Religion vs. Spirituality

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and Davide E. Campbell. Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Campbell is professor of political science at University of Notre Dame.

“…[D]uring the 1990s Americans of all ages became increasingly uneasy about mixing religion and politics. It is not surprising that younger Americans, still forming religious attachments, translated that uneasiness into a rejection of religion entirely. This group of young people came of age when ‘religion’ was identified publicly with the Religious Right, and exactly at the time when the leaders of that movement put homosexuality and gay marriage at the top of their agenda. And yet this is the very generation in which the new tolerance of homosexuality has grown most rapidly. In short, just at the youngest cohort of Americans was zigging in one direction, many highly visible religious leaders zagged in the other.

“Given these patterns, it is not at all surprising that when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked a large national sample of nones why they rejected religious identification, their objections were not theological or scientific. Instead the new nones reported that ‘they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgemental, or insincere. Large number also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.’”

The second reading is from a 2010 translation titled The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. This translation is by a group of progressive scholars who are known for not sticking to Christian orthodoxy, but instead trying to get at the original meaning of the text. This if from a translation of the first letter by Paul of Tarsus to the religious community at Thessalonica in Greece.

“Concerning your relationship with one another: I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another. You are already practicing this precept in your dealings with your fellow believers in Macedonia, but we urge you, friends, to do this extravagantly. As we’ve urged you before: live a quiet life, mind your own business, and support yourselves, so that outsiders might respect you and you might be self-sufficient.”

Sermon: “Religion vs. Spirituality”

In the late 1990s, when I was working as the religious educator at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, I gave a sermon in which I said that I didn’t think much of Paul of Tarsus, the person who wrote the second reading this morning, in addition to writing several books of the Christian scriptures. In that sermon, I pointed out that Paul of Tarsus was sexist — he made a special point of chasing women out of leadership roles in the early Christian communities;, and it was he, not Jesus, who said that women should be subordinate to men. I also said that Paul of Tarsus was responsible for the anti-gay sentiments that we were then hearing from the Religious Right, many of whom quoted Paul’s letters to support their contention that Christianity could not tolerate same sex relationships. I was, in fact, one of those young Americans that we heard about in the first reading this morning, who as the 1990s progressed became increasingly uneasy about the toxic combination of the Religious Right and politics. Like many younger people in the 1990s, I thought of the Religious Right as hypocritical, judgemental, and insincere. And I blamed much of the Religious Right’s hypocrisy and insincerity on Paul of Tarsus.

One of the people who heard this sermon was a remarkable man named Dan Fenn. Dan was the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Unitarian ministers, but he chose to go into politics instead of following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He was deeply involved in Massachusetts politics in the 1950s, while he was teaching at Harvard Business School. He then served on the staff of the Kennedy presidential administration, and later he became the founding director of the JFK presidential library.

After hearing my sermon sermon, Dan invited me out to lunch. He gave me a good lunch, and then explained to me, in his polite erudite way, why Paul of Tarsus was worthy of my respect. Dan contended that without Paul’s organizational and political skills, the movement that was beginning to coalesce around the followers of Jesus would have died. True, Paul was guilty of sexism and homophobia. But it is wise to remember that no human being is perfect. And, as Dan Fenn pointed out, it is wise to remember that Paul was trying to maintain the fragile organization of the Jesus followers (I call them the Jesus followers because early on they probably didn’t call themselves Christians) during a time of growing repression by the Roman Empire.

This opened my eyes to a very basic fact. The social organization of religion does not happen by accident. The social organization of any religion is the product of human striving and human effort. And the social organization of religion matters, because in the real world religion does not exist without a social organization. The big difference between religion and spirituality is that spirituality is something you can do by yourself. Your spirituality might affect your immediate family, but most people’s spirituality won’t have an effect much beyond family and close friends. By contrast, religion is social in its very nature, and it can have quite a large effect on the outside world — for good or ill.

Dan Fenn made me think better of Paul of Tarsus, because of his leadership skills. I still don’t like Paul — he was rigid, and he held grudges. But I can admire Paul. I can hear in his letters how he cared about the people who were part of the loose network of Jesus followers. In addition to caring for others in the movement, he wanted to hold them accountable to the highest ideals they had been taught by Jesus: in his letters, Paul constantly reminds his fellow Jesus followers that love is their highest purpose, that they should do what Jesus taught and love one another as we love ourselves.

