DIALOG CONCERNING PAUL'S PURPORTED BLUNDERS
The following is a dialog between brother Given and Buff Scott concerning some remarks he made in his email message, “Reformation Rumblings,” January 18, 2007
Original States From Buff's "Reformation Rumblings" –
In Acts 24, Paul defended himself before Governor Felix. In his testimony, he noted that he had gone to Jerusalem to worship in the Jewish Temple. The whole context shows that Paul was referring to the old Judaistic form of worship, the very kind from which he and other believers had been delivered. The form of worship believers enjoy in the grace era was not on Paul’s mind—namely, incessant worship of the believer.
To put it simply, Paul blundered by participating in the very Judaistic rituals he said were nailed to the cross. Acts 21 is another example. Paul was either trying to appease his enemies and his Jewish brothers or he made a mistake in both cases. I’ll go with the latter position, although appeasement is possible. I believe Paul goofed in both cases (Acts 21 & 24).
It was not unusual for Paul to try appeasement to satisfy his critics, as the above scriptures strongly indicate. But in taking this route, I’m convinced he erred in judgment. As noted in Acts 21, he participated in Jewish rites to soothe the sentiments of Jewish Christians who still believed in the Old Law and practiced many of the Jewish rituals.
It is of interest that the mistakes of many of God’s chosen servants are recorded in scripture. It is chronicled that David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery and murder. Although the apostle Peter was led by God’s Spirit to write to fellow believers, his behavior was less than perfect, for Paul verbally disciplined him when he (Peter) played the part of a hypocrite by discriminating against Gentile believers. Paul said, “I opposed him to the face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11-13).
We ought to make a distinction between divine inspiration (revelation) and human behavior. Paul, for example, did not receive his divine theme from man. “Rather,” he said, “I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). Many of God’s servants were divinely inspired to write and speak, but their behavior was not divinely infused. Even old Abraham, although adored with humility and obedience, made mistakes. His nephew Lot made a mistake when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” and later moved his family into that sexually perverted city. Some of the old prophets blundered as well.
Why, then, should we think it strange that Paul made mistakes in his behavior? If Peter blundered, why not Paul? Paul was just as behaviorally infallible as Peter. So, yes, it seems that the great apostle Paul was human after all. This was the man who told others that the Old Law, with its commandments and regulations, had been abolished (Eph. 2:14). Yet he participated in the very rituals and regulations that ended at the cross. Divinely inspired? Yes. Humanly fallible? Of course. – Buff
From Given –
I am replying to the following:
“The form of worship believers enjoy in the grace era was not on Paul’s mind—namely, incessant worship of the believer . . . To put it simply, Paul blundered by participating in the very Judaistic rituals he said were nailed to the cross. Acts 21 is another example. Paul was either trying to appease his enemies and his Jewish brothers or he made a mistake in both cases. I’ll go with the latter position, although appeasement is possible. I believe Paul goofed in both cases (Acts 21 & 24) . . . It was not unusual for Paul to try appeasement to satisfy his critics, as the above scriptures strongly indicate. But in taking this route, I’m convinced he erred in judgment. As noted in Acts 21, he participated in Jewish rites to soothe the sentiments of Jewish Christians who still believed in the Old Law and practiced many of the Jewish rituals . . . So, yes, it seems that the great apostle Paul was human after all. This was the man who told others that the Old Law, with its commandments and regulations, had been abolished (Eph. 2:14). Yet he participated in the very rituals and regulations that ended at the cross. Divinely inspired? Yes. Humanly fallible? Of course.”
The above statements are irresponsible and unbecoming. You have set yourself up as a judge of Paul, and have even had the audacity to put it in print. It is expressly stated that God Himself “considered” Paul “faithful, putting” him “into the ministry” (1 Tim 1:12). As he did with Abraham, the Lord knew Paul could be trusted with what was given to him (Gen 18:19). That is precisely why Paul received unparalleled revelations and visions – even “surpassingly great revelations” (2 Cor 12:1-9) – of which you have not received so much as one. Yet, you allege that Paul “blundered” by not keeping those truths in mind, reverting back to Judaistic tendencies, seeking to appease his critics, and erring in judgment – none of which is a depiction of faithfulness. Thus you have perceived Paul differently than the God, who put him into the ministry.
