by Ellen Sims
texts: Galatians 1: 11-24; Psalm 146
Culture critic Chuck Klosterman suggests that much of our politics and economics and religion, our music and art and literature, our science and technology will seem absurd to people a hundred years from now. His recent book attempts to predict how major aspects of our current culture will be viewed generations hence, but he jokes that, of course, he’ll be dead by the time anyone can prove him wrong. However, the question captured in his book’s title affords an interesting exercise in humility about our own limited perspective. But What if We’re Wrong? seems a useful question to ask from time to time—as individuals, as citizens of this country, and as followers of Jesus.
In an interview on NPR Friday, Klosterman mentioned America’s most sacrosanct document, the US Constitution, to make this point:
“You know, one thing that I always find . . . fascinating is Americans’ almost unilateral adoration of the Constitution.” However, “if you were reading about a fallen society, a previous superpower, and one of the things that they indicated was that this society was built on a relatively short document, and the document was very difficult to change, wouldn’t it seem obvious that this thing that was once a strength would eventually become a weakness? Because I kind of think all things that are strong become weak over time.”
He’s predicting the eventual weakening of Constitutional authority. But we are here today reading words from an even older authoritative document that continues to hold our adoration. Christians claim to find in biblical words authority for their lives 2,000 years after the words were written. The fact that we are reading Paul’s words to the Galatians (people who lived in a part of the world now known as Turkey) in English (a language that would not even exist for more than a 1000 years after Paul) says something powerful about the endurance of our sacred text but also raises questions about its continued “authority.”
Ironically, one reason this part of the Christian canon still retains its relevance is because the Bible itself, in passages like this, is interested in authority. Paul, the writer of the letter to the churches in Galatia, was, like culture critic Klosterman, concerned with the question of authority: Who and what is authoritative in our cultures and how is that authority determined? In writing to the new churches in Galatia, Paul had the incredibly difficult task of re-establishing his authority after he’d left the churches he’d established there and other missionaries arrived proclaiming a different gospel. Not only was Paul’s authority on the line but so was the very way in which authority was determined. You see, the later missionaries apparently (based on what we can infer from Paul’s side of the argument) undermined Paul’s previous teaching that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep all the Jewish laws to become a Jesus follower.
What’s at stake here is not just Paul’s authority over that of the other missionaries to Galatia—but also the authority of Christ over Jewish law. Paul’s detractors said that Jewish law was the highest authority for Jesus followers. Like many biblical literalists today, they thought that scripture, read literally, was the ultimate guide in how to live. But Paul, based on his own personal experience of God’s revelation of the Christ to him, taught that the experience of Christ’s grace was the highest authority for Christians.
Paul also was battling the fact that his detractors knew he was not an original apostle who had met Jesus in the flesh—compounded by his notorious reputation as a former persecutor of the early Christians. So part of his rhetorical strategy was to play up this seeming deficiency in his credentials by saying that his authority came directly from God, “not from a human source” (Gal. 1:11-12), so (though this part of his biography is contradicted in the book of Acts), Paul did not seek out the original apostles in Jerusalem for their instruction and blessing. No, that wasn’t necessary. Because he’d received a personal revelation directly from the risen Christ.
But to uphold the authority of God’s grace in Christ, Paul assumed he had to assert his own authority in boastful rhetoric. Which makes Paul’s ego register on the Self-Promotion-Meter at the level of a presidential candidate in the year 2016.
Here and elsewhere Paul comes across, in the words of a feminist Pauline scholar, as “cocky, self-serving, and manipulative” (Sandra Hack Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul 10), someone she “probably would not like” if she “were to meet him in person” (10). “He still makes me angry on a regular basis” (11). Like many feminists, Sandra Hack Polaski acknowledges and grapples with Paul’s patriarchy.