This reveals another major difference between religion and spirituality. Since spirituality is your own personal way of being in the world, no one is going to hold you accountable if you don’t live up to your ideals. Perhaps you will try to hold yourself accountable to your highest ideals, but most of us human beings are pretty good at deceiving ourselves, telling ourselves that we are much better than we really are. In a religious organization, by contrast, we can remind each other of what our highest ideals are. We can reflect together on whether we are living up to our ideals.

In our culture today, this is not a popular approach. We want to maintain our individual rights. We no longer want to be part of a social group that upholds certain standards. We have reason to feel that way when it comes to religion. In the United States in the twenty-first century, many conservative Christian groups are sexist, or even misogynistic, and they ask both for the unquestioning obedience of women, and unquestioning obedience to their religious dogmas around sexism. These same conservative Christian groups tend to be homophobic as well, and they ask for unquestioning obedience to their homophobic religious dogmas. Because these conservative Christian groups have loud voices in the public square, they are what we think of when we think of religion.

No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. More and more people, when asked what religion they belong to, respond “None.” While these people do not want to be affiliated with organized religion, they still feel moved by religious impulses. Sociologists call them the “Nones,” but they might call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The vast majority of them believe in the Christian God or some deity, and the vast majority of them pray or engage in some kind of spiritual practice, but they are turned off by religious organizations.

However (you knew there was going to be a “however,” didn’t you?), there’s a small problem with being “spiritual but not religious.” To help explain that problem, I’ll go back to the nineteenth century Transcendentalists here in New England, and in particular a poet named Jones Very.

Jones Very was the son of an atheist and freethinker who would have nothing to do with organized religion, but he became interested in Unitarianism, and became a Unitarian minister. While in studying to be a minister, he began writing poetry, some of it quite good. Through his Unitarian connections, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister, who ultimately agreed to edit Very’s poetry for publication. Bronson Alcott takes up the story:

“[Jones Very] professed to be taught by the Spirit and to write under its inspiration. When his [poetry was] submitted to Emerson for criticism the spelling was found faulty and on Emerson’s pointing out the defect, he was told that this was by dictation of the Spirit also. … Emerson’s witty reply [was], ‘that the Spirit should be a better speller,’ [and] the printed volume shows no traces of illiteracy in the text.” (Journals of Bronson Alcott [1938], p. 516)

Now think about what would happen if Jones Very were alive today, and if he were spiritual but not religious. As someone who is spiritual but not religious, he would maintain his individual rights, resisting anyone telling him to modify his poetry. He’d sit at home in solitude, posting his poems to Reddit, or publishing them through a Substack newsletter, or self-publishing a book on Amazon’s Createspace. He would refuse to compromise on his vision for his poetry, including the faulty spelling. People would think of his poems as illiterate, and ignore him; his poetry would disappear into oblivion.

In real life, Jones Very reaped the benefits of being a part of a religious community. He listened to feedback from his religious community, and his poetry benefited. While his was a modest genius, he did have real talent, and his poems are still included in most major collections of American poetry. [for a small selection of his better poems:]

I tell you this story of Jones Very to make an obvious point. We human beings are social animals. We need each other. We do better when we are around other people. If we have some talent, some genius, we need other people to hone our talent, our genius. If we have some religious insight, we need other people to tell us if it makes sense. It is too easy to delude ourselves. Jones Very deluded himself when he thought that even the bad spelling in his poetry was dictated by the Spirit; he needed Emerson to gently tell him that spelling and grammar do matter, because through such conventions we are able to better communicate with others. If we do not communicate with others, if we do not participate in wider communities, then we remain isolated and alone and lonely. If we do not participate in wider communities, we start on the path towards solipsism, where the only reality becomes what lies within the narrow confines of our own skulls.

Mind you, I do think that “spiritual but not religious” is the best option for some people, especially for anyone who was traumatized by some restrictive religious group that demanded unquestioning obedience from them. If you’re healing from religious trauma, you may have a real and pressing need to get away from anything that feels at all like the restrictive religious group you’re trying to escape.

