What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority

In the readings for daily Mass the past few days we have been reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. The story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help correct notions that some have of Paul’s rapid assent to the office of apostle (Bishop) and affirm that he was not a lone-ranger apostle. He was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on Mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows forth an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction in hierarchal structures.

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 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 assume that Paul went right to work after his conversion as a missionary. But this was not the case.

At the time near his conversion Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen he had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  Immediately following his encounter with Christ he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19). Hereafter, according to Galatians, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went, and for how long is not known. It is probably not wrong to presume that he went there to reflect and possibly be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty 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 at least a year seems tenable and perhaps as many as three years. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus and joined the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While there he took to debating in the synagogues and was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped for messiah that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him. He fled the city and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). Paul 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 since he had begun to teach and even now was gaining disciples. Later he 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 he stayed for 15 days and  also met James.

After this consultation he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown. Barnabas then arrived and asked him to come to Antioch and help him evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there about a year. He made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor and upon his return to Antioch we finally see his ordination 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). Thus, the leaders of the Church there laid  hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on Mission. Here we have an ordination and the source of Paul’s status as Apostle (bishop).

Notice however, this sending happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we account his time in the desert we are talking about 7-10 years wherein Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and also conferred with Peter. He was not a self appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. This going-forth he undertook only after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – We can see therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught to Peter and later to others apostles and leaders (Acts 11 & 15). He states that to have preached something other than what the Church proposed 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. Further, Paul and Barnabas, as they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, 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 they 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 no. He both respected authority and established authority in the churches he established. He also makes it clear to the Galatians and others that he has authority and that he expects them to respect it.

3. But here is where we also see a fascinating and somewhat refreshing portrait of what true respect for authority includes. It is clear, from what we have seen, that Paul respected the authority of Peter and had both conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that he preached. However, there is also a 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. It understands that having authority does not mean one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.  Too many of us flatter those who have authority. In so doing we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need to make good decisions. And then we they do make questionable decisions we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their face. Rather we speak ill of them behind their back and continue to remain largely silent and flattering to their face. The cycle continues, and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. We as Catholics 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 (believe me, I know).

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one we must speak to has authority. People are often reticent to speak frankly to their Pastors. Bishops too are often isolated in this way. Even their priests often refrain from frank discussion of issues. In this Archdiocese I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues at the priest council, and other consultative bodies.

Clearly correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Now Paul here is a little bolder than I would be but he also lived in a different culture than I. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings Jesus and the Apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vivid discussion of issues that included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a more gentle approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated: Clarity with Charity.

In the end, we show a far greater respect for authority by speaking clearly and directly to those in authority. False flattery is unhelpful, inappropriate silence does not serve, and speaking scornfully behind the backs of others is just plain sinful.

So Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter here. He acknowledges Peter’s authority as we have seen but also respects Peter enough as a man to speak with him directly and clearly, to his face, and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark that Paul made it out of Roman prison and went to Spain. But there are two traditions in this regard:

15 Replies to “What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority”

  1. I found ACTS fascinating … This whole business of authority is clearly laid out in the letters, yet Protestants do not accept the authority of the Pope. Why not? Especially since they say “Scripture only” — well, it’s all there, written in black and white.

    1. Well, that’s a looong story. But I agree with you, the Authority of Peter is pretty clearly laid out in scripture. I think one area where the Protestants trip up is that the scriptures are also clear that Peter is a flawed man. His is not sinless. He denied the Lord, struggled to love him, and in the passage considered here does not perfectly live what he teaches. Yet here is the glory: the Lord uses earthen vessels, He does not call the perfect, he does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called.

  2. Submission to Authority –

    Gal.1:18 – Paul spends fifteen days with Peter privately before beginning his ministry, even after Christ’s Revelation to Paul.
    Rom. 15:20 – Paul says he doesn’t want to build on “another man’s foundation” referring to Peter.
    Acts 15:7-12 – Peter resolves the first doctrinal issue on circumcision at the Church’s first council at Jerusalem, and no one questions him. After Peter spoke, all were kept silent.
    Acts 15:12 – only after Peter (the Pope) speaks do Paul and Barnabas (bishops) speak in support of Peter’s definitive teaching.

