Teachings of St. Paul

A) Background to St. Paul

Paul, a Pharisee

Personal content: (Philippians 3:5)

  • Paul excelled in Jewish law and tradition. Galatians 1:14
  • He believed in a monotheist creator God. He saw Israel as the chosen people. He believed the relationship of the covenant and Israel to be light of the nations. The present evil age would pass by the coming of a messiah.

Paul, the persecutor of Christians

He did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. After the early Christians claimed to have the power of the Holy Spirit, (Pentecost/Baptism of the fire – Acts 2) he began to persecute them. As he was going about this with rigour, he had a religious experience (Acts 9:3-9). After this experience, his frame of mind changed radically. He began to think of several things:

  • If God had raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus must be the Messiah. This means the New Age had begin.
  • God must be in Christ, recognising the word to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
  • As Paul later explains, he believed and the rest of the world was living in the age of Adam, (That is the age of sin – Romans 5:12) but Christ had come and changed this.
  • In Jesus’ death, as the Son of God, Israel and so all of humanity dies and is raised to new life. (Galatians 2:12-21) There will come new creations. Paul needed to consider his old beliefs and re-define them.

Monotheism – Paul rethought his prospective as a reaction to the authority of Jesus and his gifts given to him by the Holy Spirit.
Creation – Paul developed his thoughts to believing that in Christ all men are new creations.
The New Covenant – That is the relationship between Christ and baptised believers in the Christian church. obedience to the will of God now becomes an allegiance to and imitation of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:5).
The concept of Israel as the light of the world is fulfilled in Christ and is now opened up to the Christian church.

Paul, the man behind the letters

His letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (Pastoral) and Philemon.

  • His sense of divine vocation – conversion on the road to Damascus
    It was more than a mere conversion. It was a religious experience. Paul felt awe at the divine revelation. He felt a call-vocation from God, by Jesus, helped by the Holy Spirit (Romans 1:1-4 and Galatians 1:12). Paul’s training as a religious man aided his efforts to transmit this experience of God’s grace to other people. It is possible that he never saw Jesus in the flesh.
    “The teachings of Paul, are in fact rooted in his awareness of a direct continuity between the risen Lord and the Christian church.” Donald Guthrie
  • He has a genuine authoritative attitude. Any rebellion against the letters, e.g. in Galatia, he reacted to it strongly with spiritual commands and exhortations. He has no sense of self-importance. The occasions when he seems to disassociate his opinions and the commands of the Lord are rare. Even when they occur, they seem to be concerned of issues over which he knew no general agreement existed among Christians, e.g. marriage
  • Love for covenants
    We get a glimpse of Paul’s real longing for their welfare (2 Corinthians 2:7). Paul was a man of love, capable of drawing out love from people hostile to him.
  • Guidance – This comes in the form of ethical teaching and general advise. The principles he defines are relevant universally and used for many situations. There is a link here between Paul’s conversion and previous convictions.
  • Versatility – The apostle are all things in men. This does not mean he adapted his principles to the situations. He saw things from other people’s point of view.
  • Language and style – He tends to use the vernacular (dialect) Greek. This responses to the needs to of the people. His style was adaptable.
    He was rhetorical, e.g. doctrinal parts of Romans and Galatians, Lyrical, e.g. 1 Corinthians 13-15, matter of fact, e.g. Romans 12 (ethical instructions).
    The needs of the community and the letter writing of the apostle seemed to create a new literacy medium excellently suited for the benefit of the churches.
  • Physical powers of endurance – Imprisonment, ship wrecks, beatings, stoning, lack of food and lack of clothing.
    NB: Note the difference between Saul and Paul.
  • Spiritual experiences and visions and ecstatic experiences – He was obviously capable of intense religious feeling and perception

Social Content

Almost all Paul’s work was done in towns and cities. In this way, unlike Jesus, he was an urban preacher. His words were aimed at the large cities of Greco-Roman Empire, e.g. Antioch (then population, 250,000 million). These cities were places of power, trade and religious centres. Some women were trying to break the mould; fighting against the common female subservient role. Slavery was popular. The basic social unit was the individual household. There were many social classes. We can tell that Paul’s audiences were a true cross section of society by looking at the issues he raised:
Religious and racial pluralism, discrimination, work, wealth and poverty, sexuality and marriage and civil authorities.

