In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons:
It shows that St. Paul did not ascend to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly but rather was formed in the community of the Church for quite some time and did not go on mission until he was sent.
It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
It shows the need for fraternal correction even of those under whose authority one falls.
Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.
1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop) – Many people have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, incorrectly assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary immediately following his conversion.
Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).
At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went there is not known, but it was likely to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Scholars differ on whether he was there for several years or just a brief time, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of one to three years would seem reasonable, but we can only speculate.
Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.
St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.
After this consultation, Paul returned home to Tarsus and remained there for about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.
Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). Paul stayed there for about a year.
Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.
Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). As a result, the leaders of the Church in Antioch then laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Paul’s ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).
Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.
2. On Paul’s submission to authority – Paul was not a “lone ranger.” He submitted what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). Paul states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).
Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.
Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.
He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).
Upon completion of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was not an independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.
3. On true respect for authority – Paul clearly respected the authority of Peter: he conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)
There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. Today that is beginning to change and well it should.
Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and rebukes his practice of sitting only with Jews. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.
Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is bolder than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jews were famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, often including a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”
Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly to them than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully of them behind their backs.
Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct clergy today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language; name calling; and impugning motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in these times.
St. Paul demonstrates refreshing honesty with Peter, acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, not behind his back.
This video provides a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the remark (at about the 2:55 mark in the clip) that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and then went to Spain, but there are two traditions in this regard.