I was fortunate to be given the opportunity of a three-month sabbatical away from the normal day to day role as the Vicar in the Summer of 2020. My aim was to try and understand Paul amongst the wider geographical and historical contexts he lived in, along with the lives and gatherings of the congregations with which he was engaged. I’ll try to give some insights here of both my process and what I discovered. I hope it’s helpful…
As we were still in the first main coronavirus lockdown, travelling was never an option, but I found studying again a real joy. (Much of which was spent in my ‘Shed’ in the garden) It was probably five or six hours a day, generally for four days or so of each week, just spent reading or researching and going through Paul’s letters in detail. Wonderful.
It was really helped by starting to try and identify their likely order of being written, along with when and where from in relation to the time of the visits to each place. Then, I read them in detail in their likely order of being written.
In the studying phase I was assisted greatly by an online interlinear Bible that gave me far greater insights into the Greek than my level of the language would have normally allowed and each and every verse of Paul was checked in this way. Sometimes it was very quick, but at other moments I got held up and had to look deeper into some sentences that just caught my attention.
Two particular books were also significantly useful. The first was by Tom Wright and Michael Bird, “The New Testament in its World”. In fact, I began my time by reading this from cover to cover so I could build a chronology of Paul I understood, instead of just using a Bible map of Paul’s Missionary Journeys which never really gives the detail of the writing, just the journeys.
It became important for me to figure out when he wrote them from where and how that moment in time related to his visits to each place. It was this that gave me the history and context to understand more.
I soon realised I also needed to know about the synagogues of the early 1st century, and so I tracked down and read Anders Runesson’s “The Origins of the Synagogue”. There were many surprises in the potential normal life of those early synagogues that I hadn’t previously known – which to be honest was very little.
For instance, I discovered how open they were to any people being able to both read the scriptures or comment on them that the gathered community would then discuss what they heard. The reason these insights become important, is that I started to see them reflected more in Paul’s letters. There was also the fairly obvious assumption to be made that many of the early churches simply adapted worship styles they had already been used to. (As an example, read Paul’s first letter to Corinth about what a gathering should include)
Paul’s letters were all very probably written before anything else in the New Testament, which means they give a unique, unfiltered window into those early 1st century small churches. He hadn’t been influenced by them, just the Holy Spirit, his own Old Testament knowledge and oral stories. I tried hard to put aside anything else I knew from the Gospels or the other Epistles and Revelation as I read him so that I could hear Paul’s inner voice.
Before I began the sabbatical I had printed out each of the letters with wide margins so I would be able to take notes as I read – but too often I ran out of space – and discovered I didn’t have enough highlighters that were different colours!
By the end of the studying period I decided to try and write some notes to act as a reminder for myself – it is so easy to forget detail – and to maybe start to draw some thoughts together into themes.
That resulted in me completing my Summary Booklet. (You can download a free copy here)
An aside on the impact of the Mayflower 400 Anniversary and the need for searching for truth with humility
I happened to finish writing four hundred years to the day after the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth, the 16th September 1620. (I did then have some proofreading to do)
The symbolism of that occasion impacted me quite a bit. I had tried to search scripture for whatever it was that Paul thought was most important for those early small churches – and the Pilgrims left Britain having been persecuted for thinking in a similar sort of way, they were trying to find something they felt was pure.
It is why, on my title page, I give a quote from the journal of William Bradford, the leader of that first Plymoth Colony, who wrote they were seeking “to have ye right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in ye church, according to ye simplicitie of ye gospel”. They studied scripture as they had it in their day, without so many of the historical and analytical resources we have today, and they discovered a Church that didn’t match what they were being forced to accept. There were errors in what they chose, but they didn’t know that.
If both sides of the arguments hadn’t been so dogmatic, and one side in particular hadn’t turned to persecution to protect their understanding, then maybe the USA today might be very different. If only they had agreed that:
a) it is right to explore where we find scripture and the Holy Spirit takes us, and
b) that the result of that exploration may take us to different understandings.
Once we arrive at such thoughts,
c) we need to remain humble enough to acknowledge we may be wrong.
For this last reason, if you read my booklet, you will see my sabbatical had been about trying to find the early churches and to try and see the man called Paul. I was not wanting to criticise anything about today’s Church. That is a hard thing to do when we also know that Jesus said (John 8:31-32):
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Searching for that ‘teaching’ and ‘truth’ should be the working principle for all of us. In that I think is succeeded as far as I needed.
In my search, I found a very different Church to the one we all now inhabit. There were centuries that followed when others did the same searching and praying (hopefully honestly) and who began to form some theology that was not really addressed by Paul. Just as one instance, he never seems to directly speaks of what today we call The Trinity.
I did not have enough time in my sabbatical to look at later church history and the decisions it took. Some will have been right and some wrong. I just hope we can all find that humility that was missing with both the Pilgrims and the Church in the 1600’s.
What were my big ‘takeaways’?
Well the easiest answer is to suggest you have a read of my downloadable booklet or watch the five talks I gave (all below) as a series through then Autumn of 2020. But, the big things…
a) Paul was a Pastor. He cared for those communities and was hurt by them often.
b) He knew that these new congregations needed to not just know who Jesus was and what he had done but they absolutely ALSO needed to know and accept the lead of the Holy Spirit.
c) That the old covenant had passed-away to be replaced by a new one. The Temple was no longer relevant and that in some way, the new re-creation had started.
d) That the action of the Holy Spirit within individuals and Churches should be the catalyst for repentance and transformation. I think this is why Paul ended up writing about behaviour as much as he did. It wasn’t to introduce yet more rules or laws – rather he could see that transformation of character just wasn’t happening and how much they still had to accept the Holy Spirit.
e) The action of the Holy Spirit should also bring unity and love to a community. Where he didn’t see it, he commented.
(I did also have a wry smile when I realised there was also a very practical reason for unity in those early small churches. If you disagreed with others and you couldn’t work it out with humility – or even worse, you just disliked the worship, there wasn’t another church you could ‘hop’ to)
f) Lastly, Church Order. That phrase we use regarding who can do what, when and how.
It may surprise you, but I really did not find Paul had much of an opinion most of the time. In almost everything, I felt he would have been very content for each community to trust scripture as they had it, to know Jesus and follow the Holy Spirit – as to how they did it, I don’t think he was that worried about it. The few times he gave opinions were generally in the context of disunity or bad behaviour – as in the Lord’s Supper in Corinth.
And regarding women in leadership – I’m afraid I have real problems with the text we have today being applied without careful recognition of what might have been written by Paul. I certainly wouldn’t ‘go to the wall’ over a single one of the texts often used to stop women taking leading roles– but you’ll again have to read my booklet for the detail behind this. However, for simplicity, I did not find any reason for any woman to do exactly what any man does. In my opinion, Paul’s legacy of as a misogynist just wasn’t there.
Teaching Series Videos
While the booklet gives a lot of detail in many areas, it was also a record of my sabbatical – not where that was already taking me on thinking of its application. That is why I gave a five week teaching series though the Autumn of 2020. Firstly, to give my Church (St Jude’s, Plymouth) something back for the time they generously gave me. Secondly to continue that process of reflecting on scripture and how it applies into our lives today.
I hope everything here, the blog, the booklet and the talks are helpful in your own Journey with Jesus AND the Holy Spirit.
And so, if you wanted to watch any of them, they are all archived here:
3. Jesus AND the Holy Spirit