What Did God Really Say? Reflections on Candice Benbow & Dr. Howard John Wesley — Part 3
Paul vs Jesus?
Another case Benbow makes is that the Apostle Paul should be canceled because he approved the killing of Christians. She argues that his words are in contradiction with Jesus and should be valued less since Paul was once a “murderer of Christians.” She suggests Paul, alienated from the Christian community because of his past persecution of the church, was simply overcompensating to prove his Christian credibility when he outlined standards of sexual purity. Benbow also claims Paul’s teaching on sex is not consistent with the Old Testament or with Jesus Christ himself.
Dr. Esau McCaulley, who received his PhD in New Testament from St. Andrews University, defended his doctoral dissertation on the role of Jewish messianism in Paul’s theology. After studying Paul’s epistles for over a decade, he made the case at the Courageous Conversations event organized by Lisa Fields, founder of the Jude 3 Project, that understanding the harmony between Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s writings is paramount to grasping his theology.
In fact, according to his research, the attempt to separate Paul from Jesus in academia was a late innovation “rooted in a pursuit in Germany to find the Aryan Jesus.” In other words, the origin of the attempts to deny the continuity between Paul and Jesus were based on anti-Semitic assumptions and goals. German “higher criticism” scholars sought to remove the Jewishness of Jesus so that they could cultivate a White Savior consistent with their belief of White supremacy. In contrast to their assertion, a cursory examination of Jesus’ teaching on sex reveal complete harmony with Paul.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Jesus quoted the Old Testament’s teaching (Exodus 20:14) and then elevated its prohibition of adultery to include lust. Paul quotes the same commandment in Romans 13:9. Additionally, when Paul writes: “Flee from sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 6:18, he quotes Genesis 2:24, which Jesus also appeals to in Matthew 19:5. Paul not only says the same thing as Jesus does about sex and sexuality, but he also appeals to the same Old Testament passages!
We don’t see contradiction here but harmony. Ironically, Benbow rejecting Paul because of his past life reflects the same rejection of violent felons who are perpetually criminalized, as if they can no longer bear the image of God.
What if God Canceled Us?
Thankfully, God doesn’t deal with people that way. He still revealed himself to Moses after Moses killed someone, he revealed himself to Paul, and to women like Rahab who was a prostitute. They all could have been canceled for what they did. But God’s grace is greater.
Benbow sees a contradiction in the commendation of Rahab in the New Testament and the Biblical prohibition of sex outside of marriage. She referenced Hebrews 11:31. It reads:
“By faith, the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.”
For Benbow, this affirmation of Rahab provides evidence that the Bible condones sex outside of marriage. But is this so?
The same chapter commends Noah who got drunk, Sarah who told Abraham to have sex with her servant, Jacob who tricked his brother out of his birthright, David who, as Benbow mentions, used his power as king to coerce Bathsheba to have sex with him, and then ordered her husband to be killed so he could marry her.
Are we to believe that the Bible also is condoning drunkenness, rape, adultery, promiscuity, and murder? Based on Benbow’s logic, yes! But it’s clear that in all these instances, God condemned the peoples’ practices prior to commending them for their heroic acts.
The Bible does not prescribe all that it describes. When we understand that basic fact, we can see more clearly that just because someone God uses is commended, doesn’t mean God is co-signing all that person does. If we studied the Bible more closely, much of the confusion people have regarding difficult passages about sexual practices and violent acts would be cleared up.
Dignity for the Disinherited
For many progressive theologians like Dr. Wesley, Paul is problematic because of his misunderstood words on women and slavery. In her conversation with KevOnStage, Benbow referenced the insightful mystic, Howard Thurman. Thurman in his classic work, “Jesus And The Disinherited,” recounted his grandmother was once a slave. She would ask him to read the Bible, but, triggered by the misuse of Paul’s teaching to subjugate her, she would prohibit him from reading any of Paul’s words.
To Benbow, this reaction was the best response to what she sees as Paul’s problematic teaching. I also have been moved by Thurman’s words. It’s a tragedy that distortions of Paul’s letters prevented Dr. Thurman’s grandmother from seeing the liberating truth in Paul’s writing:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 3:28).
Tragically, many have been impacted by the White supremacist misinterpretations of Paul’s teaching. If devious distortions of Paul’s letters had not been used to systematically deny her freedom, education, and rights as an American citizen, Howard Thurman’s grandmother could have seen the truth that I see: that a commitment to the entire Bible, including Paul’s letters, is affirming to our Black identity.
Here & Now
We are in the midst of a national reckoning. The recent unjust killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to name, have prompted us to be more aware and determined to reject the false narrative of racial difference known as White Supremacy.
Every institution, including the church, ought to use this time to re-examine its teachings. We should ask ourselves, “What Did God Really Say?” My study of the Bible has led me to the same conclusion as Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” I was struck in my African American Literature class when I read his piercing critique of American Christianity and contrasted it with his own devotion to our Lord. He wrote:
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. … He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.”
As a pastor, I am committed to encouraging as many people as possible “to read the name of the God” who made them, as a key part of my strategy to help them embrace their cosmic value and worth. I find the resounding truth that in the whole Bible, we matter. Full stop.
To delve deeper in this “What Did God Really Say” series, check out Rasool Berry’s video response here.