  3. Sorry fot the length of this citation, but I thought the Catholic encyclopedia on the subject of Peters behavior with Jews and Gentiles was interesting and relavent.

    “St. Luke does not tell us whither Peter went after his liberation from the prison in Jerusalem. From incidental statements we know that he subsequently made extensive missionary tours in the East, although we are given no clue to the chronology of his journeys. It is certain that he remained for a time at Antioch; he may even have returned thither several times. The Christian community of Antioch was founded by Christianized Jews who had been driven from Jerusalem by the persecution (Acts 11:19 sqq.). Peter’s residence among them is proved by the episode concerning the observance of the Jewish ceremonial law even by Christianized pagans, related by St. Paul (Galatians 2:11-21). The chief Apostles in Jerusalem — the “pillars”, Peter, James, and John — had unreservedly approved St. Paul’s Apostolate to the Gentiles, while they themselves intended to labour principally among the Jews. While Paul was dwelling in Antioch (the date cannot be accurately determined), St. Peter came thither and mingled freely with the non-Jewish Christians of the community, frequenting their houses and sharing their meals. But when the Christianized Jews arrived in Jerusalem, Peter, fearing lest these rigid observers of the Jewish ceremonial law should be scandalized thereat, and his influence with the Jewish Christians be imperiled, avoided thenceforth eating with the uncircumcised. ”

    “His conduct made a great impression on the other Jewish Christians at Antioch, so that even Barnabas, St. Paul’s companion, now avoided eating with the Christianized pagans. As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law. The whole incident is another proof of the authoritative position of St. Peter in the early Church, since his example and conduct was regarded as decisive. But Paul, who rightly saw the inconsistency in the conduct of Peter and the Jewish Christians, did not hesitate to defend the immunity of converted pagans from the Jewish Law. Concerning Peter’s subsequent attitude on this question St. Paul gives us no explicit information. But it is highly probable that Peter ratified the contention of the Apostle of the Gentiles, and thenceforth conducted himself towards the Christianized pagans as at first. As the principal opponents of his views in this connexion, Paul names and combats in all his writings only the extreme Jewish Christians coming “from James” (i.e., from Jerusalem). While the date of this occurrence, whether before or after the Council of the Apostles, cannot be determined, it probably took place after the council (see below). The later tradition, which existed as early as the end of the second century (Origen, “Hom. vi in Lucam”; Eusebius, Church History III.36), that Peter founded the Church of Antioch, indicates the fact that he laboured a long period there, and also perhaps that he dwelt there towards the end of his life and then appointed Evodrius, the first of the line of Antiochian bishops, head of the community. This latter view would best explain the tradition referring the foundation of the Church of Antioch to St. Peter.”

    1. This is a very interesting inclusion in the discussion. I suppose this viewpoint has merit though it does involve a good bit of conjecture. Surely though the Old Catholic Encyclopedia is a very thoughtful and thorough resource!

  4. Msgr. Pope – in all honesty, you are one of my favorite people to read. You have such a nice, straight-forward style; and you draw wonderful pastoral applications. How you can do so on such a regular basis is beyond me; the Spirit is clearly gifting you! (And because you are not yet a bishop, you can be sure my words are more than flattery.)

  5. Msgr.,

    I’ve never been able to really understand St. Paul’s argumentation in Gal. 2:11-14. How is that St. Peter’s not eating with Gentiles “forces” the Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? They can still do as they please. St. Peter seems to be simply trying to avoid scandal and that is something St. Paul himself recommends in another one of his letters (1 Corinthians, maybe).


    1. Yes, you seems to be making the same point that the Catholic Encyclopedia article quoted above by Alan. The answer to your objection is not 100% clear though it would seem that with such a prominent leader as Peter “favoring” the company and practices of one sector of the Church, he was indirectly giving pressure to others that they ought to do the same. But as you can see we have to read into the situtation and try to connect the dots. Paul is obviously summarizing a conflict and discussion in Galatians and we are left to surmize the wider issues.