Of course, in so doing, you also judge James, who became the leading figure in the Jerusalem church, who made the suggestion to Paul to enter into a vow with certain Jews. The motive for this is fully explained. It was done in order that the believing Jews might not maintain a misconception of what Paul was teaching (Acts 21:21). Thus, the two most prominent leaders in the book of Acts, James and Paul, have been called into question by one who has been taught by them, yet feels free to impugn their motives. In addition, you have sat in judgment upon God Himself, who considered Paul “faithful,” while you do not. You would have us believe that God gave extraordinary visions and revelations to someone who was “just human after all.” And all of this has been done because you cannot harmonize what Paul did with your understanding – and Paul is the man to whom God DID give understanding (Eph 3:1-3).
In doing all of this, you have divulged more about yourself than is appropriate. You have made Paul accountable to you for what he did, and have judged him harshly. Therefore, that is the manner in which you will be judged when you give an account for your words to God, and perhaps to Paul himself.
You need to give yourself to some other subject that is more conducive to edification, and concerning which you have more understanding.
From Buff –
It is not a question of whether or not many of the Jewish believers continued their Jewish customs and rituals after they accepted Messiah Jesus. We know they did. Too, we both know that they were not to impose those Jewish customs and rituals upon other believers.
The question is, and has been, whether Paul blundered and set the wrong example and left the wrong impression when he honored those customs and rituals as though they were still intact, after informing others a new covenant and reality had replaced the shadows. This, my brother is the question.
Yes, Paul was desirous of “becoming all things to all men” that by any means he might win some. To the Greeks, he lived like a Greek and spoke Greek, and to the Jews, he lived like a Jew and spoke Hebrew.
Assuming Paul’s fallible humanity was exhibited on the two occasions alluded to (Acts 21 & 24), he was no less an apostle of Messiah Jesus, and no less a believer. All of us are sinners. It is that some of us are redeemed sinners, others are unregenerate sinners. All of us make mistakes. God’s grace compensates for the mistakes and blunders of redeemed sinners. If not, the road to heaven will be difficult to negotiate.
Paul was both accommodating and mistaken. For if Judaism’s rituals and regulations ended in Jesus, and they did, and if Paul knew this, and he did, how then could he consistently participate in those very acts while teaching others they are no longer valid and authoritative? I still believe Paul wanted to pacify his brethren, as well as some of his enemies, in the two cases addressed, but he blundered in doing so.
Let me demonstrate my stance. I’m opposed to the rituals and ordinances of the Catholic Church. There is no way I could participate in them and assert a clear conscience. I base my opposition on the premise that Catholicism’s rituals and statutes are part Judaistic and part paganistic. Now suppose I sincerely wanted to influence a few of my Catholic friends with reformation, and I concluded that a good avenue would be to engage myself in their rituals and regulations. I bow before a statue of Mary, as well as other idols within Catholicism’s bosom. I pray to Mary to intervene on my behalf. Well, you get the picture. I dig my fingers in "Holy Water" and do the sign of the cross.
Now tell me, would I err in judgment? Yes. Would I demonstrate inconsistency? Certainly. Although I wanted to do nothing more than accommodate, I surely would be guilty of participating in futility. You see, Paul knew about the Old Law of Moses as surely as I know about Catholicism’s teachings and methods. He knew the Old Law was invalid and ineffective. He proclaimed this truth and told the Galatian believers that they had deserted Jesus by turning back to the Old Law, or, as he phrased it, “...turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-9).