At the same time, being “spiritual but not religious” cuts you off from one of the most powerful human tools for inquiry and self-knowledge. That powerful tool is the community of inquirers. As individuals, we human beings often make mistakes. But when we join together in community, we can help correct each other’s mistakes. This is the power of the scientific method. The scientific method is a communal process whereby individuals or small groups make observations of the world and propose hypotheses that might explain those observations. Then other individuals or small groups test those hypotheses, and subject them to critical analysis. Through the scientific community, we gradually increase our understanding of the world.

This goes beyond science. Any claim to knowledge, any claim to truth or to validity, including religious claims, should be tested by a critical community of inquirers. Nor is this a sterile intellectual exercise. We test these claims by seeing how they work out in real life. You may say that you believe in God or you don’t believe in God, but the real question is what your belief or disbelief in God causes you to do in the world. You may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re sexist and homophobic I probably won’t have much sympathy with your beliefs. On the other hand, you may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re a feminist and you support LGBTQ+ rights then probably you and I will be in sympathy, regardless of whether we agree about God.

In our culture, we can find many religious organizations that ignore this fundamental principle; we can find many religious organizations that resist any questioning of their worldview. Given these religious organizations that stifle inquiry, no wonder people become spiritual but not religious. No wonder people say, I’m not going to submit myself to some religious group that claims absolute certainty. No wonder people say, I’d rather go off by myself and have my own little spiritual thing going on. But the problem is that when you go off by yourself and have your own little spiritual thing going on, you fall into the same trap as the rigid religious organizations that claim absolute certainty.

And even for religious organizations like our own First Parish, we still have to go out and actually do something in the real world. Go ahead and have long intellectual discussions about whether you believe or disbelieve in God, but what I want to know is what your beliefs call you to do in the world. And this is the final, the most important function of a religious community — it is the religious community that calls on us to live out our beliefs in real life, it is the religious community that calls on us to do something.


Sadly, Dan Fenn died in 2020. The Cambridge Chronicle published an excellent article soon after his death detailing his involvement in local politics, and his commitment to education—

Paul the Organizer

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from an essay by James Luther Adams titled “The Indispensable Discipline of Social Responsibility: Voluntary Associations.”

“…the theorists of democracy have asserted that only through the exercise of freedom of association can consent of the governed become effective; only through the exercise of freedom of association can the citizen in a democracy participate in the process that gives shape to public opinion and to public policy….”

[The Essential James Luther Adams ed. George Kimmich Beach (Boston: Skinner House, 1998), p. 183]

The second reading is from the Christian scriptures, Paul’s first letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, as translated by Hugh Schonfield. Written about the year 51, this letter may be the earliest Christian document still in existence. The passage I’ll read, 1 Thes 5.11-21, offers Paul’s advice to the small house church in Thessalonica:

“Encourage one another and fortify each other, as indeed you are doing.

“But I do beg you, brothers, to acknowledge those who work so hard among you and act as your leaders in the Master, and advise you. Hold them in extra-special affection for their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

“I appeal to you, brothers, give fair warning to the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, stand by the weak, be patient with all. See to it that none renders to any injury for injury, but always do the right thing by each other and everyone else. Always be cheerful, pray constantly, give thanks for everything; for this is God’s will… for you. Do not still the Spirit, or scorn prophecies. Test everything; retain the good. Refrain from anything that looks at all wrong….”


This is the second in a series of sermons on Paul of Tarsus. As I said in last week’s sermon, in many ways Paul was, for a long time, my least favorite character in the Bible. I disliked Paul so much that I ignored him as much as possible. But then, when I was the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, a fellow by the name of Dan Fenn offered me another take on Paul of Tarsus. Dan pointed out that almost single-handedly, Paul managed to organize the followers of Jesus into a far-flung but cohesive religious movement. Thus, what Dan admired about Paul was Paul’s organizational genius.

And Dan Fenn knows something about organizations and the people who lead organizations. He is a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and at their School of Business, and a senior associate at the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at UMass/Boston. Before he went to the Kennedy School of Government, Dan was on the executive staff of President John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1963, the vice-chairman of the U.S. Tariff Commission from 1963 to 1969. Dan is something of an expert on organizations and organizational strategy, and so when he calls Paul of Tarsus an organizational genius, his opinion carries a certain amount of authority.

