Paul's Thorn

With the possible exception of Jesus, no one has had a greater effect on Christianity than Paul.1 Through his epistles, missionary activities, leadership ability, and sheer force of will, he created a new religion from a small Jewish group of Jesus followers. Paul claimed to have done this, at least in part, by becoming "all things to all men."2 And there may be some truth to that. But there was one thing that Paul definitely wasn't, and that was humble.

So in an effort to help Paul become a bit more humble, "the messenger of Satan" gave Paul "a thorn in his flesh."

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 2 Corinthians 12:7

Related image

God, apparently, was okay with that, because whenever Paul asked God to remove it, God said, "My grace is sufficient for thee."

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee. 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

So Paul continued to be pricked by Satan's thorn throughout his life. Believers have been puzzled by this ever since. What was Paul's thorn?

Well, whatever it was it seemed to involve a temptation in his flesh. His followers knew about it yet they didn't reject him, receiving Paul as though he were an angel of God or even Jesus himself.

Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Galatians 4:13-14

Still, it bothered Paul. A lot.

He was carnal and sold to sin, always doing things that he hated. He despised himself, saying that there was nothing good in him. He was continually doing evil things, and he was the dwelling place of sin.

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I ... For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. Romans 7:14-20

It all had something to do with the members of his body. They continually warred against him, causing him to sin.

I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Romans 7:23

Paul doesn't say which member (or members) he was having so much trouble with. But whichever member it may have been, Jesus had some advice for him: Cut if off.

I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. Matthew 5:28-30

But Paul was unaware of Jesus's words,3 since the gospel of Matthew was written after his death.4 Good thing, too, or Paul might have taken Jesus's advice, excluding him from the congregation of the Lord.

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. Deuteronomy 23:1

Paul did, however, wish a similar treatment on others.

I would they were even cut off which trouble you. Galatians 5:12

(Or as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!")

In any case, as it turned out, Paul not only entered the congregation of the Lord, he more or less founded the Christian church, keeping his thorny member intact while warning everyone else about theirs.

Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin. ... I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. Romans 6:19-20

Paul's advice was pretty simple: Don't fornicate and know how to possess your "vessel" in a holy way.

This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5

And, if you can help it, never touch a woman.

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 1 Corinthians 7:1

But if you can't resist the temptation to touch a woman, marry one. Then you (and your wife) can have sex all you want, anyway you want, whenever you want, and thereby avoid getting tempted by Satan.

Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. 1 Corinthians 7:2-5

Still, Paul would prefer that every man be like him and not marry.

I would that all men were even as I myself. 1 Corinthians 7:2

So if you haven't married, don't. And if your spouse dies, don't remarry.

Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. 1 Corinthians 7:27

I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 1 Corinthians 7:8

Only those who can't control themselves should get married. Like Paul always used to say: "It's better to marry than to burn."

But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 1 Corinthians 7:9

But what's to be done with someone who fails in all this? What should we do with a fornicator? Well, there's one, and only one, thing to do with such people: Destroy their flesh by delivering them to Satan so their spirit can get saved when Jesus returns.

To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 1 Corinthians 5:5

It seemed to work well for Paul, anyway. Satan gave Paul a thorn in his flesh and thereby saved his spirit for Jesus. Or something like that.

Now after reading all this, you're probably wondering: "What does any of this have to do with homosexuality?" I know I am.

But it's all clear to some people. Here, for example, is what Bishop John Shelby Spong says about it:5

Could this [homosexuality] also be his thorn in the flesh, about which he wrote so plaintively? ... [I]t was a gay male [Paul], tormented and rejected, who came to understand what resurrection means as God's vindicating act.

So, if the good bishop is right about that, Paul's thorn was homosexuality. I guess he can come out of the closet now.


What did Paul say about homosexuality?

Okay, so maybe Paul was gay (and maybe he wasn't). But what did he say about homosexuality? Well, he was pretty clear about it in Romans 1, which was, as you'll remember, one of the explicit passages. But since it's so important, I'll repeat it here.

God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another. Romans 1:26-27

So from Romans 1 we know that Paul thought that homosexuality was "against nature" (like long hair on a man)6 and homosexuals were "worthy of death."

Still, when it came to homosexuality, there was a softer side of Paul -- or so say modern liberal Christians, anyway.

The pro-gay Paul

In the first verse of Romans 2, Paul seemed to deny what he'd written in the previous chapter, where he judged homosexuals to be "worthy of death."

Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. Romans 2:1

So maybe Paul changed his mind about what he said in Romans 1. Let's welcome the new pro-gay, Romans 2.1 version of Paul.7

Don't judge others: there's nothing unclean about anything (including homosexuality)8
Let us not therefore judge one another any more ... I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself. Romans 14:14
It's good for a man not to touch a woman. (Then it's great to be gay, right?)
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 1 Corinthians 7:1a
Different strokes for different folks

God made one person heterosexual and another homosexual. Each way is a gift from God.

But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 1 Corinthians 7:1b
Marriage is for weaklings

Paul would prefer that everyone be celibate, but if they can't control themselves, they should marry. "It's better to marry than to burn."

I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that ... But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 1 Corinthians 7:7-9

The same principle would apply to homosexuals too, wouldn't it? So Paul maybe would approve of gay marriage.9

In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, (gay nor straight?)

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul seems to remove any sort of distinctions between Christian believers. It doesn't matter whether you are circumcised or uncircumcised, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. All that matters is faith. If you have faith (Paul's kind of faith, anyway) you're OK; if not, you're going to hell.

Here's how he put it:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. Galatians 5:6

If that's true, then wouldn't the same apply to homosexuals?10

But enough about Paul. What about Jesus? Was he gay? That is the topic of the next chapter.


Notes

  1. On the question of whether Jesus or Paul had the greatest influence on Christianity, see The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby.

  2. "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." 1 Corinthians 9:19

  3. Paul was probably aware of some of the sayings of Jesus that were part of the oral traditions from which the gospels written, and this may have included Jesus's teaching about cutting off various offending body parts. If he knew about it, however, he never mentioned it in his letters.

  4. "Paul was executed in Rome in the early to mid 60s" and Matthew was written "in the 80s or perhaps early 90s." Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word, 213.

  5. John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, 118, 125

  6. "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" 1 Corinthians 11:14.

  7. "[A]lready by chapter two, Paul turns the tables on the Jewish Christians and rejects their prejudices. ... 'Therefore you have no excuse, O human being, whoever you are, when you judge another' (Romans 2:1)." Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homoseuxuality, 100.

  8. Referring to Romans 14:14, Helminiak says, Paul's "his [Paul's] statement in chapter 14 confims what he argued throughout his letter. Customs about food, the parcitice of circumcision, differences in sexual behavior--no purity requirements or cultural variations have ethical importance in themselves." Ibid, 102.

  9. "In addressing the 'unmarried' he could be seen as talking to LGBT people, who if 'they cannot contain' (i.e. remain chaste and celibate) then it is better for them to marry." Keith Sharpe, The Gay Gospels, 54.

  10. "Paul's letter to the Galatian churches has a particular message of liberation for queers who are seeking to reconcile their sexuality and their spirituality, just as it did for those original readers who were wondering what they had to do as Gentile outsiders to embrace the new Christian faith." Thomas Brohache, "To cut or not to cut" in Take Back the Word, 228.