It should be no surprise for me to mention that interpretations of scripture vary. It often feels like theories about what scripture truly says are as numerous as stars in the sky. And yet, it also seems intuitive that some interpretations are correct and some are wrong. Some people error in deciphering the correct meaning of a text, or they neglect to engage in the proper interpretative process.

One area I often see this is when it comes to giving a systematic summary of Paul’s theology. First, may it be noted that systematic summaries — though far from meaningless — are difficult. The writings of Paul found in our bibles are occasional letters. Paul is typically address a specific church with specific issues. It’s not like he’s writing an ancient version of Spinoza’s Ethics.

Nonetheless, I think we (including myself) too often overlook how Paul is careful to balance his statements so as to keep the reader from moving too far in either direction. Problems arise when we only go in one direction and ignore Paul’s statements that ought to balance us out. Let me give some examples.

1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says the following:

“For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of  authority on her head, because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians 11:7-8 NRSV) 

This is a weird passage, so I won’t attempt to interpret all the stuff about angels and veiling one’s head.

But if we were to stop reading at verse 10, we would assume that we ought to have a low view of women. The language sounds quite chauvinistic. Unfortunately, passages such as this have influenced much oppression of women in the church. But I think this oppression is unwarranted and erroneously derived from ignoring Paul’s balancing claims. After verse 10, he says the following:

“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12 NRSV)

Here we find the balancing notion. Paul says woman is made in the image of man (from the story of Eve being created through Adam’s rib), but man is completely dependent upon woman for his existence. These remarks (ought to) keep us from running in a chauvinistic direction. Women are given a humble position to take, and men are also given a humble position to take. Neither is left with a position of abundant power, but each is called to meekness.

Romans 1 and 2

Romans 1 is a popular passage for Christians to quote if they want to talk about sin. The verses described a depraved and wicked state of reckless sin, which stands utterly contrary to the will of God. Here’s an excerpt:

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters,insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” (Romans 1:28-32 NRSV)

If we consider ourselves ‘the righteous ones,’ then at this point of reading Paul’s letter, we are sharping our pitchforks to drive these heathens out of our midst. But then Paul makes an abrupt turn:
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:1-5 NRSV)
If we were to exclude 2:1-5, we might be motivated to view ourselves as the ‘holy club’ who are far more righteous than those outside. We can then deride them, oppress them, and abuse them because they are shameful and lowly. Scapegoating might ensue.
However, 2:1-5 calls us to utter humility by again balancing our feelings of being in a justified state with the acknowledgment that we are no more righteous than others. We are as wholly dependent upon God’s mercy and grace as the rest of existence.
There are other examples of this pattern in Paul’s letters, but I do not wish to make this post much longer. Rather, I hope to point out a method of reading scripture that can be helpful. We must always remember to take a look at the bigger picture of Paul’s arguments rather than selectively taking passages out of balance and context.