When I started thinking about Paul as an organizational genius, I found myself looking at him from an entirely new perspective. I started thinking about the organizational challenges Paul faced. At the most basic level, Paul was trying to build an organization that stretched across the entire eastern half of the known world of his time, from northern Africa through the Middles East, into Greece, and finally to Rome itself. This far-flung organization consisted of small communities of twenty to forty people, with no clear leadership structure, and plenty of internal conflict. Furthermore, the people in these early house churches were often poor and often uneducated, they were frequently persecuted and sometimes put to death, and unlike many churches today they had no money, no buildings, and no paid staff.

In short, if you want to learn about true grassroots organizing, you would do well to study Paul of Tarsus. And if you want to learn how to build an organization at the most fundamental level, the level of connecting people through personal relationships, again you would do well to study Paul of Tarsus. Even though today we live in a vastly different social setting than Paul, basic human relationships have not changed; and because the fundamental building blocks of Paul’s organization were basic human relationships, we can still learn from him today.

Now we Unitarian Universalists have been accused of being badly organized. You probably know the old joke:– the newcomer is visiting a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time, and when a church member welcomes her to the church, she says, Look I’m just visiting here, I really don’t want to have anything to do with organized religion. To which the church member replies, Oh good, you’ll fit right in here, we’re a very disorganized religion.

This old joke actually points us towards two related problems that both stem from the fact that we are part of a society that is drifting away from democratic principles. On the one hand, some people who compare our organizational structures to the authoritarian organizational structures of corporate America accuse us of being disorganized. On the other hand, other people, who are so opposed to corporate authoritarianism that they see any organizational structure at all as bad, accuse us of being too organized.

But both these accusations misunderstand how we are organized, and why we have organized ourselves the way we have. Let’s start with the “how” — how is it that we organize ourselves?


The most important thing to understand about our Unitarian Universalist organization is covenant. A covenant is a set of voluntary agreements that we make to one another. Now you may have other ideas of what covenant means, but in old New England churches like ours, the word “covenant” has a very specific and distinctive meaning. Our meaning of “covenant” is even listed in that most British of dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary — which states, “Church Covenant: the formal agreement made and subscribed by the members of a Congregational church in order to constitute themselves a distinct religious society. (An important feature of Congregational polity in New England.)” Remember that, while we are a Unitarian Universalist church, we are direct descendants of the congregational tradition, and indeed the legal name of this church up through the 1940’s was “First Congregational Society in New Bedford.” So instead of a creed or a dogma or some such set of beliefs, we are organized around a covenant, a formal agreement that our members make with one another.

Three hundred years ago, when this church was founded, our covenant was a long, formal, written document. Today we really don’t have this kind of formal written document. And in that way, we are more like the earliest Christian communities in Paul’s day. So back in the year 51, Paul wrote a letter to the Christian community at Corinth, telling them: “Encourage one another and fortify each other, as indeed you are doing…. acknowledge those who work so hard among you and act as your leaders…. Be at peace among yourselves…. give fair warning to the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, stand by the weak, be patient with all. See to it that none renders to any injury for injury, but always do the right thing by each other and everyone else. Always be cheerful, pray constantly [today we might say, be sure to engage in regular spiritual practice]…. Do not still the Spirit, or scorn prophecies. Test everything; retain the good. Refrain from anything that looks at all wrong….” (Wouldn’t these words would make a reasonable covenant for a Unitarian Universalist church today!)

Christianity has changed a great deal in the two thousand years since Paul wrote this letter. Today, the Catholic church and most Protestant churches have creeds and hierarchies; but in Paul’s day, those early Christian communities has no creeds, a very loose organizational structure, and no church hierarchy. Today, most Christian churches around the world exclude women from leadership positions; in Paul’s day, there were lots of women in leadership positions. Today, many Christian churches depend on rules and regulations; but in Paul’s day, they depended on good relationships. So it is that in his letter, Paul tells that Christian community at Corinth how to build good relationships with one another.

And so it is today with us. We no longer have a formal covenant. But in the two and a half years that I have been here, I have pieced together an informal covenant, based on our church bylaws and (more importantly) based on the values that we hold dear. Each Sunday morning, I read that informal covenant at the very beginning of the worship service. In its current version, it goes something like this: “Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology. We are bound together, not by a creed, but by our covenant: In the spirit of love, we come together to seek truth and goodness, to find spiritual transformation in our lives, to care for one another, and to promote practical goodness in the world. Wherever your spiritual journey began, wherever you are headed, you are welcome in this meeting house.”

