A few weeks ago I wondered about the images we have of Paul the Apostle. We can’t help but construct him in our imaginations and we do so in terms of modern jobs, careers, and ministry roles. These images shape how we read his letters and regard his central concerns.
I’ve heard evangelists talk about Paul as the consummate evangelist—a rhetorically persuasive orator who spoke compellingly about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’ve heard a neo-fundamentalist preacher talk about Paul’s stress on doctrinal precision. Paul’s passion for truth made him a doctrinal watchdog, one who scrutinized the preaching and teaching of his fellow believers. Because of his concern for orthodoxy, he confronted Peter in Antioch and was a theological champion in his constant debates with opponents.
I’ve just found it interesting that when pastors and preachers of various sorts talk about Paul, they end up speaking of him in autobiographical terms. It just so happens that Paul always ends up being just like them!
I wrote about a few other misconceptions in my Christianity Today article, “The Paul We Think We Know.”
More recently, I heard a public figure referred to as a “community organizer.” The image that immediately came to mind was of this person walking through neighborhoods, sleeves rolled up, getting to know people, trying to understand local problems, and working to resolve conflicts and solve problems.
I then thought, “my goodness, that’s Paul!”
I’m not entirely sure that this captures everything that he was about, but it does seem just as appropriate—if not more so—as other images.
Paul was certainly not an evangelist in the modern sense. He wasn’t the powerful orator we imagine him to be (1 Cor. 2:1-8; 2 Cor 10:10). And he wrote pastoral letters to churches, not theological treatises, so he wasn’t a professional theologian.
His main concern, however, was that churches grow and increasingly thrive as unified communities of self-sacrificial love. It seems to me that beyond many of our modern conceptions, perhaps “community organizer” is far more fitting.