Again the irony: it’s by honoring scriptural authority that you and I take Paul’s writings (which we consider scripture now but which were simply personal letters 2,000 years ago) with a special seriousness. But by elevating Paul’s letter to “sacred” text, which leads us to grant special authority to his teachings, we must also take seriously his argument that direct experience with the risen Christ must be honored, too. Ironically, Paul uses the authority of the Jewish scriptures to argue for an authority higher than scriptures: Christ Jesus.
In A Feminist Introduction to Paul, Sandra Hack Polaski explains, “Ultimately, then, it is because I hold a notion of scriptural authority that I do not feel constrained always to take Paul’s words at face value or to assume that his perspective and his intention in writing them should necessarily be the perspective and intention adopted wholesale by the reader. I value these texts because they are scripture, which is to say that they stand in a living tradition that entails a relationship between God and God’s people. Thus my interest is in the trajectories present in the Pauline texts. I look not so much to see where they (and their author and first recipients) STAND. I look to see where the texts POINT! Following along that line from their original first-century setting to our own day . . . is the way to deal faithfully, as well as ethically, with the ancient texts we hold as scripture” (11).
Polaski’s way of honoring scripture as a LIVING (her emphasis) tradition that can change and grow allows us to understand Paul’s blindspots and celebrate his theological gems: about the equality of male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free—in Christ (Gal. 3: 18); about the evidence of the Spirit found in the fruits our lives will bear: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” which no law prohibits (Gal. 5: 22-23). Paul’s discourse on authority—his own authority and the authority of law versus grace—should lead us to ask what is our authority for our lives, for our congregation? What authority do we consult for our decisions?
Congregation named authorities in their lives and in our church: Bible, personal experience of God’s Spirit, reason/science, church tradition, human leaders, the natural world, and relationships/fellow followers/community.
Some see our culture trending toward more collaborative forms of leadership, less top down authority, with an appreciation for ongoing processes and ambiguity. Authority in the future may be increasingly group-processed, open-ended, and web-like. We may increasingly find our answers in community, not an individual authority figure. Think Wikipedia.Think shared authority. Think group discernment and respectful and humble mutuality. Think process over product. Certainly there are dangers of mob mentality and chaos in collaborative authority. This kind of leadership has no currency in Washington, D.C. Yet. But in another century it may. New technology and the influence of women’s ways and a shrinking globe may lead us to different models of leadership and communication. We don’t really know how to value and utilize this form of leadership yet. It’s messy and often less efficient. But boastful, tough talking, snap decision making, top down, aggressive leadership might be surpassed by a collective and reflective authority. Think Jesus here rather than Paul. Jesus. Who taught by asking the crowds questions and telling open ended parables so they could make their own meanings and who led by being servant of all.
This week Richard Rohr has been talking about the spirituality of Twelve-Step programs and how they reflect “true Gospel authority, the authority to heal and renew people,” which is a kind of authority that “is not finally found in a hierarchical office, a theological argument, a perfect law, or a rational explanation. . . [T]he real authority that ‘authors’ people and changes the world is an inner authority which comes from people who have lost, let go, and are refound on a new level.”
Rohr makes me think that we won’t learn a communal form of authority until we have experienced a spiritual letting go, a letting go of our need to be right, of our need for perfection and acclaim. For some in the church that may be a letting go of male privilege or white privilege or straight privilege or economic privilege or elder privilege.
A new type of authority might be confirmed when we see the “fruits” of God’s spirit : love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When an authority allows these virtues to flourish, we’ll know the authority is of God.
Today’s Psalm warns: “Do not put your trust in princes.” Another irony: A patriarchal text says don’t trust patriarchy! The Psalmist continues: But if our common life together “executes justice for the oppressed; . . . gives food to the hungry . . . sets the prisoners free . . . opens the eyes of the blind . . . lifts up those who are bowed down; . . . loves the righteous . . . watches over the strangers . . . upholds the orphan and the widow (words from today’s Psalm)—then we’ll know the authority is of God.
PRAYER: Lead us, O God, by the power of your humble spirit.