The Bible (and specifically the Pauline Epistles) are misused often. That’s how we get cults, heresy, and wasted lives.
When speaking about Paul, Peter said that some people distort his words. He admits that Paul’s writings are sometimes difficult to understand.
This article is meant to keep us on track as we labor to understand God’s Word through the Apostle Paul.
A Preliminary Consideration About the Pauline Epistles
Take a look at Ephesians 3:8-9.
Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery,which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
In this passage, Paul explained that his job, given to him by God, was two-fold.
1. Paul was to preach to the Gentiles (non-Jews) the gospel. This one is pretty easy to understand.
2. (And this is the hard one to understand) Paul was to “make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery”.
Let’s break it down into parts.
“Make Plain” – Paul was to reveal something – something which had not yet been revealed to God’s people. And it was his job to explain it.
“The administration” – The Greek is οικονομια (oikonomia). Literally, “household rules” or “household order”.
“This mystery” – Looking in context, Ephesians 3:6 says that the mystery was the new body that the Jews and Gentiles were put into. The church.
So if we substitute the meaning of each phrase, this is what we get.
“Make plain the administration of the mystery”
“Reveal the household order of the church”
In other words, Paul played a special role among the apostles. His very specific, God-given task was to show everybody how the church is supposed to function. In mission. In purpose. In structure.
This is an important consideration because his letters have that same purpose – to establish the church in the household order revealed to Him by God.
Ok, let’s move on.
1. The Pauline Epistles Are Not a Bunch of Disjointed Verses for You to Build Doctrines
So many times, we take the Pauline Epistles (and really the whole Bible), and we try to make it about the specific question we have, instead of letting the author speak for himself.
For example, you have a question about predestination vs. free will. So you go to passages like Ephesians 1, Romans 9, John 6:47, Romans 10:9-10.
But if you remember the context of Paul’s epistles, they are about the establishment of the church.
So while the doctrines you build might not be wrong if you use this method of topical study, it does miss the point. You can very well completely miss what Paul was trying to communicate. His intent. Which is that his letters were sent to churches so that they could be established.
In mission. In Purpose. In structure.
Not simply to build doctrines which become controversial for centuries and divide the church.
2. The Pauline Epistles Are Not a Bunch of Disjointed Verses for God to Speak an Individualized Message to You
I’m not going to argue against the fact that God still speaks today. I’m not going to argue against the fact that He does it through his Word.
I’m not even going to argue against the idea that God can use an individual verse to inspire you in a very special way.
But we must abide by this extremely important principle:
If the message you receive contradicts or even distracts you from the author’s intent, then it is not of God.
God used the Holy Spirit to speak through Paul a very specific message about how to establish our churches. If what you think you hear from God causes you to miss that message, then it is obviously not the Holy Spirit who is communicating.
Here’s an example:
Consider Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
For some, “I can do all things” means scoring touchdowns and clearing the bases. But that’s not exactly what Paul had in mind. Paul was sharing that he’d learned to be content no matter what his circumstances — rich or poor, hungry or well fed, in prison or out. What Paul was saying is not so much “I can achieve anything,” but “I can endure anything” — which, in his case, included prison.
And so when we think about Paul’s intent in Philippians to help the church in Philippi to become better established – in mission, in purpose, in structure – it tells us even more. It tells us that in order for the church to glorify God, then it must be able to persevere through trials in hope of the Return of Christ.
3. The Pauline Epistles Were Not Written in a Vacuum
The account in the book of Acts explains exactly how the Apostles understood the Great Commission, and it was expansion and multiplication of the churches.
Each of Paul’s letters are part of that amazing story we see in Acts. All the churches related to one another. Paul often asked for collections for the churches in Judea (which included Jerusalem), because as we know from Acts, they suffered greatly.
But we’d miss the close-knit connection between the network of churches if we only look at the letter. And we’d miss the message that we are supposed to work together with other churches as well today.
And that’s just one example of understanding the full New Testament implications of Paul’s writings.
Seeing how it all fits together is extremely important.
4. The Pauline Epistles Were Not Meant to Be Individualistic
They were written through Paul, to the churches, so that all churches from then on could benefit. But they were NOT written from God to *insert your name here*.
Yes, God has a personal relationship with each one of us. Yes, our salvation is as personal a thing as you could ever imagine.
But when we read the Pauline Epistles, we must remember that every word has to be seen through the lens of Paul’s intent, since it was actually the Holy Spirit’s intent.
That way, when we read Philippians, we learn as churches how to persevere. When we read the Corinthian letters, we learn as churches how to avoid division and sin. When we read the Pastoral Epistles (the Timothy’s and Titus), we learn as churches what leadership is supposed to look like and how to structure our churches.
There is a lot at stake as we consider how to understand the Pauline Epistles. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:14-15 that he wanted the church in Ephesus to understand how to order itself, so that it would effectively be the pillar and support of the truth.
It goes to reason that if we do not understand Paul’s revealed household order and follow it – the mission, the purpose, the structure – then we will no longer be the pillar and support of the truth.
So labor with me, brothers and sisters, in the work of accurately interpreting the Paul’s letters.
Also published on Medium.