Is there a difference between the apostle Paul’s opinions and his epiphanies? Are we to treat them differently?
The Apostle Paul was a great man. He had many “third heaven” revelations. He also had many “first heaven” educated opinions. We need to know the difference. “Third heaven” revelation from the “throne room” of God fills Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. “First heaven” opinions based on Paul’s practical philosophy frequently appear in Timothy, Titus, Romans and Corinthians, even though these books also contain many “third heaven” insights as well.
Let me clarify. Jesus never talked philosophically about politics, slavery, women’s rights, etc. However, Paul did. And without question, Paul’s opinions on these issues certainly matter. They are a good place to start. They may be the floor, but they are not the ceiling.
I think it would be an error to call Paul’s opinions on philosophical issues the final word for all time. Are we forever chained to Paul’s opinions? Are we unable and unauthorized to better develop them, respectfully disagree with them, or rigorously debate them? Do we stand on Paul’s shoulders or does he stand on ours? If Paul stands on OUR shoulders, then we, as the low man on the totem pole, will never see the answers directly for ourselves, but will have to totally trust Paul’s philosophic vision as the ONLY legitimate seer on these matters. But, if WE stand on Paul’s shoulders, then we should be able to see higher and better and fresher and clearer than Paul did on these issues.
I can easily imagine Paul exhorting us in the cloud of heavenly witnesses to carry the baton of his truth faster and farther than he did. He would WANT us to refine, improve and expand his personal philosophy to better honor the Lord. Paul’s opinions in these areas might be part of the foundational “floor” we stand on for initial balance, but they are not the ultimate conceptual “ceiling” we grow to reach toward and beyond.
Let me give an example. Jesus NEVER talked about political systems, except perhaps when He said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The implication is that these two kingdoms are not the same. This one statement is hardly a political manifesto with which to guide our Christian walk.
Jesus NEVER said ALL governments were ordained by God to execute the sword over evil doers or that government officials were ministers of God. And yet Paul said all these things in Romans 13:1-7. But, one could argue that this differed from Jesus’ view because in the wilderness temptations it is revealed that all the kingdoms of the worlds are in the power of Satan to give to whom he pleased (Luke 4:5-6). 1 John 5:19 confirms that the whole fallen world lies in the power of the evil one – Satan. Thus, one could make the Scriptural argument that earthly governments are unspiritual at best and demonically influenced at worst.
Yet, Paul had a higher view of government as a godly authority, or at least he did when he wrote the book of Romans. But let’s think about that for a moment. Paul was a Roman citizen, a status which gave him a lot of protection. Time and time again, Paul was protected from death at the hands of the Judaizers BECAUSE he was a Roman citizen. To Paul, the government he was exposed to offered him and his ministry a level of protection.
But, would Paul have felt that Rome was “God’s minister” when they sacked Jerusalem and killed thousands of Jewish men, women and children. Or, if Paul was given a prophetic foresight into the despotic governments of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao Zedong’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Saddam Heusein’s Iraq, Pavelic’s Croatia, who, in total, harshly oppressed and brutally killed hundreds of millions of their own citizens during their rule, would Paul have written Romans 13:1-7? If Paul could have seen their future evil, would Paul call ALL government authorities “ministers of God” as he did in Romans 13? Surely not!
The point is that what Paul said about government was HIS philosophy, HIS best Christian opinion, and HIS best advice to a young church in need of practical counsel. BUT, what Paul said about government was NOT his “third heaven” revelation. Paul’s “third heaven” revelations consisted of his transcendent epiphanies of the Lord’s “SUPERNATURAL GRACE” and the matchless “IN CHRIST” realities available to all believers.