And periodically, one of you will come up to me and tell that I don’t have it quite right, and suggest a change — I make the change, and keep reading it every week until someone suggests another change. Although it’s been almost a year since Tryne Costa suggested to me the most recent change, which was to say that everyone is welcome in this meeting house.

Our covenant, whether formal or informal, is our greatest strength, organizationally speaking. We are organized on the basis of our relationships with one another, and our relationships with the wider world, and our relationships with that which is eternal, which some of us call God and come of us call by other names. Corporate managers will look at us and tell us that we are disorganized; extreme anti-authoritarians will look at us and tell us that we are too restrictive; but I think we have exactly the right amount of organization.


But why should this matter? What religious difference does it make? To tell you what religious difference this makes, I have to tell you a little bit about James Luther Adams, the greatest Unitarian theologian of the 20th century.

James Luther Adams left an evangelical Christian upbringing to become a Unitarian. He served as a Unitarian minister in a number of congregations in the 1920’s, and then he decided to become a theologian. As part of his theological studies, he traveled to Germany in 1927, because Germany was where the greatest theologians of the day lived. Unfortunately, by 1927, Germany also had Nazis. James Luther Adams told this anecdote about his 1927 trip:

“In 1927 in the city of Nuremburg, six years before the National Socialists [or Nazis] came to power, I was watching a Sunday parade on the occasion of the annual mass rally of the Nazis. Thousands of youth… had walked from various parts of Germany to attend the mass meeting of the party. As I watched the parade, which lasted for four hours and which was punctuated by trumpet and drum corps made up of hundreds of Nazis, I asked some people on the sidelines to explain to me the meaning of the swastika, which decorated many of the banners. Before very long I found myself in a heated argument. Suddenly someone seized me from behind and pulled me by the elbows out of the group with which I was arguing… and propelled [me] down a side street and up into a dead-end alley. As this happened, I assure you my palpitation rose quite perceptibly…. At the end of the alley, my uninvited host swung me around quickly, and he shouted at me in German, ‘You fool. Don’t you know? In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in.’ …then he smiled… ‘I am an anti-Nazi.’…”

After this dramatic incident, Adams asked himself what he, an ordinary American citizen, had done “to prevent the rise of authoritarian government” in his own country. He asked himself, just as we might ask ourselves, “What disciplines of democracy (except voting) have you habitually undertaken with other people which could serve in any way to directly affect public policy?”

Adams realized that one of the things that the Nazis did was that they effectively abolished freedom of association. You could join the Nazi party; you could join one of the German churches that was a tool of the Nazi party; but you could not freely associate with any group you chose. For example, there were underground Christian churches that explicitly disavowed Nazism; these churches were banned by the Nazis, precisely because the Nazis aimed at smothering all dissent.

Based on his experiences in Nazi Germany, James Luther Adams concluded that “only through the exercise of freedom of association can consent of the governed become effective; only through the exercise of freedom of association can the citizen in a democracy participate in the process that gives shape to public opinion and to public policy.”

Let me put it more dramatically: By coming to this church, by exercising your right to freely and voluntarily assemble, you are engaging in democratic process. At the most concrete level, you can learn leadership skills that you can immediately utilize in the public policy arena. And by joining our individual voices together, we can make political leaders listen to our ideas on issues like equal marriage and global warming and anti-racism. And the simple existence of our church as a healthy institution helps to keep authoritarianism at bay.

James Luther Adams points out that the early Christian communities of Paul’s day were communities that organized around covenants. By dispersing power and responsibility (remember, we’re talking about the early church, not today’s church) — by dispersing power and responsibility, those early churches broke through the old social structures of the Roman Empire and tried to create new, more egalitarian structures.

Of course, after a couple hundred years the Christian church got sucked in by the Roman Empire, and all that early egalitarianism got smushed under the weight of authoritarianism. But today, free churches like ours still hold the potential for breaking through the old social structures — just as some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have broken through the old racist social structures — just as some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to break through the old social structures that have so badly damaged our environment.