Philosophical Content

Paul’s hometown was Tarsus. Within the city was a strong Hellenising influence with Judaism. Paul would be aware of Greek philosophy. He uses the concept of nature (Romans 1) when discussing the idea of idolatry and would be aware of Greek concepts of “Natural Law“. Certainly the idea of conscience (Romans 2:15, 9:1, and 13:5) he refers to the word “suneideuis”, he is familiar to Greek culture.
Moral teaching – all though he draws heavily on the Jewish tradition, Greek concepts are threaded throughout his thought. Galatians 5-6 illustrates his support for teachers, the motif of sowing and reaping, his vices and virtues may not be argued to him but his interpretation is.

B) The Shape of Paul’s Ethics

David Atkinson

  • They are objective: there are moral truths that are true because they derive from God the creator of all things; we do not make up our morality for ourselves. There is a given order to which believers are invited to respond.
  • They are authoritative: goodness is in relation to the will of God. It is shown to us through Jesus authoritatively.
  • They are covenantal: It is rooted in the covenant. The ethics are of personal relationships, personal responses and of personal allegiance.
  • They are attitudinal: They call for the pursuit of personal holiness and for justice; in a imitation of the life of Jesus. They are for the concerned with inward attitudes and outward behaviour.
  • They are visional: concerned with the personal and social growth of character. It imitates and reflects Jesus.
  • They are teleological: They look forward to a final moral end in the eschatological judgement of God.
  • They are corporate: They recognise the mutual accountability, mutual need and mutual gifts in the Christian church.
  • They are pastoral: taking into account of human frailty and human need.
  • They are situational and principled: in that they take account of different local and personal contexts and needs, but also offer general moral directives.
  • They are charismatic: They offer a power to begin to live the new life, and new quality of life, which they authoritatively require, through the gift of grace, the liberating power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

C) Specific Moral Teaching

Concerning discrimination

Christians are in union with Christ and are therefore in union with each other in Christ. It is the basis of Paul and the relationship between Jew and Gentile, slave and freeman, male and female.

Jew and Gentile

Jew and Gentile are equal according to Paul. Gentiles were condemned as lawless and each other condemned Jews for their legalism. Jews thought they were superior to the Gentiles as they were circumcised and the Gentiles were not. Jewish Christians in Galatia thought the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and so become Jews. Paul says that circumcision is not important. Paul said that spiritual life in Christ means that this is not important and every one is equal (Romans 15:7 – Christians should welcome each other in God).
Michael Keeling – Paul stresses an ontological equality for every baptised person.

Slaves and Free men

“The one who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freeman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 7:22
Paul did not criticise the institution of slavery. It is concerning whether or not slaves should seek their freedom. In a Christian family they would be treated with brotherly love so they would be happy being a slave and not want their freedom.
Philemon 6 – there is a pastoral decision of a slave running away from the master.

Male and Female

Male and female are different but equal. Sexual diversity is part of the created order. Jews prevented women praying without their heads covered. Women could pray and prophesise but had to cover their heads. There is no male and female in Christ (Galatians). Before, they could not preach, talk or pray in the synagogue.

D) Concerning Sexual Relationships


Sexuality, equality and complementary are part of the created order. (1 Corinthians 11:11) A person’s sexuality is “meant to be woven into the rest of their character, and their quest for human values.” L.B. Smedes – sex in the real world
Some Christians believed that they could separate their sexual behaviour from their commitment to Christ. Paul thinks this can not be right. Sexual intercourse is meant to be an expression of the “one flesh” relationship as described in Genesis 2:24. A person’s sexuality is meant to be a means of expressing a personal relationship with another person. People who are reliable have a relationship with God as being the primary. Marriage is between man and woman and is mutual. It goes against the traditional idea of males being superior. Gentility is meant to express a full personal commitment of heterosexual love to one other person so this makes adultery immoral.
Paul thought it was better to remain celibate as this was because they thought that Jesus would be coming back soon – eschatolon.
1 Corinthians 7 – Sexuality is a strong force. It is natural to have children if one is in a marriage but God is the priority to the single person.
Paul found a balance between free love and celibacy.


Marriage is a gift from God and is permanent until death. There should be no divorce. Paul said there are circumstances when partners may not be “bound” to stay together. E.g. Unbelieving partner wanting to leave a believing partner. We do not know if the separation is legal or if a divorcee could re-marry. The married state is intended to be a way of holiness and a way of peace.
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza (feminist) – Marriage was very different then. Remaining single was rare. Marriage was done to increase status. Marriage is not for status according to Paul. Old writings were pro-marriage.
Ben Witherington – Divorce was not easy.
Ephesians 5:21-37 – A woman should be subordinate to her husband like Jesus is head of the church. Paul did not want to upset the Ephesians people by being too radical.


Heterosexuality was of the created order. Paul is against homosexuality. Just as the homosexual person is forced on the “The same”, rather than “the other”, so the idolater worships the same (the creature) rather than the other (the creator). Being homosexual was wrong in the Old Testament because it was seen as unclean and impure.


Paul says very little about the family. Children had an economic value for their parents as they could earn money for them. Paul argues that it is not for the children to save up for their parents, but parents to save up for their children. Parenting consists of looking after children and not using them solely as economic assets.
Keeling, – “The proper management of family life and respect for established orders of society were becoming the new criteria for a Christian ethic.”
Honour and shame was important for family units. It is difficult for a family, who lost their honour by another family, to help them and love them.

E) Other Ethical Issues

Concerning work, wealth and poverty

Paul says very little of wealth but warns of covetousness. People should not be idle. People should be content with what they have. “The roots of Paul’s contentment is the eschatological act of God in Jesus Christ.” (Verhey page 119)
Money is relatively trivial to Paul. Christians are to practise hospitality. There should be justice, generosity and mutual respect. The grace of Jesus’ generous self-giving; this should be reflective in The Christian. God gave Christians gifts in Acts 2 – Pentecost – to help follow rules. It was from the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35, 4:36 and 5:4 – people gave all their money so it was redistributed. It was a novelty to bring money together as it goes against family units. It may be a parable.
Keeling “The experiences of Acts 2 was not so much an experiment in communism, but failed as an experiment of brotherly love that was premature.”

Concerning submission to the Government

Love your neighbour and even your enemies. Paul said it is needed in society for a government and for a Christian to acknowledge secular authority. Neighbourly love requires a political structure through which justice can be secured and upheld. Justice is the social and political expression of neighbourly love. All authority comes from God and this is how human authority is derived. Not all human authority is endorsed by God. All human authority is answerable to God. The governing authorities in society have a God-given task. Civil government is instituted for the provision of a framework for order and justice. God can use the state to carry out his wrath against the man who practises evil. Paul is aware that the authorities are there to prevent social chaos, and that God desires order, justice and peace.

Household Codes

In various Epistles, codes of domestic duties are set alongside other teaching about Christian duty. Wives are subject to husbands and husbands are subject to loving their wives. The “being subject” referred to, seems in each case primarily to be submission of one to another within the family of baptised believers. Colossians 3:1 sets the codes in the context of the resurrection of Christ. Christians are to “be what they are”. The duties of submission indicate a mutuality rather than a hierarchy. Christian relationships are intended to reflect something of the nature of God to his world.

F) Patterns, Influences and Summary

A possible pattern in Paul’s writing

Some scholars argue for this but not all.

  • Man’s behaviour should be morally right. In appreciation of God’s sacrifice of his son, Jesus, who was sent to save the sins of man.
  • A Christian’s actions must reflect that they now live in Christ.
  • An exhortation to live life to come in respect of God’s purpose and plan for the world.
  • Doctrine is of minor importance. Christian life simply means living in Christ.
  • The Good News of Christ renews the whole of creation. This means that Christians will be unaffected by the four barriers to fellowship with God:
    • wrath (anger)
    • Ignorance of God’s holy law
    • Sin
    • Death (spiritual)

Factors which might influence Paul’s ethic:

  • The Old Testament – OT teaching on ethical issues has a fundamental influence on Paul’s writing. e.g., In his teaching on marriage, he refers to Genesis 2:24.
  • Creation – Jewish belief suggests that there is a created moral order which comes from Yahweh. A human’s moral responsibility is to this creation. The resurrection is affirmation of this created order and stands at the fore front of the kingdom of God.
  • There is a surprising lack, however, of reference to Jesus’ actual sayings.

Key Points in Paul’s ethical teaching

  • The moral imitation of Christ is advocated by Paul, as a general rule of behaviour – Phil 2:5-12
  • Christians live no longer by law but in the grace of God, led and guided by the Holy Spirit – Romans 6:14
  • Paul appreciated the conflict in all Christians between:

Paul does not advocate either legalism or antinomianism. He does say a Christian should have a personal response to grace. God’s gift to man, to enable them to do this, is the Holy Spirit.

  • Love – the command, to love is central to Pauline ethics.

Summary of Pauline ethics

  • Universal love and all encompassing.
  • Community love – Colossians 1:8-22
  • Love fulfils the law – Galatians 5:13, Romans 13:8
  • Love is moral and to be used purposefully in a continual quest for personal righteousness.
  • Love is expressed in a social context via justice – Romans 12:18, Romans 13:1-14