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PUBLISHED: Tuesday, November 12, 2019 by Brad Lyons

“Ugh,” said my minister friend of the apostle Paul, “he is awful. Such a misogynist, such a homophobe, such a racist. I can’t even read his stuff. Paul was a jerk.”[1]

The cover of Paul the Progressive, with an ancient image of the apostle giving some MAJOR side eye.It’s hard to argue with that logic when so many modern-day conservative Christians point to scriptures attributed to Paul as the basis for interpretations that would exclude LGBTQIA from God’s grace, bar women from leading in the church, and create fear of anybody who could be viewed as “other.” Over two thousand years, words that have been attributed to Paul – words contemporary research indicated are actually not Paul’s words but those of followers, students, or interpreters – have been twisted and used to create unspeakable and unmeasurable pain and suffering in the world—anti-Semitism, slavery, and most recently, policies of family separation at the United States’s southern border. 

Eric C. Smith portrays Paul as an ally for those very people exiled to the margins by the conservative church. Rev. Dr. Smith,assistant professor of Early Christianity and Contemporary Christian Practices at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, has spent his career digging into the earliest years of Christianity, understanding a persecuted religion under an imperial regime bent on domination, mercilessly subjugating anybody who got in their way. And in his newest book Paul the Progressive?: The Compassionate Christian’s Guide to Reclaiming the Apostle as an Ally,  Smith focuses on the most important leader in that scattered, fearful community.

“Everyone hates Paul, but that’s because they don’t really know him,” Smith says. “Everyone believes Paul hated women, but in truth he empowered, worked with, and relied upon women wherever he went. Everyone has heard Paul converted to Christianity, abandoned Judaism, and rejected Jewish law, but his own writings tell a different story. Everyone thinks they know Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality – except everyone twists Paul’s words for their own purposes.”

Smith asserts that we bring our own predispositions to the text and the assumptions we have inherited from others, and therefore see what we expect to see rather than understanding Paul in the true liberating context he intended. Paul the Progressive? helps readers see the conservative, prejudiced Paul is, in fact, a misperception.

“Paul’s life was so changed by his experience from God—an encounter with the post-resurrection Christ—that he couldn’t help but devote the rest of his life to spreading the news. Paul understood God was bringing history to a decisive moment, and God empowered the apostle to tear down barriers between slaves and slaveowners, between genders, between ethnicities, between insiders and outsiders. Paul was progressive in his own day, and his message of inclusion and teachings about the power of the new things God was doing can inspire and invigorate Christians and churches twenty centuries after he lived and died.”

As progressive Christians try to undo the damage of a church history that has attempted to exclude people, Paul the Progressive?  is a biblically rooted interpretation that uproots ancient and medieval – but still bad – theology. We are asked to look at scriptures we think we know well but in fact misunderstand completely. With the new interpretation comes a new understanding of Paul and his ministry.

We expect plenty of people will not be big fans of Paul the Progressive?. If they choose to read the book at all, they will bring their own predispositions and the assumptions they inherited from others, and they will likely dismiss this book as heresy. But those who bring an open mind to Paul the Progressive? will find a refreshing, inspiring, invigorating interpretation of the man who shaped Christianity into a message of love, inclusion, and empowerment.

Are you ready to restart your understanding of Paul?



[1] I will note I’ve cleaned up the language. My friend really had an issue with the apostle Paul.