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Father's Day Thoughts on Paul

Posted on: June 18, 2017

Category: Theology

Father's Day Thoughts on Paul

On Father's Day, it is hard to find positive images of fathers, whether of God or human fathers, in the Bible. The world of the Bible was one in which the typical arrangement was women inside the domestic home and men outside of it. This created familiar images now often associated with sexism: men as protectors, men as authority figures, men as breadwinners, men as knowers (lawmakers and judges), and men as disciplinarians. The Bible, as a consequence, has been used and continues to be used to support the "traditional family," which is often code for sexism. We can note that the writer of Ephesians (who is not Paul) provides the prime proof text, "Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord" (5:22).

My attempt, on this Father's Day, is not to save Paul from sexism but to inquire after the image of men in the real Paul. Due to the limits of space, we cannot address the question of how we know what Paul wrote and did not write among the letters attributed to him. A popular book from Polebridge Press answers this question: The Real Paul by Brandon Scott.

There are not a lot of places where the real Paul talks explicitly about men because the real Paul is concerned about the reconciliation of the nations (Gentiles) with the God of Israel through Christ. This concern, though, sometimes addresses men and women who are to be reconciled with God as the body of Christ. This is where it gets interesting.

Paul thinks that before reconciliation was offered to the nations in Christ, Gentiles did not know equality. But now, Paul says, in Christ, there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). Paul also holds to the conviction that equality ought to be expressed in male and female relationships. When Paul talks about a sexual partnership between men and women, he talks about both partners in exactly the same way, saying that both have exactly the same rights and obligations (I Cor. 7:1-4). The conviction to equality, in Paul, is part of life in Christ.

There are two places where Paul talks about Abraham as a father figure. One is Galatians 3 and one is Romans 4. Aside from referring to God as a father, these are the only places the real Paul employs a human father figure. Interpreting how Paul uses Abraham is an art unto itself, but generally, Paul wants to refer to the faithfulness of Abraham to God such that the child of Abraham (Jesus), who is also faithful, brings that blessing to the nations. Paul, we might conclude, is slightly awkward as he tries to do this. His interpretation in Galatians 3:16 is a stretch. Nevertheless, he makes his point: it is the faithfulness of Christ that brings the new covenant of equality to the nations. We might note too that Paul is not really concerned with individual salvation but with salvation for a collective.

Abraham in Paul has only one quality: faithfulness to promises. If there is a need on Father's Day to uphold a positive image for men, this might be it. It is not strictly a male or female quality, but it could help if men more often were known for faithfulness than for power or control or possessiveness. The word is often translated as "faith" in English, but the Greek is "faithfulness" and some Bibles are starting to change their translation of that Greek term (pistis). But what is Abraham faithful to? Abraham is faithful to the promise that equality should eventually arrive in Christ among the nations due to his present acts.

On Father's Day, let me conclude by saying that whether or not one is Christian or only loosely related to the Christian tradition, the point about Paul for those who identify with Christ is equality. And for fathers, the point about Abraham is to indicate that inside equality is found a promise for many. I remember those times when I was a boy that my father treated me as an equal. It meant a lot to me. I imagine that women and men might have similar memories of their fathers, of moments when we were treated like an equal, were validated in our feelings, and knew that despite all our difficulties in life we had something to offer. Such moments are great gifts and can mean something for the rest of our lives. They can also change the world if, on enough occasions, children grow up knowing the value of equality. It is not all on fathers, of course, or parents generally, but a parent can make a big difference, and today we can see that in the real Paul the father image holds the same promises that the principle of equality holds.


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