The entire Galatian letter addresses the Old Law and its demise. Why, then, did Paul take part in a system of religion that, to him, “is really no gospel at all”? My answer: His humanity was showing! I’m convinced he blundered in his accommodating gestures. Peter blundered, why not Paul? Did Paul make a mistake when he and Barnabas parted company because he (Paul) refused to take John Mark with them on a journey? They had a sharp disagreement (Acts 15:36-39). Their humanity was openly conspicuous. They mistakenly acted like children.
As to Paul circumcising Timothy, it was done to facilitate Timothy’s ministry, not done as a religious ritual. On the other hand, Paul explicitly participated in religious rites which, he said in a number of his epistles, were dead letters, non-authoritative, and ineffective. He took part in dead acts and dormant ordinances. There’s no parallel between the two incidents.
There is one other interesting note in all of this, however. With the exception of animal sacrifices, many of the early Jewish believers, during their formative years in the new order, continued many of the Jewish traditions and rituals. as noted above. Today, you and I have no excuse for practicing the old Jewish rituals and regulations, and that is because we are not experiencing our formative years in God’s new reign, nor are we recovering from a religious system that could neither save nor justify—such as the old Law of Moses.
Okay. Let me close by saying that Paul was one of the greatest. But he was human, as was David and Lot and Abraham. They all made mistakes. They all erred in judgment and in behavior. They all miscalculated. So do we. But God's grace balances everything out. God bless.---Buff.
From Given –
First, James made it clear that the issue being addressed was a false report about what Paul taught -- and the people generating the report were not said to be present at the time. It was reported that he was teaching the Jews to "turn away from Moses, not to circumcise their children, and not live according to their customs" (Acts 21:21). Paul did none of those things. Rather than tell the Jews to turn away from Moses, he taught them that what Moses and the prophets had declared was fulfilled in Jesus. In fact, he was "saying none other things beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen" (Acts 26:22).
Second, Paul did not tell the Jews to stop circumcising their children. What he did teach is that such circumcision had no relationship to justification by faith -- that it was not the means of appropriating Divine favor. Now there was a superior circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:25-29). The act of circumcision itself was not wrong -- nor is it today. But when it is tied to the New Covenant, that is what is wrong. Thus it is well said, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping the commandments of God is what counts" (1 Cor 7:19). He did not say circumcision is forbidden, and uncircumcision is commanded. That is why he consented to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3), yet refused to circumcise Titus because it was being imposed upon them (Gal 2:1-5).
Third, Paul did not say the people could no longer keep their customs. In fact, he allowed for such things as long as they did not impose their customs on others, and did them with all good conscience toward God (Rom 14:5-6). It was wrong to offer sacrifices for sin, but it was not wrong to observe the feasts if it was kept as a private matter. The point he made was that the Jew could not insist upon binding those feasts upon others (Col 2:16-17). Such things, although not sinful of themselves, brought no spiritual advantage.
Paul taught that the nature of spiritual life is progressive, involving a change from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18), and growing up into Christ in all things (Eph 4:15). In the process of growth, Jewish believers would abandon many of their practices because they could see matters more clearly -- just as some Gentiles do with some of their practices that are not specifically condemned. The Old Covenant did not even contain the concept of spiritual growth, and did not require faith (Gal 3:12). It only required DOING, not believing. In Christ the whole perspective is changed, and we advance in conformity to the image of Christ. That allows for continued exposure to Moses, and even some of the feasts. It does not, however, allow for their perpetual observance. As faith advances, it will not allow for such a continuance.
Fourth, Paul did not "violate those very rituals and ordinances by participating in them." The text makes very clear what he did do. James knew that as soon as the Jews heard Paul was there, they would come together to see him. It was important to him that they not have a misconception of what Paul was teaching. James said they had four men there who had made a vow, apparently the Nazarite vow. Paul was asked to take the men, join in there purification rites and pay their expenses so they could shave their heads. Then the people would know that Paul was not an opponent of Moses, but an exponent of Jesus (Acts 21:24). James then pointed out that this in no way was intended to bind this ceremony upon others, or to officially sanction these rites. They were dealing with a matter of conscience, not of law. He reminded Paul that they had told Gentile converts "that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality" (Acts 21:25) -- all of which were contained in the Law as well. Yet, no other ceremonies were bound upon them -- even though that might very well have appeased some of the Jews.
