I’ve been thinking about Saul of Tarsus. If we could modernize his resume a bit, I think there are many churches that would jump at the chance to hire him:
- Born into a family blessed by generations of believers
- Baptized and raised in a solid, conservative church
- Educated in the finest seminary, graduating with honors
- Letters of recommendation from denominational leaders
- Fearless in defense of the truth of the Holy God
- Relentless in ferreting out fringe groups and their heresies
- Faultless life, above reproach
- Charismatic leader
- Passionate for God
What would attract a church to such a man? To put it succinctly, he is the total package. He is an intellectual giant, a true Bible scholar, and a very spiritual man. They can envision their own congregation basking in the glow of his fame and success. They can rest assured that his way, his doctrine, his reasoning are unassailable, drowning out voices of disagreement and relieving them of the need to do their own research and self-examination. He is also a manly man, assertive, even aggressive. They can revel in being on the side of righteousness and victory (and maybe even coolness).
And yet, what would they have gotten? They would have gotten a man who was absolutely, completely wrong, who was fighting against the God he claimed to be serving. He was harming, even murdering, the people that God loved and sent his son to die for. He was focused on enforcing rules through power, not pastoring people with love and persuasion.
Saul was armed with well-earned knowledge and expertise, fueled by the certainty that he was fighting a righteous fight in the service of Almighty God. His conscience was so clear it was not pricked by the cries and pleas of men, women, and children. He was surrounded by admiring leaders. It was empowering, it was rewarding. That is a heady brew. That is an unstoppable force. There’s no chink in that armor for a sliver of truth to fit in.
But if Saul was not serving God, why was he so zealous? Who was he serving? What was he zealous about? He was serving himself. He was serving himself! He was harboring a burning anger which he aimed at those who disagreed with him. He was acting out a deep desire to dominate, even to crush others. His motivation came from deep within his own heart. It was simply convenient that he could twist the Scriptures, the scholars, and his culture to justify it.
That promising resume could not convey the most important qualification for a pastor: a heart that has been transformed by the love of Christ, producing a flow of grateful love that became a river of life to those around him.
What do you think are the chances that someone could have convinced Saul that he was wrong? If someone had patiently, carefully tried to lay out the good news of the New Covenant, how long would he have listened before devastating them with his command of the Scriptures and the scholars, proving them wrong?
It was only a direct, dramatic intervention by Jesus himself that brought Saul of Tarsus to his senses. Only a transformed heart could have the murderous Saul of Tarsus engaging his beloved converts with the weakness of a child and the compassion of a nursing mother (I Thessalonians 2:7). Only a transformed heart believes that another heart can be transformed by God from the inside out, without resort to human power and control.
The Apostle Paul was still passionate for the truth, fearless in evangelism, convinced of his mission. But he no longer attempted to enforce conformity to the truth by the exercise of external power. He had capitulated to the other-worldly paradigm of spiritual power—humility, compassion, prayer, faith.
May God intervene as dramatically in the lives of power-hungry pastors and leaders, and protect his sheep.
Thank you for reminding us that the power to change hearts does not reside within us. And thank you for caring about Christ's church.
Thank you, Anna. It’s all about the heart.
You said, “What was he zealous about? He was serving himself. He was serving himself! He was harboring a burning anger which he aimed at those who disagreed with him. He was acting out a deep desire to dominate, even to crush others.”
I do not find this assertion of yours persuasive. . You have attributed desires and motives to Saul which I don’t think can be proven from Scripture. (Maybe you can show I’m wrong.)
Paul, writing about his sinful conduct before conversion, said he did what he did out of ignorance.
Some people assert that Paul was an abuser before his conversion. They use that assertion as evidence that abusers sometimes change into non-abusers. I think that is false.
To examine my arguments, visit https://cryingoutforjustice.blog/2018/11/30/was-paul-an-abuser-before-he-was-converted/
Barbara, you have raised some important issues. Your article poses the question, was Paul an abuser? Let me express my points of agreement, followed by clarification.
1. I agree: Scripture does not present evidence that Paul met the criteria for a domestic abuser. My point was not that Paul was an abuser, but that he operated from a model of power and control which is antithetical to a Christian pastor. On one hand, we have his stated intention to obey and serve God, his claim to be faultless according to the law, and his contention that God forgave him because he acted out of ignorance. On the other hand, there is his persecution of Jesus himself in his violent seizure, imprisonment, and approval of the execution of Christians. Regardless of motivation, he had a murderous heart, at least toward Christians.
2. I agree: It is rare, approaching impossible, for an abuser to change. This is because abuse is not just a matter of bad behavior, but of deeply twisted character. In my article, I was arguing that Paul’s situation made him impervious to rational, human interventions; it was only a miraculous appearance and rebuke by Jesus himself that had the power to change his heart. That event was quite different from a more typical conviction, repentance, and sanctification process.
3. I agree: Expressions of repentance must be verified by a long and rigorous bearing of fruit and should never be a reason for coerced reconciliation. Even if we believe that an abuser’s repentance is genuine, that does not justify a reconciliation. If a woman has been abused for even a few years, there is no way for her trust to be restored in a short period of time, if at all. A genuinely repentant abuser would accept the responsibility to take as long as necessary to demonstrate the fruits of his repentance, even without guarantee of reconciliation.
I hope those explanations allay any fears you may have about my article justifying abuser apologies, and show that we are actually in close agreement.
Thank you Donna. I agree with all three points you made in your well argued reply.
I’d like to come back to one point you made in your article. You said that Saul was serving himself. My interpretation is that he thought and believed he was serving God, but I’m not convinced he was serving himself. Could you please say why you think he was serving himself?
The verse you are referring to is I Timothy 1:13, which states: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” His ignorance does not imply innocence; innocence does not require mercy and forgiveness. And unbelief would not qualify as innocence. I think the implication is that if he had behaved in such a way after conversion, he would have been trampling on the mercy of God and would not have been redeemable (Hebrews 4:4-6). In this verse he admits that he was blasphemous, vicious and violent.
In Eph 4:17-18 Paul says, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” He is clearly linking ignorance to futile thinking, darkened understanding, separation from God, and hardness of heart.
I don’t mean that Saul acted in a calculated way—“I’m going to use my position to gratify myself by gaining power over other people.” What I am saying is perhaps even worse. He was blind and deceived. His actions revealed what was in his heart even as he was telling himself that he was serving God and pursuing righteousness. It is a warning to us to continually examine our hearts as well as to beware those who justify questionable actions with Scripture.