Paul acknowledged in Romans 14 that our respective maturity levels of faith might result in us having differing opinions on various practical matters such as diet, drink, calendars and festivals. The brother with weaker faith may have a different view than the brother with more mature faith, yet the freer brother should not be a stumbling block to the weaker brother by purposely doing anything which would be a stumbling block to the faith of the less developed believer. Paul’s point was that each believer could be on different sides of an issue, yet both still be right IF they both were acting from their respective levels of faith.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul also acknowledged that he had particular revelation which he was certain was from the Lord with regard to marriage, BUT that there were OTHER marriage-related issues in which he could only hazard his best opinion. Paul simply didn’t have "throne room revelation"on every practical or philosophical question that came before him. And he was man enough to admit it.
Let’s take other examples. Paul said women should NOT speak in church, should NOT teach men, and in fact should NOT exercise any authority over any men (1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Are we to be tightly and permanently bound to Paul’s philosophical view of women espoused in the above verses? Certainly not. The body of Christ has, for the most part, left this primitive philosophy behind. Today, there are multitudes of skilled female teachers, prophets, pastors and minsters who, thankfully, DON’T keep their communicatory gifts silent in church.
Another example. Paul instructed slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5; Titus 2:9). The church has violated this principle repeatedly by supporting anti-slavery activities of all kinds, including underground railroads during the Civil War which both encouraged and enabled slaves to disobey their masters by running away.
Do mature Christians planet-wide agree with Paul’s philosophy which would have run away slaves always return to their masters to once again subject themselves to a yoke of bondage, JUST to comply with Paul’s opinion? Paul did this very thing to the runaway slave Onesimus in Philemon 9-24. Here, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon, along with a written plea to free him.
Don’t get me wrong. Paul’s solution in Onesimus’ case was beautiful and full of grace. His plea to Philemon brings tears to read it. However, does this mean that Paul’s philosophy of slaves obeying their masters is a universal rule meant to apply for all times in all situations? Or, can we develop, modify and evolve Paul’s thinking to discover a different “faith solution” for ourselves? Millions of runaway slaves over the last thousand years have done just that. Do I have the confidence to say that the Holy Spirit has NEVER led ANY oppressed slave to escape his oppression by running away? No!!!
And, bringing government back into it, Christians also have a long history of protest and refusal when it comes to “obeying” the authorities God has set “over us.” From abortion to military service to unjust wars to capital punishment, Christians have long “resisted the ordinances and powers of government” when quickened to do so by their consciences. But Paul said that “whoever resists the power or ordinance (of government) resists the ordinance of God and shall receive to themselves damnation.” Romans 13:2.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is universally admired for his righteous lifestyle and ministry, is widely considered a martyr for conspiring to physically remove Hitler from power. He failed and was executed by Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer would definitely disagree with Paul that ALL government “powers that be are ordained by God” ( Romans 13:1). There is just no way God ordained Hitler to rule Germany under divine unction.
Paul’s gross oversimplification of complete political obedience was, as Albert Einstein famously said, “Simpler than possible.” Nobody would seriously label Bonhoeffer’s acts of “resisting the power and ordinance” of Nazi Germany as an offense which would bring him “damnation.” If every great Christian who resisted government authority and power was “damned” for doing so, then heaven will be sparse indeed.
By the way, the Holy Spirit has definitely managed a few “technically illegal” jail breaks in his day, such as in Acts 5:19; 12:10; 16:26. If Paul’s Romans 13:2 propositions were universally true, then the apostles, who frequently escaped numerous lawful prisons, along with the Holy Spirit Himself, would ALL be guilty of “resisting the power and ordinance of God.” I wouldn’t like to be the officer who tries to serve THAT arrest warrant on the Holy Spirit.
Aside from the issues listed above, it may also be that Paul’s linked views on election, predetermination and the potter-clay analogy used in Romans 9-11 may all be influenced more by Paul’s philosophies than by Paul’s epiphanies.
Paul’s pharisaical background so steeped in hyper-sovereignty and hyper-predetermination, combined with his ongoing vexation at his Jewish brothers’ continuing rejection of the Messiah, may well have combined to push Paul a little too far over into his “vexed” opinion and away from his spiritual revelation.
