What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority
By: Msgr. Charles Pope
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: