This week we're going to respond to a comment made by Bob in Loganville. He writes, "I'm okay following the teachings of Jesus, but I'm not so sure about the teachings of Paul." The implied question is whether or not this is okay and whether the gospels are more reliable than the epistles.
To answer these questions we have to come to some sort of understanding of the letters/epistles of Paul as a whole. This is easily done when we recount the circumstances of the writing of the epistles. First, most of the epistles were written before any of the gospels were written. This is important because it reminds us Paul did not have access to any written accounts of Jesus' life and teachings. Secondly, Paul wrote these letters mainly to established churchesFirst Churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Collosae, and Thessolonica. The exceptions were the letters to the pastors Timothy and Titus and one to a runaway slave-owner Philemon. What do the epistles, as a whole, have in common? Just this: they were all written to intervene in churches (or with individuals) embroiled in conflict. The only possible exception would be the letters to Timothyand even these were likely written either to prevent it or to deal with one conflict or another.
The gospels, on the other hand, were written for an entirely different purpose. They were written to present Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. They're neither biographies nor historical works, though they contain biographical and historical events. They are, in fact, their own genre; they're GospelsGood Newswritten to show Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God. Within the gospels are the teachings of Jesus, as presented by the authors, for living a spiritually fulfilling and morally ethical life couched within the framework of salvation.
Herein lies our difficulty. The gospels contain both specific and general guidelines and commands for living our personal lives. Jesus primarily taught and ministered to individuals. Paul's epistles also seems to contain both specific and general guidelines and commands for living our personal lives. However, Paul primarily wrote and ministered to local churchesnot to individuals. Thus, his words and commands must be interpreted with this in mind.
The teachings of Jesus tend to be gentle, pastoral, and freeingdealing mostly with issues on loving your neighbor and loving God. Paul's teachings are often caustic and bindingdealing mostly with church doctrines, theologies, and how the church should behave.
Further, the teachings of Jesus tend to be timeless. Loving one another, not judging each other, doing good works, lifting up and defending the poor and the oppressed, purity in worship and in prayerthese things never expire. But many of Paul's specific commands to specific churches regarding specific conflicts do not apply to non-specific churches, nor are they applicable today.
For instance, just how long is long hair (1 Corinthians 11.14)? How many people do you know worry about food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8)? How many of us are baptized on behalf of the dead (1 Cor. 15.29)? And how many people in the church have quit work because they believe the second coming of Christ is really imminent (1st & 2nd Thessalonians)? These (and many, many more) were all problems Paul addressed in his letters to the churches in Asia Minor and Europe.
We no longer have to deal with Jewish Christians insisting we must be circumcised to be a real Christian and so on. These were first century church problems, and although many of the teachings can be applied to today (eating meat sacrificed to idols might not cause someone to leave the faith anymore, but indiscriminate consumption of alcohol might. cf., 1st Cor. 8.9), many of them cannot be applied directly.
Jesus is the Christ, not Paul. And although all scripture is profitable for study, not all scripture apples literally and directly to us today. So, I suggest, before we mount our horses to tilt at the pinwheels of Paul's first century church commands, we consider taking up the gauntlet thrown before us by Christ. The gauntlet found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 and summed up in Christ's commands to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself."