St Paul knew nothing about me.

I don’t think I’ll ever run out of blog posts on ‘Weird ways Christians treat the Bible’, but here’s todays one:

We think it was written to us.

All of us.

We imagine that there was a cosmic platform from which Paul, Peter or even Jesus spoke their words to every person, everywhere, through all history.

Now before you object, I don’t want to do Christians a disservice. Most of us, let’s be fair, have got our heads around the idea that bits of the Bible were written in very different times to ours and very different cultures to ours, and so have to be interpreted with some care. Most of us realise that Old Testament stories of rape and slave-capturing aren’t meant to be instructive for us, and even the straightforward instructions about what we can’t eat and wear probably don’t apply to us now. We’re okay with that.

Some of us, in more progressive circles, have gone a step further and realised that even New Testament contexts weren’t always identical to ours. So we’ve considered the cultural context for an instruction like women’s head coverings, or women’s silence, or whatever else women were supposed to do, and agreed that it probably doesn’t apply to us in 21st century Britain in quite the same way. There are enough factors that explain why Paul might have written that to the Corinthians that were particular to their context, that we can say, ‘it was just for them’.

But what, for the most part, we don’t acknowledge is this: those are not the exceptions.

Those are not the few specific instances where we can find enough evidence that there was a particular culture context involved. In fact, they’re just the examples that are obvious enough to force us to acknowledge what is actually true of the whole Bible.

There is not a single word of the Bible that was written with a universal, history-spanning audience in mind.

There was no point where Paul stood up on his cosmic platform, overlooking all of time and space, and thinking ‘this message is for all of them’. It simply didn’t happen.

Every single sentence written by a biblical author had it’s own audience. And none of them included me.

But this is how we tend to read it… Picture the scene, if you will:

I’m at home one morning doing my daily devotional (because we’re in imaginary world where I do this every day). I pick up my Bible and read:

Romans 12:17-18 Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

So, we imagine Paul on his cosmic platform looking over our own contexts. I see Paul looking at my blog, considering the people I could piss off if I wasn’t careful with my words sometimes, looking at the arguments I could start, looking at the bad choices I sometimes make and the people who judge me for them, looking at the good choices I sometimes make and the people who disapprove of them. Claire, he says, do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you Claire, live at peace with everyone.

So, no making enemies for me, whether with my good or bad decisions. No doing stuff that people might have a problem with. No anti-establishment campaigning, no speaking out against injustice if it will irritate certain people. Peace is the priority for me, according to Paul.

But then I turn to this:

2 Timothy 3:12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

And I see Paul looking at my comfortable life from his cosmic platform, considering my lovely friends and colleagues who, despite not holding all the same beliefs as me, are respectful and considerate and tolerant. I see him look at my freedom to worship as I want, when I want, with who I want. And I see him shake his head. 

Claire, I hear Paul say, if you’re really living for Jesus, people will persecute you – yes, you personally and everything you stand for. So if they’re not, if you’re not suffering for your faith, perhaps you’re not really trying to live for Jesus at all.

Which is it then? Am I meant to be in peace with everyone or hated by them? Keeping quiet and pandering to what other people think is right, or pissing people off so they persecute me? 

Both of these verses are easy to apply to directly to ourselves. They sound like instructions for us. They don’t take much interpreting to make sense. Sermons on either are generally preached as if Paul was saying these words to everyone, everywhere. But in fact, obviously, he wasn’t.

The first instruction was to the Roman church in the mid-late 50s (thats first century rather than 1950s). Those were the people he was telling to live at peace with everyone. Everyone in their city, in their time, in their context.

The second statement was to Timothy, a young church leader in Ephesus. Who could Paul have conceivably meant by everyone living a godly life? Everyone Timothy knew? Everyone in his church? Maybe even everyone that Paul had ever heard of – within his short life, within his geographical limits. But certainly not everyone who ever has and ever will live everywhere.

Why it was good to keep peace in Rome, and why there was persecution in Ephesus, I don’t really know. We could find out by studying those contexts a little more. But what I do know is that Paul didn’t have me in mind. He didn’t have my blog in mind. He knew nothing of the decisions I might have to make about how far to annoy people and how far to appease them, whose values to take as my own and whose to push back against. How could he? Why should he?

How arrogant would I be to take either one of these verses as instructive to me?


I’m not denying the inspiration or the power of the Bible. To say that Paul knew nothing about me isn’t to say his words don’t have relevance, or that they can’t be God’s word to me. From here, I might look at those two verses, look at the situation in Rome and the situation in Ephesus, and see if there are any similarities with mine. I might think about reasons Paul wanted one group to live in peace, and expected another to be persecuted, and see if that’s any help to me in working out my own decisions.

But the point is, it’s me who’s got to do that work. I’ve got to make those choices still. I’ve got to pray and listen for God’s voice. The Bible is a tool that I can use and God might use to help me make those choices, but it’s not the only one and it’s not always the most helpful one.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. No universally applicable verses to rule them all. 

If we want to use the Bible, we’ve got to be prepared to admit that the cosmic platform didn’t exist. Paul didn’t know us. Instead, there’s freedom to think, and there’s responsibility with our choices.

What is so terrifying about that?

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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14 Responses to St Paul knew nothing about me.

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this Claire. It expresses well what was a major stumbling block for me as someone coming to faith in an evangelical context, with no background in the Church; the classic evangelical ‘quiet time’ didn’t really work for me as a model of spirituality, as these sorts of confusions and questions arose all the time when I read the Bible. Of this isn’t just an evangelical issue: I think all wings of the church (and also church schools – when scripture is read in my school, it is always implicitly presented as addressed to us, leading to lots of confused looks!) need to do more work in helping lay people to grapple meaningfully with the Bible and understand what it can say to us. This, of course, is one of the functions of liturgy: the Church takes the disparate and complex narrative of the Bible and weaves it into something which speaks God’s Word to us in church today. There is something helpful, I find, about setting Scripture within the context of the Church’s liturgy, in the mainstream Anglican tradition.

    Anyway, thanks again for another perceptive blog post 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Hey Andrew, really interesting point about the function of liturgy here, I hadn’t considered that at all. Something I could benefit from more, making the most of being an Anglican!

  2. Hi Claire, interesting thoughts! I think you’re right in one sense, though I would say I don’t fully agree, or at least I’d suggest a different emphasis. My suggestion would be that we think about the Bible as being addressed to the *church as a community*. Not simply written to an individual in the past (like Timothy), or an individual in the present (you or I), though it can include those audiences; I think we need to primarily understand it as God’s word to his people. So it has a historical context which we should pay attention to, but it also has a theological context: the place the church goes to to hear God speak. (Even if God speaks elsewhere too) So I can think of Paul’s words as written to me, because they were written to a community of which I am also part, the universal, time-transcending community called the church.
    That doesn’t mean I think Paul had a ‘cosmic platform’ in mind when he wrote, I don’t think he even sat down and thought “right, time to write some inspired words of scripture!”, but nonetheless, we have his words, and as the church we have formed them into the canon and decided that these words are also for *us*. Perhaps no ‘universally applicable verses’, but a whole canon/narrative which we read as followers of Jesus Christ and try to read in light of that? As an example, I suppose I’d take those verses from Romans and 2 Timothy and try and hold them together. They’re both *true*, but how so? I think there’s room for a Christian desire to live peacefully (like Jesus did) and being able to accept that in some sense to be a Christian means to face persecution (because that’s what Christ faced and we’re patterning ourselves after him).
    What do you make of that approach?
    thanks! x

    • Claire says:

      Thanks Joseph, that’s really helpful – and nothing that I’d take issue with I don’t think. It’s always the case when you’re writing a single post on something that they’ll be other angles to look at it from, and this is an interesting one. I don’t know if I’d agree that Paul’s words are written *to* us because we’re part of the universal church – because I don’t think Paul did have much idea that his letters would be kept and canonised and considered Scripture and taught in churches thousands of years later!

      But as you say, we – the church community – have decided that these words are precious and inspired and useful for us, so we take them as part of this canon as *for* us, not *to* us. And that should change how we read them – just as you give in that example, which I agree with!

  3. josephhartropp says:

    Hi Claire, interesting thoughts! I think you’re right in one sense, though I would say I don’t fully agree, or at least I’d suggest a different emphasis. My suggestion would be that we think about the Bible as being addressed to the *church as a community*. Not simply written to an individual in the past (like Timothy), or an individual in the present (you or I), though it can include those audiences; I think we need to primarily understand it as God’s word to his people. So it has a historical context which we should pay attention to, but it also has a theological context: the place the church goes to to hear God speak. (Even if God speaks elsewhere too) So I can think of Paul’s words as written to me, because they were written to a community of which I am also part, the universal, time-transcending community called the church.
    That doesn’t mean I think Paul had a ‘cosmic platform’ in mind when he wrote, I don’t think he even sat down and thought “right, time to write some inspired words of scripture!”, but nonetheless, we have his words, and as the church we have formed them into the canon and decided that these words are also for *us*. Perhaps no ‘universally applicable verses’, but a whole canon/narrative which we read as followers of Jesus Christ and try to read in light of that? As an example, I suppose I’d take those verses from Romans and 2 Timothy and try and hold them together. They’re both *true*, but how so? I think there’s room for a Christian desire to live peacefully (like Jesus did) and being able to accept that in some sense to be a Christian means to face persecution (because that’s what Christ faced and we’re patterning ourselves after him).
    What do you make of that approach?
    thanks!

  4. Adrian Jones says:

    Hi Claire …I agree with your ‘no cosmic platform’ thesis….also agree with Joseph that Paul was probably never self-consciously writing scripture …some OT authors may have thought they were though. I want to add an orthodox ‘but’ though. Although Paul was writing within and to specific contexts, he was often addressing aspects of the universal human condition ….and therefore in one sense writing for and to all of us. There is work for us all to do in understanding what is ‘universal’ and what is ‘specifically’ contextual though, I agree, and because our own context is different even from that of ten years ago, then it’s work we have to continually do. There is, though, a human tendency to excuse our own behaviour and to find ways to confirm our own beliefs (particularly those that make us comfortable and self-satisfied), so this work needs to be done with absolute honesty and preferably in community or at least with openness to critical thought and other opinions. 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Definitely with you on this – especially the value of community as we work out how to learn lessons from texts that weren’t written to us, and apply them to our contexts – as you say, very easy to find ourselves excusing our own comforts and going unchallenged without that.
      As for Paul on the human condition though – that’s an interesting one. How much should we expect from one man in one context with one worldview, although we believe inspired by God? Was he inspired by God to write about a universal human condition (if there is such a thing?) or to write what those churches at that time needed to hear about the human condition? Has our experience of being human changed in 2000 years? Does an analysis of the human condition change or develop with modern psychology, biology, anthropology, or any other -ology?
      Not claiming to have many answers to those..

  5. Peter Hardy says:

    I know the your description of Paul’s intent was meant to be in your imagination, but as you know scholars say 1 & 2 Timothy probably weren’t written by Paul. It could be therefore, that the authors of 2 Timothy and Romans were both addressing everyone but contradicting each other. (Although I think that Romans verse is intended to try to minimise persecution.)

    Anyway, thanks for a great original and honest post 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Thanks Peter, I’d not thought of that – had taken my scholarly hat off to do my imaginary devotional there, which probably speaks volumes in itself! Interesting thought.

  6. Anton Green says:

    I always like your thinking Claire. As one who came to faith in an evangelical context I frequently wrestled with the tendency towards more concrete literacy in biblical interpretation. I never thought of it as an individual like Paul taking up a cosmic platform but as many individuals embedded in their cultural situation writing with some degree of Holy Spirit influence. Even conservative preachers following the Oakhill (Anglican ) model are meant to ask what did it mean at the time and what might it mean for us now? I guess though that I’m often experiencing reactions against very literalistic interpretations and responses. Like when the early Old Testament is presented as literal historical truth. I accept the concept that the bible is God’s word and a key source of authority but feel that the truth has to be wrestled for..it can’t be presented in an over-trite way. The ideas in comments above about it being written for the church are helpful yet I still think the bible has power (from God) and can speak to the individual transcending time and culture. However I think the conservative view of scripture can be too high and too dogmatic, so because my view of scriptural inerrancy is more flexible and less fixed than many conservatives i call myself an open evangelical. Clearly these days most of us are comfortable to use our minds over say Paul’s words about women and prefer “all one in Jesus Christ to the not speaking and headship stuff because we say that he was addressing local circumstances (with attended cultural aspects) and those restrictions cannot be applied to all women everywhere through all time. What is of interest is that the OT seems to unpack some tension in presenting the character of God with on the one hand a God who is compassionate, merciful and kind and on the other a God who is jealous for himself. Where does justice come on the spectrum? Some say as they advance into the New Testament that their is a trajectory towards justice and compassion…perhaps recognising that man’s insights are growing and that rather than being totally immutable, scripture caters for this. Interesting idea as we debate issues of our day. Ultimately the Christian life remains one of progressive transformation…the biblical template of a character able to manifest the fruit and gifts and qualities of the spirit remains deeply challenging…and unattainable in our own strength, however nuanced our thinking is.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for this Anton, I think you raise some really important points, especially about seeing trajectories and progressive thought within the Bible – it’s that which gives us confidence (and permission?) to consider how our own context and experience might fit along that path, and what new work the Holy Spirit might be doing in the church now. It’s a challenge to us to be listening carefully and humbly, ready to have our minds changed and grown…

  7. Bernard says:

    Hi Claire. Interesting thoughts thanks, with which I would both have some agreement, and disagreement! I agree that in some senses the Bible was not written to us . . . but in other senses it was, even those parts that weren’t! Complex isn’t it?

    But for me it highlights the need to handle it carefully! I’m sure, as you say, it’s been used in ‘weird ways’ in the past and present, and probably will be in the future (though we may differ on what actually is ‘weird’ 😀!)

    My perspective would be that God is somehow behind the 66 writings in the Bible in a way that is different to any other writings, or any other collection of writings. What this actually means, and how the writings should impact us as communities and individuals today are areas of debate . . . but the fact of impact is unavoidable, I believe, due to their unique nature. Thanks again. Bernard.

    • Claire says:

      Hi Bernard, thanks for this – you’re right, we’d probably have a few varying thoughts on weird Bible interpretation. Perhaps a blog in that for you to write?! 🙂

      • Bernard says:

        Hi Claire. Not too sure about a blog post . . . I take too long to put my thoughts into words! That’s why I tend to read, and sometimes respond to, blog posts, as opposed to write them!

        However, Bible interpretation in general is something I am interested in. Why the multitudinous interpretations/approaches/conclusions in so many areas . . . some of which we may even assess as weird? (I would also state however that there is also a lot that Christians believe in common!).

        One of the factors I’ve concluded to be important is that of our presuppositions. I don’t think we are always as aware of them as we should be, both our own and those of others with whom we see differently. Where we start our thought process, affects how we proceed, and where we end up. I find it helpful to try to not only accurately understand what another Christian believes, but also the grounds on which they base their belief, and the process they followed to arrive at their conclusion. I don’t know that I aways succeed, but that’s my aim! Regards. Bernard.

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