HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND TO PAUL'S PERSONAL OPINIONS?

A reader asked a question about the various times that Paul makes a distinction between his own personal opinion and what the Lord has revealed: What are we as Christians supposed to do with these 'opinions'? Should we believe and obey them?

The following comments are not all that could be said in response, but the perspectives they outline should help us to respond appropriately.

[1] It is clear from Paul's letters that he held very strongly to the core gospel facts regarding the person of Christ and the salvation accomplished by his death. These things he saw as absolutely non-negotiable. Where these core truths of the gospel were at stake Paul demonstrated a certain amount of flexibility about lesser issues and acted or taught in whatever way best promoted these core truths. For example:

Of his two young non-Jewish disciples - Timothy and Titus - one he circumcised and one he refused to circumcise [Acts 16:3; Galatians 2:3]. In both cases his action was determined by the question 'Which action will best promote the gospel in this circumstance?' Note that while he avidly taught that circumcision was not necessary for salvation, yet he deliberately circumcised Timothy in order that the lack of circumcision would not shut the door on the proclamation of the Gospel in that specific context.

Where certain people were preaching Christ for 'selfish ambition' and to 'stir up trouble' for Paul [who was in prison] Paul was glad that Christ was being preached regardless of the sinful motives of the preachers [Philippians 1:13-18].

Paul affirmed the beneficial impact of Priscilla and Aquilla's combined instruction of Apollos [Acts 18:27]. Obviously Priscilla, a woman, was instructing Apollos, indeed correcting Apollos, a man. This is the same Paul who is understood by many to forbid women to teach.

Paul teaches against those who 'forbid' marriage [1Timothy 4:3; yet he very clearly teaches his preference, in a particular context, that it is better not to marry [1Corinthians 7].

Similarly, he speaks against those who teach abstinence from certain foods [1Timothy 4:3]; but in the Corinthian context he strongly teaches against eating meat offered to idols [1Corinthians 8.]

The over-riding non-negotiable absolute principles behind this observable flexibility and this appearance of relativity are (1) the priority and preservation of the pure Gospel and (2) the well-being of the Christian brother or sister [the principle of submission].

 

[2] If we hold to the divine inspiration of the whole of Scripture, are we really permitted to discard certain sentences on the basis that Paul specifies those opinions as his own, as distinct from being definitely from the Lord? At the time he wrote his letters Paul was quite unaware that those letters would later form part of the canon of the Scripture. For example, in 2Corinthians 11:16ff Paul states quite clearly that he is 'not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool'; yet we do not discard this passage as not 'scripture'. It is an accurate representation of Paul's experiences, [evoked by the presence and boasting of the false apostles] and included in the Scripture for our instruction. Where Paul says that he is stating his own opinion, as in 1Corinthians 7:10-14, that opinion has been included in the Scripture by the Holy Spirit, for our instruction. If we have a high view of Scripture, including the divine inspiration of Scripture, we cannot really discard or disallow the contextual meaning of anything written in it.

There are some parts of the inspired Word that actually report theological error - for example [1] the Pharisees' opinions of Jesus; [2] Job's three friends' opinions about what God was doing to Job; and [3] the bulk of Ecclesiastes. Yet they are true and accurate reports of what these particular human beings believed. They instruct us by alerting us the the views that we should not embrace; they show us the kinds of error and/or despair into which humans left to them fall.

In respect to Paul's comments which he identifies as his own opinions rather than the Lord's instructions, we cannot simply skip over them. God included them in his Word. Our responsibility is to honour them by seeking to understand the context in which they were written and their significance, purpose and impact in that context. And then to understand how that significance, purpose and impact can best be achieved by us, individually or corporately as the church, today. In doing so we must endeavour to first lay aside any presuppositions or bias that is already in our minds. The question of cultural context is an important one. That culture needs to be considered is evident in the fact that 1Corinthians 11:4,7 speaks against a man having his head covered, particularly in acts of prayer and proclamation, yet in Exodus 29:6,8 Aaron and his sons, as priests, were clothed with turbans and headbands. While in 1Corinthians 11 Paul speaks against women cutting/shaving their heads [11:6], and states that it is a disgrace for men to have long hair [11:14], Leviticus 21:5 speaks against the priests [who were men] shaving their heads and shaving the edges of their beards, and Numbers 6:5 requires Nazarites [men] to have long hair.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015