What St. Paul’s Example Can Teach Us About Authority

blog10-04In 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. the 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. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help to correct notions that some have that St. Paul’s ascended to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly, and affirm that he was not a “lone ranger apostle.” St. Paul 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 an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction within hierarchical 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 as a missionary following his conversion. But this was not the case.

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 and for how long is not known. It is likely that he went there to reflect and possibly to 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 and perhaps as many as three years would seem reasonable. 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, 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 Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He 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). Thus, the leaders of the Church in Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Pauls’ 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 We can see, therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). He 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, 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 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. It is clear that Paul 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. 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 in positions of authority. In so doing, we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need in order to make good decisions. And then when they make questionable decisions, we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their faces, instead speaking ill of them behind their backs while remaining largely silent or flattering to their faces. Thus 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. 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.

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

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is a little bolder here 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 Jewish setting was famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, debate that often included 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 than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully 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 priests and bishops today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language, name calling, and impugning their motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in our culture today.

St. Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter: acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to 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 then went to Spain), but there are two traditions in this regard.

One Reply to “What St. Paul’s Example Can Teach Us About Authority”

  1. In Judaism, the desert symbolizes sin and selflessness, living off God’s Word and doing penance. That’s probably why Saint Paul went into the desert, in imitation of Jesus’ ta’anit.

    Saint Paul probably returned to the city where he intended to kill Christians so as to console and make reparation to the Christians, since in Judaism reparation is a mtizvah and consolation is strongly recommended.

    It’s also worth noting that Saint Peter committed hypocrisy despite the Holy Spirit anointing him on Pentecost, which means the Apostles were not free from sin or error just because God guarded the Scriptures (of which the New Testament was being written), Tradition, and Magisterium of the Church from error.

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