  6. St. Paul, Apostle of Jesus Christ answered the four big questions most men harbor; (1). Where did I come from? (2). Why am I here? (3). Who am I? (4). Where am I going?
    Athens was the central point for Greek philosophers and their 22 pagan gods, and one unknown god. Paul is to have said it is easier to met a god than a man in this city. When Paul met with the philosophers, he proclaimed to them their unknown god they ignorantly worship as the God who made the world and everything in it. (Acts 17:18-24). Then he answered the four questions about life.
    Answer to Q. 1 (Acts. 17:26): “And He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and boundaries of their dwellings.” This one blood refers to Adam from whom all other men have descended. Answer to Q. 2 (Acts 17:27): “So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they may feel after Him and find Him, though he be not far from everyone of us.” Here is the connection of Adam to God’s redemptive purpose. In other words we must find and worship the creator. God created us to worship him both here and in eternal life. Answer to Q. 3 (Acts 17:28-29) “We are the offspring of God.” Answer to Q. 4 (Acts 17:30-31): “Truely, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in rightousness by the Man whom He has ordined. He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.”
    Paul began with God as the creator, and finished with Jesus Christ as the the Judge.

  7. Good day Msgr. Pope, it was indeed a very interesting topic. I remember that before i learned of the truth that the catholic faith and church is the true church..i first tested my faith by simply believing that Jesus is the only true son of God the most high. Then i asked a favor from Him of showing me in spirit and in truth the physical presence of a long time dead person, whom i know was baptized and raised as a catholic and was excommunicated by his own church..the person is Dr. Jose Rizal. When God through Jesus Christ showed to me in person our “hero” ..my faith in the catholic church remained stronger, and i learned how to respect the leaders of the church from the Pope down to the priests..and with the guidance of the Lord ..when He showed to me in my dream the “chalice” and which it is clearly written “Pray for the Priests”..i started praying hard for the Priests because “they” are the symbol of “God’s living covenant” on earth..from the Priests up to the Pope.
    Yes, i do experienced seeing some “faults” of our church leaders and i simply pray for them and ask God “what is the reason behind.” And sooner or later i can also see and know the reason why…i remember how “Peter, the rock” denied 3 times our Lord and that denial was also replaced with a promise of “taking care, feeding the flock and loving them.” the words asked by the Lord and responsibility given to all who will take over Peter’s headship until the end of time. God bless us all. I missed your blog Msgr. Pope due to my husband death but i am sure that i will have all the time reflecting on your lectures. Peace.

  8. Paul’s outburst seems to tell more about his irascibility than Peter’s discriminatory behavior. Those from Jerusalem would all be well known to Peter, and it seems appropriate for him to welcome them warmly on their arrival. And to catch up on all the news about themselves and their other friends at Jerusalem it seems fair enough to continue talking to them when they sat down to eat, and even to continue eating with them. To take exception to this welcome to friends seems rather petty, and to make a big issue of it, given that Paul is most likely mistaken in jumping to conclusions about Peter’s motivation. Paul wouldn’t have known these people, so it’s no surprise he wouldn’t be drawn into the welcoming as enthusiastically as Peter.
    So for Paul to get up and berate Peter in front of everyone seems to be very contrary and argumentative. Paul doesn’t give us if Peter had a reply, nor does Luke mention the incident, so we have only Paul’s own version. Perhaps one of Paul’s friends with him, might have given him similar advice that we here in this part of the world give when we see a friend with his knickers in a knot, and say to him: “Here, sit down Paul, have this aspirin, and a nice cup of tea, and then have a lie down.”
    And considering Paul’s vehemence about not requiring Gentiles to be circumcised, it comes as a great surprise to find that the only occasion when a leader actually circumcises a Gentile, it’s Paul himself who does the dastardly deed. So Paul’s behavior is very difficult to comprehend.

Comments are closed.