Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paul: Ephesus 2

I've decided to write a real novel on Paul, and to give excerpts on Sundays. My plan is that it will start with Paul arriving at Corinth, give flashbacks as we encounter them in his writings, and probably end with Paul underway to Rome as at the end of Acts, with a sense of foreboding. It thus will thus leave Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals for the reader's imagination (with occasional allusions and hints), and will cover Philippians and Philemon at Ephesus.

No excuses will be made for wildly novelistic features (such as a shipwreck after Paul leaves Corinth the first time). It's a novel. If you are interested, you can either egg me on or tell me to keep my day job (which of course I intend to do anyway). When I'm done, you can suggest whether to self-publish it or send it off to the publisher's mafia.

My wife insists I only post excerpts (don't tell her I don't think she's completely caught on to the internet age, even though she may be right).

So here's today's excerpt, continuing on from the other day.
The first question in the letter from Gaius had to do with sex. Should believers in Christ stop having sex with their wives?

It was a serious question for Paul. While most of the apostles like Peter and James were married, Paul had chosen to remain celibate after his wife left him. He did not disparage marriage, but you could tell that he thought it the second best option, especially with the Lord returning in the near future. He made no secret of the fact that he prided himself on being able to control such desires and that he was able to serve God better because he could devote all his energies to the Lord with a single mind.

He also made it clear that Jesus and, in his opinion, the more spiritual Jews in Jerusalem also remained celibate. He never failed to mention at some point during his stay at a given city that Jesus had chosen to sacrifice his desires to marry in order to preach the kingdom of God and die on the cross. And while neither Paul nor Jesus had been an Essene, John the Baptist had been, and Paul clearly admired those of the Essenes that chose to give up sex out of devotion to God.

However, he knew the situation at Corinth. True, there were some men there he believed could give up sex with their wives for God, especially those who had practiced homosexual sex before they had converted. But if they stopped having relations with their wives, he worried that their wives would burn with passion toward other men.

Then there were women like Gaius' wife, who saw in the gospel an opportunity to free themselves from the normal constraints of a woman. The first draft of the letter had already addressed the problems she was causing by refusing to veil herself during worship. The question about sex now enabled him to address in an indirect way some of the other problems she was causing.

For example, both Sosthenes and Stephanas told Paul that on more than one occasion she had suggested that perhaps husbands and wives should separate from each other, since in the kingdom of God there would be no marriage. Everyone knew it was only an excuse, because she did not like her husband and thought she might legitimize a divorce from him.

The question of social conflict created by the gospel was becoming more and more clear to Paul. On the one hand, he simply didn't have quibbles about the role that women were playing in the Christ movement. But others did. Even Timothy was off put by how much authority Paul was willing to let women have in the churches.

Paul would more and more conceed traditional roles to men and women as the days went by. To do otherwise, to live out the trajectory of the kingdom, caused all kinds of hindrances to the gospel. The message that Jesus had atoned for sin on the cross and was soon coming back to earth again as Lord was too important to encumber with such passing things. Slaves would be free soon enough. Women would be equal to men soon enough. What was important now was that as many as possible be saved.

Of course for some at Corinth, the question was sincere. Should we stop having sex, since there will be none in the kingdom? They even wondered whether they should follow through with arrangements they had made for their daughters to marry. Paul took a very practical position on the issue. If these men did not have sex with their wives, they would become very tempted at some point, not just to have sex with other women, but perhaps with other women in the assembly. He made clear instructions that husbands and wives should have regular sex, so that neither party would be tempted to have sex elsewhere.

He also took the opportunity to address the matter of divorce directly, since he knew this was the underlying issue for Gaius' wife and her close friends. Jesus of course had primarily addressed the matter of husbands leaving their wives. It was not possible for a Galilean woman to divorce her husband legally, although she could separate herself and return to her father's house.

In the case of Paul's own wife, she had made it very clear that she would not be married to someone from the Way. After a year of waiting for him to come to his senses, she sent a letter to the believers at Damascus to pass on word to him that she was leaving him to return to her father, Gamaliel's, house. Then some two years after that, in the brief time he was in Jerusalem, she convinced him to divorce her, since she could not legally do it herself. He reluctantly consented.

Since women could divorce their husbands in Greece, Paul applied the basic thrust of Jesus' teaching directly to wives. Women like Gaius' wife must not divorce their husbands. If they have problems, they might separate from them for a time, but the goal was for them to be reconciled. He was a little more allowing with the men. If they found themselves divorced, it was better for them to remain unmarried, but if they remarried, they were not sinning...


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The ethical trumps the moral, because the moral is defined by religion's tradition. Theology is useful for relgion's justification, but sometimes is limiting to the ethical...this should not be, as theology should be foremost about the ethical, which unites, law and morality..and that becomes international in scope, as it is about humaity's concerns, not religion's.

Kevin Jackson said...

Your account of Paul's marriage has some parallels to Wesley's.

Bob MacDonald said...

You may if you have time see my comment here