I say this because issues of predetermination and election never seemed to concern Jesus in His teachings or preachings.
Yet, Paul describes God as a sovereign potter who either predetermines humans to fail as instruments of wrath and dishonor OR succeed as instruments of glory and honor. This preformation of men occurs in the same way clay is manipulated by the hands of the potter. This image portrays God as an omnipotent potter PRE-forming and PRE-determining all our futures by EITHER giving us inborn “flaws to fail” or inborn “faith to succeed.”
This analogy by Paul is not well thought out and is not fully consonant with the loving Father revealed by Jesus, a Father Who in NO way has any connection to putting evil flaws into us and Who gives ONLY good gifts to His children (James 1:13-17; Matthew 7:11). Matthew and James, both also New Testament writers, simply disagree with Paul’s apparent assertion that God can “give” us debilitating and damning gifts. Again, this questionable analogy may be more due to Paul’s philosophical bent towards hyper-predeterminsm than it is to perfect “third heaven” revelation.
The point is that we must not treat Paul’s personal philosophy the same way we treat his supernatural “third heaven” revelations which come straight from “the throne room of God.” Jesus NEVER preached or taught on these specific topics listed above for a reason. He wanted US to be fluid, thoughtful and faithful in OUR generation by going BEYOND Paul’s advice into greater and greater solutions for OUR day and OUR circumstance.
Paul’s wisdom is certainly to be esteemed and understood from every angle, but it is not the only acceptable philosophy on these matters. Christians of different faith levels and giftings can disagree on these non-essential, tangential issues listed above and still be operating in faith that pleases God.
The point for us is to find and follow our OWN “faith” in these issues of conscience.
So, let’s commit to learn the difference between EPIPHANIES “from the Lord” and PHILOSOPHIES “about the Lord.” Epiphanies are divine revelations which are non-negotiable and non-amendable. Philosophies, by contrast, are informed human opinions which are always negotiable and subject to higher and better interpretations.
Jesus, both during His earthly ministry as well as His current indwellng of us, just remains silent on so many things-- politics, social moors and sexual orientations. To say Jesus votes Republican, favors gun rights, or disfavors all homosexuals seems wrong. Nor is it that He necessarily favors all these things, but rather that He stays curiously silent and non-condemning on them, as if they were not the real issue.
It is one thing to wrestle with resolve and vote our conscience the best we can by making our “best call” on the issues of the day. It is quite another to say Jesus would definitely vote our way and our way only, for all eternity.
“This is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent.” John 6:28. Belief, belief, more belief in, toward, and with Jesus. If our hearts are filled with faith, then God will give us the desires of our hearts, the very desires themselves, which will lead us to vote or not vote as our faith leads.
Paul had many epiphanies and many philosophies. Epiphanies are gold we can take to the bank. But philosophies are another matter. Philosophies are our “best opinions” based on our understanding of the current situation at the current time. Paul’s IN CHRIST epiphanies were priceless and spiritual gold. Take and totally and eternally trust them for all their worth. They are God’s unadulterated heart and are not to be dickered with. But, philosophies on the other hand, are subject to interpretation and improvement by all free-thinking sons of God.
For instance, Paul’s philosophies about women NOT being allowed to teach men or ever speak in Church; his philosophy about slaves NEVER opposing their masters; his political philosophy about governments ALWAYS being ministers of God; and his philosophy that God was a cosmic master potter PREFORMING men to fail or succeed from the womb; were all opinions we are certainly to seriously consider. However, Paul’s opinions are NOT epiphanies we must rigidly adhere too for all eternity. They are informed opinions, but not necessarily divine decrees.
Jesus has given us flex and room to grow and develop something better if we can. We stand on Paul’s shoulders, not vice versa. If we can see something better, higher, truer and stronger than did Paul, then he himself would delight and encourage us to make the better call. An enlightened opinion is not the same as an eternal epiphany. Opinions evolve and fluidly change. Epiphanies do not. It is wisdom to learn the difference.