Let me put this another way. Increasingly, American society is split up by socio-economic class, it is split up by race and ethnicity, it is split up by language, it is even split up by age. Here in New Bedford, we have been split up into lots of small groups: we have the Spanish speakers and the Portuguese speakers and the English speakers, and other language groups besides; we have black and white and various shades of brown; we people who identify strongly with various ethnic groups; we have fairly rigid class stratification; we put our elders into assisted living facilities and we keep our children out of sight in the schools. We have fewer relationships with fewer people. All this weakens democracy, and makes us vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Here in our church, however, we fight off authoritarianism. We work to transcend boundaries of language, race, ethnicity, and age. We learn how to work together to promote social change and practical goodness in the wider world. All this grows out of our voluntary agreement with one another, it all grows out of the covenant we make.

In so doing, we have but inherited the legacy of that organizational genius, Paul of Tarsus. He taught those early Christians to build their communities through developing good human relationships. He told them, “Be at peace among yourselves.” He said, “Encourage the fainthearted, stand by the weak, be patient with all.” He said, “See to it that none renders to any injury for injury, but always do the right thing by each other and everyone else.”

We may word our covenant somewhat differently today, but the basic principle is the same: By means of a covenant, a voluntary agreement among ourselves, we build good relationships between ourselves and with that which is greater than ourselves; and with our covenant, we create a community out of which can emerge a truly open society, a society founded on true peace and true justice, a kind of heaven here on earth.

Paul the Puritan

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the book The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, by Wayne Meeks:

“Since we do not meet ordinary early Christians as individuals, we must seek to recognize them through the [collective groups] to which they belonged and to glimpse their lives through the typical occasions mirrored in the [Biblical] texts. It is in the hope of accomplishing this that a number of historians have recently undertaken to describe the first Christian groups….

“To write social history, it is necessary to pay more attention than has become customary to the ordinary patterns of life in the immediate environment within which the Christian movement was born…. [T]to the limit that the sources and our abilities permit, we must try to discern the texture of life in particular times and particular places….”

[Meeks, p. 2]

The second reading is from the Christian scriptures, the book known as Matthew:

“When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  ‘  ”

[Matthew 22.34-39]


Paul of Tarsus is one of my least favorite characters in the Bible. Paul appears to be in favor of slavery, and opposed to those who would put an end to slavery. Paul appears to be a sexist jerk who believes that women are inferior to men. Paul is often quoted by fundamentalist Christians who hate homosexuality. As I say, Paul is perhaps my least favorite character in the Bible.

Knowing this prejudice of mine, I decided to preach a series of sermons on Paul, of which this is the first. I wanted to find out if Paul’s opinions and pronouncements really are as bad as I think they are. I wanted to find out if I’m treating him unfairly, to find out if I’m prejudiced against him. I wanted to take some time to look at Paul to see if he is as bad as I feared; if he is as bad as I feared, to honestly state that; and if he possesses redeeming features, to honestly state what redeeming features he might possess.

In the process of preparing these sermons, I discovered that I had been trying to understand Paul as if he were alive and preaching here and now, in the United States in the 21st century. That’s what most of us do. We have all learned that the Christian scriptures, the New Testament, is an important book in our Western culture; we are told that it is a book that is still relevant to us here and now; and we have learned that we are just as capable of understanding and interpreting the Bible as any preacher or priest or scholar or self-proclaimed prophet. These notions taken together tend to make us believe that the Christian scriptures were written specifically for our times, and that they provide answers for today’s problems.

Yet while it is true that there is that which is permanent and universal in every worthy work of literature; while it is true that the Christian scriptures can inspire us and cause us to think deeply about current moral and ethical issues; nevertheless, the Christian scriptures were written nearly two thousand years ago by people who lived in a vastly different culture, within a vastly different society. So in reading the Christian scriptures, we must be careful to sort out the universal and permanent truths from those truths which may have been useful two thousand years ago, but which no longer remain useful to us today.

Paul’s writings on slavery constitute the most obvious example of views which may have been useful two thousand years ago, but which are no longer useful. Paul wrote several of the books of the Christian scriptures, and he never states that slavery is wrong. Indeed, before slavery was made illegal in the United States, white American slaveholders both in the South and here in the North used Paul’s words as justification that it was morally acceptable to own slaves. In the last century, we Americans finally came to realize that slavery is morally wrong; we finally came to know that slavery is (there is no other word for it) sinful; and therefore we now know that Paul was utterly wrong when he said that slavery was morally acceptable. Knowing that, we are free to look at everything Paul says in the Bible, and question whether or not it is still true for us today.