Fifth, the word "infallible" is not applied to conduct. The acceptability of conduct is not determined by the presence or absence of a procedure. If we are dealing with matters of conduct that have not been spelled out by the Lord -- such as fornication, idolatry, murder, etc -- then the word is, "unto the pure, all things are pure" (Tit 1:15). It is the motive that sanctifies such deeds. Paul elsewhere specified his motive: "To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you" (1 Cor 9:23). You suggested that Paul's motives, and consequently James' also, were not pure, but were a mere concession to appease his critics. But that is not at all the case, for these Jews were not Paul's critics. Instead, they are described as those who "have believed" (Acts 21:20). They were, then, in Christ, as you also acknowledge. Further, these believers had heard a report from his critics -- a report that was not true, and which they themselves did not generate. We already know what Paul did when he faced his critics: "To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (Gal 2:5).This whole event displays Paul's love for the brethren who were of a weaker conscience, not a concession to hardened law-keepers who were binding circumcision on others, or preaching justification by the law.
I am not sure that God is depicted as "inspiring behavior." He does inspire people. Faith and a pure conscience do direct the conduct of people. If you are saying Paul did not act out of faith and a good conscience (which he affirmed he continually did -- Acts 23:1), then we are in sharp disagreement, and will have to let it rest at that. Of course, that would also mean Paul lied, and that he was an unfaithful steward. Those conditions, however, will be exceedingly difficult to prove, and I suggest it is an exercise in vanity to attempt to do so..
My contention with you, however, is not the fact that we may disagree. It is that you spoke in a demeaning way of the apostle Paul, to whom God vouchsafed revelations that excelled all others, and whose labors also excelled all others. I do not know why you would assign ignoble motives to Paul, and what you think you are achieving by doing so.
Here is what you said, and these things are the reason for my objection.
1. In Acts 21, Paul did not have in his mind what believers enjoy in this grace era.
2. He blundered by participating in the very Judaistic rituals he said were nailed to the cross.
3. He made a mistake.
4. Paul "goofed in both cases (Acts 21 & 24) -- although these are two records of a single occasion.
5. It was not unusual for Paul to try appeasement to satisfy his critics.
6. He participated in Jewish rites to soothe the sentiments of Jewish Christians who still believed in the Old Law and practiced many of the Jewish rituals.
I still see those as irresponsible, and even unfounded, statements.
From Buff –
"God was patient with those Jewish believers until their understanding was matured." (Given)
Yes, we agree. I said as much in my earlier letter. But Paul was an Apostle---a special ambassador of the Lord. And he should have known better than to practice that which he knew was no longer valid. In other words, he was mature in the faith, having received revelations directly from God. So there was no excuse for his behavior.
"In your assessment, the disagreement was a display of childishness." (Given)
That is still my assessment. They had a "lover's quarrel" with one another.
"Paul emphatically did not do this as a ritual. We are told why he did it. It was not to fulfill the Law, but to show that what was being said about him was not true. If this had been a requirement from the Jewish teachers who commanded circumcision in order to be saved, Paul would not have done it, just like he would not circumcise Titus."
Oh, but he did do these things as rituals. The very context confirms it. "Fulfilling the Law" had nothing to do with his behavior. While trying to appease by participating in what he said had ended, he blundered, misjudged.
