St Paul as Pastor

(This is Neil.) The Oxford Jesuit Nicholas King has a short piece on “Paul as Pastor” in the July issue of The Pastoral Review. I will briefly summarize. After all, it is the Year of St Paul. Fr King begins with three “odd facts.” First, Paul doesn’t seem to use “pastor” language – he only refers to himself as a “shepherd” once, when claiming that he has a right to “milk from the flock” (1 Cor 9:7). Second, Paul does things that we generally discourage pastors from doing. “O stupid Galatians!” (Gal 3:1), he writes. And, after being sarcastic with the arrogant Corinthians (“you have become kings”), Paul actually seems to threaten them with some sort of corporal punishment: “Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit?” (1 Cor 4:21) He was, we might say, old-fashioned in the sense of the former pastor in a parish that King once served who would challenge abusive husbands to a fight, dramatically reducing the rate of domestic violence. Incidentally, Jason Byassee of the Christian Century reports a pastor saying, “Baptist deacons had to be big ole’ boys because once in a while someone would be abusing his wife, running around on her, not taking care of his kids. The pastor could try and ‘talk him up,’ but if he wouldn’t listen, the deacons would take him out back and apply muscle to him.” Maybe this sort of rough, old-fashioned, somewhat disturbing sort pastoral ministry was more a little more common once than we would think.

Third, and most shockingly, Paul doesn’t accept money. Really.

Why is Paul so odd? Paul, King says, “felt an absolute imperative to preach the good news” (my emphasis). Thus, regarding the matter of payment, Paul asserts that he and Barnabas have not “used this right,” because they will “endure everything so as not to place an obstacle to the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12). “For Paul, therefore, there was a freedom in working for a living and preaching the gospel for nothing.” If you don’t accept a stipend, your only obligation is to the Gospel. This “absolute imperative” perhaps explains his “old-fashioned” qualities and his reticence about pastoral language.

And what is this Gospel that Paul must preach? Paul summarizes it twice in his letters. In Romans, Paul writes, “It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live’” (Rom 1:16-17). This Gospel is Christocentric. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, this revelation of “the righteousness of God” consists of a few major points: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” and that he appeared to others (1 Cor 15:3-8). “So we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor 15:11).


Hopefully, we share Paul’s commitment to the Gospel. But, practically speaking, does Paul show us any qualities that we should see in our pastors? Fr King identifies three qualities. First, Paul has obvious affection for his fellow Christians. He tells even the Corinthians, “I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor 4:14-15). This is not mere rhetoric – although it is good rhetoric – and it is not mere politeness. As Paul tells the Philippians, he prays “with joy” for them, because of their “partnership for the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5). King will say that these Christian communities reflect, however imperfectly, “the mystery of God’s love in Christ,” and, thus, Paul loves them.

Second, although Paul has just a few important tenets, he is able to “think on his feet,” dealing with a bewildering set of issues ranging from runaway slaves to incest. King warns us against overemphasizing Paul’s opinions on “relatively trivial issues,” but it is hard to know exactly what he means here. King does tell us that what is really essential to Paul is – thirdly – to always keep one’s eyes on Jesus.

Here, I will close by directly quoting Nicholas King, SJ, on this third quality that Paul models for would-be pastors:

Paul had, it is clear, fallen head over heels in love with Jesus, and so come to the realization that it was true, what these crazy Christians had been saying, that God had raised him from the dead, and that Jesus was Lord, and Paul had to tell non-Jews about it. That, so far as he was concerned, was the heart of the matter, and his approach to any problem that he encountered in his pastoral work was simply to go back to Jesus. There can hardly be a better watchword for a pastor today or in any century. That is the reason that he gets so irritable with the Corinthians: they had taken their eyes off the ball; likewise, when the Galatians had forgotten about Jesus in their determination to return to Law-observance, Paul spectacularly lost his temper. Even in a largely warm and loving letter like Philippians, Paul is capable of severity if people forget about Jesus. There had been a rattling of the tea-cups up there in Macedonia, and two valued apostolic workers, Evodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4.2) were at odds, and Paul wants them to get it sorted out. Interestingly, the language that he uses, “think the same thing in the Lord” is the same as he has used earlier in the letter, when he introduces the famous “hymn to Christ” in 2.6-11, where three times (2;2, 3, 5 – but be warned that it may not be clear in English) he uses the word to “think” or its compounds to encourage unity: “think the same thought among yourselves as was also in Christ Jesus…”. If you get that right, then absolutely everything else follows. So when Paul tells his churches to “imitate” him (1 Corinthians 4.16; 11.1; 1 Thessalonians 1.6), it is not out of arrogance, but because he has centered his life on Christ, and they must do the same if their lives are to make sense. …

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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