The most common charges against him are twofold. First, he seriously distorted the message of Jesus. Because his letters seldom refer to Jesus' teaching, he is accused of replacing the message of Jesus with a message about Jesus, transforming it into a set of theological doctrines that Christians must believe in order to be saved. These "doctrines" are frequently the substance of fundamentalist and conservative Christian preaching.
The second charge: He was a social and sexual conservative. His letters urge slaves to obey their masters, teach the subordination of women, condemn homosexuality, and see sexual behavior as a concession to human weakness ("It is better to marry than to burn," "I wish you would remain single as I am"). As a spelling-challenged undergraduate wrote in an essay exam a few years ago, "Paul preached to the Genitals."
But these charges shortchange Paul. To some extent, they flow from uncritically accepting that all 13 letters attributed to him were actually written by him. But modern scholars are quite certain that at least three were not: First and Second Timothy, and Titus. Three more are disputed: Ephesians, Colossians, and Second Thessalonians. The remaining seven are generally accepted as Paul's writing.
Many passages that form the negative image are in the six letters that may not have been written by Paul. When they are set aside, Paul emerges as a much more radical and subversive thinker than the negative stereotype suggests.
He was a remarkable man:
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks about "the narrow way" that leads to life, of "taking up one's cross," as the path of personal transformation. Paul speaks about "dying and rising with Christ." Jesus speaks about "the Kingdom of God"; Paul proclaims "Jesus is Lord." Despite the differences in language, I see these two sets of phrases as parallel in meaning.
"The way" that Jesus taught was a subversive and alternative wisdom that undermined the conventional wisdom of his, and every, culture. Conventional wisdom, whether religious or secular, is the consensus of a culture about how to live: Conform to these standards and your life will go well. It sees life as based on rewards and requirements: "You reap what you sow," "Work hard and you'll succeed."
Jesus' message was very different. At its heart is the image of "a way" or "path" of personal transformation. Expressed with many metaphors in the gospels, it is the path of dying to an old identity and way of being and being born into a new identity and way of being, one centered in God or the Spirit.
Paul speaks of the same path with the imagery of "dying and rising with Christ" (Rom. 6). Indeed, he speaks of himself as having undergone this process: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2.20). The old Paul is dead, and a new Paul lives. And he invited his communities to the same path: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...who emptied himself and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2.5-8).
Two of Paul's most important metaphors express this way of being. Life "in Christ" is the life of radical centering in the living Christ, who is the Spirit. "Justification by grace" names an idea that counters conventional wisdom. It sees life as a gift, not as an achievement, and refuses to judge oneself or others on the basis of "measuring up." Living by grace means a radical centering in God, the original meaning of "faith."
Thus "the way" at the center of Paul's teaching is not about believing doctrines, despite later Christian tendencies to read him that way. It is a path of psychological and spiritual transformation. And it counters today's Christian conventional wisdom, which most often sees the Christian life in terms of requirements and rewards, as much as it countered the conventional wisdom of Paul's world.
Jesus' passion was the Kingdom of God--and it led to his execution by the kingdom that ruled his world.
Paul does not often use the phrase "Kingdom of God." Instead, he proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord," a phrase so central to Paul and the early Christian movement that it can be seen as the earliest Christian creed. But it is parallel to "Kingdom of God" and makes essentially the same religious and political contrast to the kingdoms of this world.
The key is the recognition that "Lord" was one of the titles of the Roman emperor. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn't. So also "Son of God" and "savior" were among the terms used for the emperor. Much of early Christian language (including Paul's) was a direct challenge to the empire and imperial theology. And the issue wasn't simply freedom of worship, as if Rome would have been fine if she had allowed Christians to worship Christ without persecution. The issue was the lordship of Jesus versus the lordship of empire, the lordship of Christ versus the lordship of Caesar.
In the conflict between Paul's theology and imperial theology, at issue are two very different visions of God, or the sacred. Is the sacred revealed in the power and order and glory and riches of empire? Or is God revealed in one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, who challenged the imperial vision with an alternative vision, and who was executed by the empire that ruled his world?
Like Jesus, Paul was executed by the Roman Empire. Is this coincidental? I don't believe so. I believe it is because both subverted the conventional wisdom of their day. Both affirmed a political vision grounded in God's justice that said "no" to the domination system of their day.
Thus Paul was like his master even in his death. His own words, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ," became literally true. And for those who take Jesus and Paul seriously today, they invite us to challenge unjust systems of convention and domination in our time.