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There are Things Worth Contending For

And some that aren’t …

After much of what I heard about Paul in school, which was really rather a lot, I think one of the most important things to remember when reading Paul’s letters is that they are letters, and that Paul writes pastorally. He is not writing systematic theology. On the other hand, he is writing theology. He’s just doing it in a pastoral way to address particular situations in churches or with persons.

I’m correctly working through advance copies of the forthcoming study guide to Philippians by Bruce Epperly, which will be part of the Participatory Study Series, with my Sunday School class. Now I love the book of Philippians. In fact, right now it’s one of the books I have recorded for myself in Greek on CD to listen to in my car, and it’s something I really enjoy hearing. There are so many powerful passages for daily Christian living.

If you study just Galatians, you might get the idea that Paul was contentious with very little tolerance for any sorts of differences of opinion. You’d be wrong if you did–well, he’s a bit contentious, true–but you could do so by ignoring the situation and the nature of the issues he’s addressing in that letter.

In Philippians we see another style, in which Paul can even celebrate (with some reservations) those who preach the gospel from bad motives. Let me quote Epperly on this point:

Once again, Paul trusts God to be providentially working through a variety of Christian messages. While Paul would surely fault his opponents for their lack of ecumenical hospitality, he still recognizes that their message may advance the gospel message by bringing people to an experience of the Risen Christ. Now, I must admit this is a tall order. While most of us recognize that unity does not mean uniformity, there are times when we find it difficult to affirm God’s presence in those groups whose beliefs, worship style, ethics, or experiences differ from our own. Could it be that Paul is advocating a “big tent Christianity,” large enough to embrace progressives, moderates, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and conservatives? Could it be that Paul, for whom theology is very important, nevertheless, places experiencing Christ above doctrinal differences?

Now while I might see Paul faulting these opponents for more than a lack of hospitality, I do see much of Paul in Philippians in that paragraph. The situation and the issue tends to drive the letter. Differences in Paul’s theology are generally driven by differences in the churches he’s addressing. His interest is in reaching and guiding people, rather than in expressing a systematic theology.

“Guiding people” and “expressing theology” are not opposed. Paul expresses theology in order to guide people. The pastoral view guides what theology is expressed, where and how.

There’s some controversy about contentious material in chapter three and how it relates to the generally positive and joyful tone of the letter. I see no more conflict here than I do with the belief that Paul could write both Galatians and Philippians, a view which is pretty much unchallenged. At least I know of no serious argument that Paul didn’t write both. The difference is the issues for which Paul is contending.

In other words, there are things worth contending for, and others that are not.

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