"The futility of a discussion like this is seen in its circular motion. It is much like the wandering of the Israelites. It goes round and round, but never gets into the promised land. It clarifies none of the exceeding great and precious promises. It does not cause the truth to glow any brighter. It brings no honor to the One who chose and illuminated Paul. It does not leave anyone any stronger in the faith, or abounding in hope. It promotes controversy, as you can see. For that reason alone, we ought to be inclined to make every effort to avoid these intellectual snares. They really lead nowhere except into the flesh." (Given)
Futility? Careful that you not accuse God of the very thing. For he describes in detail the sins, the errors, the blunders, the weaknesses, the humanity of many of His servants, which are far more graphic than the blunders of Paul, which we are discussing here. Anyway, it was good to chew the cud with you. Perhaps we have sharpened each other's iron.
Please consider that you might be taking this position because you feel all of Paul's behavior was infallible. James says "we all stumble in many ways," and that no man is a perfect man (James 3:2). Yet you seem to make Paul the exception. Shame on you, Given! God bless.---Buff.
From Given –
We are not talking about you and I observing Jewish ceremonies, nor are we talking about observing humanly devised ceremonies, as in Catholicism. We are speaking about Jewish believers in a state of transition, still honoring some of the God-ordained ceremonies that were given to them. Nothing in scripture states that all ceremonial observances were truncated on the day of Pentecost. However, we do read, "By calling this covenant "new," He has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). That was written at least thirty years after Pentecost. The Old Covenant, with all of its associated ceremonies, ceased to be effective and obligatory when the New Covenant was instituted. However, in His grace, God was patient with those Jewish believers until their understanding was matured. The same thing was true of Peter finally realizing that the Gentiles were accepted – more than ten years after Pentecost, while at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-35).
Did Paul make a mistake when he and Barnabas parted company because he (Paul) refused to take John Mark with them on a journey? They had a sharp disagreement (Acts 15:36-39). Their humanity was openly conspicuous. They mistakenly acted like children.
We are told why Paul objected to John Mark coming along -- he had vacated the work in Pamphylia, and did not continue with them in that work, which had been assigned to them by the Holy Spirit, and in which John Mark was their helper (15:38; 13:2,5,13). In your assessment, the disagreement was a display of childishness. However, from that point on, Barnabas is never again mentioned in the book of Acts. Further, when Peter had conducted himself unwisely before the Gentiles, it was Barnabas, not Paul, who was "led astray" by the whole affair (Gal 2:13). Now, that is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of revelation. Further, when John Mark matured in the faith, Paul was happy to have him back (2 Tim 4:11). There is nothing in the account that suggests these two men were childish in their disagreement. They had assessed the work differently, and the trustworthiness of John Mark differently. Barnabas took Mark, and neither is ever mentioned again in the book of Acts. Paul took Silas, and the rest of the record is filled with his activity. That is what the Spirit wanted us to know. It seems to me that there is some kind of obligation upon us to default to the record as it stands, without attempting to impose our understanding upon it.
"As to Paul circumcising Timothy, it was done to facilitate Timothy’s ministry, not done as a religious ritual. On the other hand, Paul explicitly participated in religious rites which, he said in a number of his epistles, were dead letters, non-authoritative, and ineffective. He took part in dead acts and dormant ordinances. There’s no parallel between the two incidents." (Buff)
Paul emphatically did not do this as a ritual. We are told why he did it. It was not to fulfill the Law, but to show that what was being said about him was not true. If this had been a requirement from the Jewish teachers who commanded circumcision in order to be saved, Paul would not have done it, just like he would not circumcise Titus.
When Peter dissembled, sitting with the Jews as soon as they arrived, we have a record of what took place, and why it was wrong. Now, all we need is some statement from anyone inspired who criticized Paul for what he did in all good conscience. If there is no word against him on this subject, your opinion is not sufficient authority to level such a charge at Paul, and you ought not to do it. Luke was inspired, and had a "perfect understanding" in his writings. Why didn't he make such an observation? Why is it that when the Holy Spirit wrote up the record of Paul as he was to be remembered, he did not provide the view you are expressing?