It’s pretty clear that Paul is wrong about slavery. But I have discovered that on the interrelated issues of gender and sexuality, Paul is not quite the hate-filled Puritan that I had thought. Are women as good as men in Paul’s view? Does Paul forbid homosexuality? Let’s ask these questions, remembering that society in Paul’s day was very different than our own society. Paul lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire had very different laws regarding marriage than we do; and Roman culture had very different ideas about sexuality than we do. Not only that, but we have to remember that Paul was born a Jew, and that in his day the Jesus movement was closely allied with Judaism; indeed, some scholars will say that in Paul’s day Christianity was nothing more than a sect of Judaism. The Jews living under Roman rule had their own notions of marriage, and still different notions of sexuality — notions that sometimes parallel our own present-day notions, and sometimes seem completely alien to our present-day notions.


Let me give you some specific examples of what I mean. And I’ll begin with what Paul says about homosexuality, since one of the biggest conflicts in American religion today has to do with the place of gays and lesbians in religion.

Now modern-day fundamentalists tell us that Paul said that homosexuality is a sin. However, fundamentalists often misunderstand what Paul was saying, because they seem to assume that life in the Roman Empire was exactly the same as life here and now. So when they read Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul says —

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” [Romans 1.26-27]

— when the fundamentalists read this passage, they immediately interpret it to mean that Paul said that homosexuality is sinful. They’re assuming that the Roman world, Paul’s world, was exactly the same as our world. But the ancient Roman world really didn’t have a concept of homosexuality the way we do. Paul wrote in ancient Greek, and ancient Greek does not have a single word for homosexuality that corresponds exactly to our present-day word. And even in English translation, you don’t find the word “homosexuality”; you don’t find the word “gay” or “lesbian.” So at the most literal level, it seems to me that this passage has nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it today:– the only way you can make this passage say something about homosexuality is if you put it there out of your own value system.

Going beyond the most literal level, we can ask: What do we know about sex and homosexuality in the Roman Empire of Paul’s time? In their recent book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed ask this question, and they come up with an interesting answer. In their view, sexual intercourse in the Roman Empire was often about older, wealthy men having power over women and teenaged boys. In depictions of the sexual act Roman art, women are often shown as being passive under, subordinate to, or controlled by men; whereas men are shown as being in a position of power over women. When Roman art shows two men engaging in a sexual act, what is usually shown is a teenaged or pre-pubescent boy being passive under, subordinate to, or controlled by an older man. In short, Roman art often shows sex as an act whereby older, wealthy men have power over women and boys.

Crossan and Reed show that this attitude was pervasive in the Roman Empire. However, the smaller Jewish culture of which Paul was a part had different understandings of sex. Crossan and Reed claim that Jews of the time understood sexual intercourse mostly as a way to make babies. Thus it seems to me that when Paul complains about “unnatural acts,” he might well be speaking as a Jew who is appalled by Roman sexual practices, between opposite sex couples and between same sex couples.

Consider, too, that Paul acknowledges Jesus as he religious leader. Now Jesus said (quote): ”  ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  ” I take the first of these commandments to mean that we are all of equal worth in the sight of God; and I take the second of these to mean that our relations with one another should be relations based on love, not on control or subordination. Therefore, any sexual act that is not based on love, that requires subordination or control, would be “unnatural.” Or we could say with equal truth that a person who degrades the humanity of someone else with a sexual act, that person is doing something that is not based on love and therefore goes against Jesus’s two greatest commandments. Perhaps when Paul objected to “unnatural acts,” he really was objecting to relationships where one partner degrades or dominates the other.

If this is true, then it seems to me that Paul is passing along a permanent and universal truth:– sex and sexuality should not be coercive. Sex and sexuality should not require that one person has to have power over another person, or degrade another person, or control another person. Rather, sex and sexuality should be expressions of love — expressions of both erotic love and non-erotic love — that allow for equality between two persons.


