect tense of the verb rather than the aorist). This presents an “image problem,” as the marketers like to call it. He readily owns the details of his former life and appears to be just as shocked as the churchly near-martyrs by his change of heart and purpose.

Paul the Maverick vs. Paul the People-Pleaser
Paul could kowtow to human beings to make straight his paths to pastoral stardom, get the cushy position, live. But he does not. He recognizes that he would make it far easier on himself if he would do so (see 1:10). But truth demands otherwise. Paul chooses truth and commitment over tenure and commendation.