When God does not speak against His servants, it is certainly not on the part of wisdom for us to do so. God has all of the facts before Him, and He did not speak against Paul. You do not have all of the facts before, and yet you do. This does not suggest Paul arrived at a point where he no longer needed a Savior or Intercessor. It does mean that you nor anyone else has a right to level a charge at him, thereby diminishing his influence among men, and causing him to be perceived as more like us than like Jesus. You have absolutely nothing to support your supposition but your opinion of the record, and for that reason, I do not accept it. You have no right to philosophize about people God chose to open to us truths we could not possibly have concluded without their revelation. Nor, indeed, is such a precedent found in all of Scripture. Paul was not an ordinary man, and should not be regarded as such. Because of an extraordinary measure of grace, he labored more abundantly that they all (1 Cor 15:10). He had more understanding of God's eternal purpose than any other man, and was the only one to open these things in Scripture (Eph 3:4-7). He received more visions and revelations than any other person, and was even given a thorn in the flesh to ensure that he did not become like the man you suggest he might have been (1 Cor 12:1-10).
Why would you take it upon yourself to demean this man by pointing out what you believe to be blunders and flaws, yet which are never declared to be that (Peter's error in judgment is revealed)? This adds no strength to any portion of God's truth. It does not lend itself to giving honor to whom honor is due. It does not promote thankfulness for the things you and I would ever have known if Paul did not say them. What possible reason do you have for adamantly insisting on the right to opinions that reflect against Paul?
The futility of a discussion like this is seen in its circular motion. It is much like the wandering of the Israelites. It goes round and round, but never gets into the promised land. It clarifies none of the exceeding great and precious promises. It does not cause the truth to glow any brighter. It brings no honor to the One who chose and illuminated Paul. It does not leave anyone any stronger in the faith, or abounding in hope. It promotes controversy, as you can see. For that reason alone, we ought to be inclined to make every effort to avoid these intellectual snares. They really lead nowhere except into the flesh.
From Buff –
One closing remark. You noted, "It does mean God did not desire him [Paul] to be perceived in such a way." And I say that God did wish that he be perceived as human as all the others, for He inspired Luke to record his blunders. As I said, Acts 21 & 24 confirm that truth. God bless.---Buff.
From Given –
This discussion proves the lack of profitability in such dialog. After all we have said, we are not even talking about the same thing. You are talking about the frailty of men, and I am talking about the way God desires that His people be remembered. There are a few people in Scripture against whom no sin is recorded --Abel, Joseph, and Daniel and examples. That does not mean they were Divine, or utterly faultless. It does mean God did not want them remembered as ordinary men. I assume it was because they towered over their peers, and thus were not represented as though that was not the case. Paul stands as a person who, after being baptized into Christ, has no recorded sin against him. There are accounts that men think represent errors in judgment, blunders, mistakes, and so forth. But never did the Holy Spirit so represent Paul. He did show some faults in others who were in Christ, like Peter, Barnabas, John Mark. Even then, there is only one such case against each of them. To be clear, I am saying it is not right to cause people to think of Paul in a manner that is not spelled out by the God who chose, called, and commissioned him. No man, regardless of the strength of his opinion, has a right to think of a person of Scriptural record in a manner not specifically so represented by God. That does not mean he was without any flaw. It does mean God did not desire him to be perceived in such a way. The reason ought to be evident. He, like Abel, Joseph, and Daniel, have a ministry to the people of God that will be neutralized by thinking they were common. Attempting to find faults in Paul is like trying to point out the good things about Judas. If such efforts appear successful, precisely what has been accomplished.
I suggest that you cease trying to interpret what I mean, and simply take what I have said. That is what I have done with you. I care not what your words suggest, or how they may be construed. I am questioning precisely what you said, not what you implied. I ask that you do the same. I am saying that you have no revealed basis for making the statements I have questioned.
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DIALOG CONCERNING PAUL'S PURPORTED BLUNDERS
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