When we look at the lives of “great men”, like the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther King, we need to carefully examine their lives in light of the Scriptures. We should try to focus on the good that they did. Many times, we can learn from their good example. We can also learn from their mistakes- but first we must acknowledge that they are mistakes. We must not call “good” what is really “evil” just because some “great man” did it. We cannot make a double standard. The teachings of the Bible apply to everyone- no exceptions.
Recently, it was in the news on Google that, after the death of Martin Luther King’s widow, people were showing honor and recognition for his favorite mistress. Yes, he was a great man in many respects. And it’s true that, like all men and women, his mistress too is made in the image of God, and so she has dignity and deserves respect as a person. We should not go looking at people’s past to try to find some “dirt” to accuse them, we should move forward in forgiveness and newness of life. But that is different than saying “wrong” is “right”. No one should ever be publicly honored for committing adultery. This woman can repent of her sins, turn to Jesus Christ, and be forgiven, just as I have. The gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” [Romans 1:16]. But sin is still sin. Adultery isn’t honorable just because it was Martin Luther King who did it.
Likewise from the Bible, we can consider the story of Timothy, the young Christian son of a Gentile from the area of Galatia. “Paul wanted to take him [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” [Acts 16:3]
The frequent teachings in the Bible on circumcision, coming from Paul and others, are very, very, very clear. Timothy should not have been circumcised. Paul never admitted to doing this. He never gave any explanation for circumcising Timothy, so I don’t need to either- except to say that it was clearly wrong. In this particular case, Paul was teaching one thing, but he did the exact opposite. And Paul was very publicly rebuked for it, all the way in Jerusalem, as noted in a previous post. If anybody else besides Paul had circumcised Timothy, we would all immediately recognize that this was clearly wrong. But the Evangelical Blind Spot makes it hard for us to see. This was not God’s missionary method, it was Paul’s sin, and right away God slammed the doors on Paul, wouldn’t let him preach the Word, and sent him far away from “the Jews who lived in that area”, to Europe, and a group of Gentile women who were praying. There he could preach the Word again.
Yes, Paul was a great man, anointed by God as an apostle to the Gentiles primarily, (although part of God’s method for the Gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” [Romans 1:16] and we all are called to carry out God’s plan as He enables us.) In a number of ways Paul is a good example to us, and we should focus on the good and learn some things from his example. But let’s not idolize Paul and justify his mistakes by calling them missionary methods. (When I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I’m reminded of a quote from Shakespeare -“Methinks thou doth protest too much”- but maybe I’m wrong.)
God has not changed, and the Bible has not changed. But our infinite Living God may give us new understanding of His Word as he progressively reveals Himself in time. As I wrote more at length in a post last year, in the time of Copernicus and Galileo, the Bible scholars were sure that the Bible taught the earth was flat and at the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around the earth. Most “Protestant” Christians today believe that Paul was right to circumcise Timothy, including most of my pastor friends. It is not worth breaking fellowship over this issue, and this “Paulist” tradition has been part of Western Christianity, perhaps since the Reformation. It’s like the air we breathe, so it’s hard to see. I respect people who don’t see the Bible the way I do on this particular issue, and we don’t have to agree on it. Although I believe it is important, it is a “nonessential”. But in the interest of intellectual honesty, I would like my Christian friends to acknowledge two things. (1) The position I am putting forward is solidly based on the clear teachings of the Bible. (2) Saying that Paul was right to circumcise Timothy is saying that the clear, repeated, specific teachings of Scripture regarding circumcision do not apply to a particular individual (Paul) in this case because of special circumstances. This is what most of us would call “liberal”.
As for application in my own life: If a large Bible-teaching church has an “Evangelism Explosion” program, to go out and share the Gospel in the streets using Scripture verses, I think this is an admirable intention. But if I was arguing with another seminary student who was over me running the program, the associate pastors in the church were locked in a continual power struggle, and the church’s senior pastor was battling the church boss who controlled the board of elders, I don’t think we were really in the will of God. I think that one big root problem was that there were too many people like me- sincere but immature Christians who knew the Bible well and were trying very hard to “be like Paul” and succeeding, rather than trying to be like Jesus. If we are in God’s will, we will see the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives. So as we remember Paul and consider the outcome of his way of life, let’s meditate on his inerrant teachings, and imitate his great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is an inspiration to us all.