You may object to this, and say: Isn’t it true that Paul was a sexist pig, who thought women should be subordinate to men? If you’ve ever spent any time talking with fundamentalists, you will quickly find out that most of them believe this. And indeed, some of the writings that have been attributed to Paul say precisely this. One such passage appears in Paul’s first letter to the Christian community at Corinth:

“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..” [1 Cor. 11.7-9]

Women were created for the sake of men — on the face of it, it seems pretty clear that Paul is telling us that he believes women are not as good as men.

But while fundamentalists surely believe this, we religious liberals might not want to jump to their conclusions before we think for ourselves. We religious liberals know that English translations of the Bible are full of mistakes; furthermore, we know that the people who translated the Bible into English sometimes wind up pushing their own theological beliefs. Going back further in time, we know that parts of the Bible come from oral tradition and so represent poetic truths more than accurate historical facts; furthermore, we know that later editors and copyists inserted words and phrases into existing Biblical texts, and that they even made up entire books of the Bible, just so they could push their own theological beliefs.

Knowing all this, we should listen carefully when Biblical scholars propose alternate interpretations of the Christian scriptures based on textual and other evidence. Back in 1975, scholar Elaine Pagels wrote a book asserting that many of the anti-woman passages that we find in Paul were actually inserted by later editors (who had their own anti-woman theology to promote). Pagels believes the evidence shows that both women and men took on significant leadership roles within the early Christian communities, and that women had a surprising degree of equality, given the general subordination of women in the wider Roman Empire. Thus it could well be that Paul himself was not a sexist, that he believed in the equality of women and lived out that belief in the early Christian communities. Not that Paul was some kind of early advocate for women’s rights, but perhaps, as is so often the case, the fundamentalists and the orthodox Christians hijacked Paul’s words to push their own theology.


Yet it does seem pretty sure that Paul objects to “fornication,” that is, having sexual relations outside a socially sanctioned relationship. This hits home for me, because for the past eighteen years my partner and I have lived together, yet for lots of reasons (including feminist critiques of the institution of marriage), we have never married.

But even here, I think we can find some common sense in what Paul says, if we will look at his social situation. Here, I draw on my extensive knowledge of what it’s like to be a part of a small religious community. Because we must remember that those early Christian communities were small. The early Christian communities met in one another’s houses. They had fewer people present at a worship service than we do — say, between twenty and forty people who showed up regularly. And many of the members of one of those early Christian communities would be related, or they would be a part of an extended family and associated servants and slaves living in the same household. These Christian communities that Paul knew, and that he wrote for, were small and very intimate.

From my own experiences in several small churches, I can tell you that Paul’s advice makes a good deal of sense. If you’re a part of a church where there’s less than two hundred people showing up each week, my advice to you echoes Paul’s advice: don’t sleep around with members of that church. I can support this advice with a simple observation: in a church with less than two hundred people, when a couple breaks up, one member of that couple is probably going to have to leave that church. In all my years of working in small churches, I can think of only one exception to this rule: a couple who had a very amicable divorce, and who had custody of their children on alternate weekends; on the weekend when a parent had custody of the children, he or she got to go to church while the other parent stayed home. But the rest of the time, when a couple in a small church breaks up, one member of that couple will leave the church.

Thus, in a small church like ours, Paul’s injunction against fornication, against sleeping around, proves to be good sound advice. If you’re in a church with two hundred people, it will be different. But when you’re in a small church, if you sleep around with other members of the church, everyone will know, and it could get messy. Paul speaks with a moral certainty I still don’t trust; but as a matter of common sense, I find I agree with him.


I started out believing that Paul was the kind of sexual puritan I can’t stand. But it may be I was misinterpreting Paul as badly as the fundamentalists do:– they assume that everything he says is right; I assumed that most of what he says is wrong; both of us assumed that Paul’s social context was exactly the same as ours. We forget that Paul lived in a different world from ours.

Once we sort this out, some of what Paul says has the ring of permanent religious truth. Every religious teacher passes on some teachings which are of utmost importance to his or her immediate followers; but which are of no possible use to succeeding generations. And every great religious teacher passes on at least some teachings which are eternally true, which partake of the wisdom of the ages. The fundamentalists go to one extreme, and say that everything that Paul says is of utmost importance to us today; some folks go to the other extreme, and dismiss Paul as someone of no possible relevance to us today.

But there is a third way: to tease out that which is of permanent importance, from that which is not. May this third way be the way of those of us who call ourselves religious liberals.