When controversial writers in the Bible are discussed, Paul is often one of the first mentioned. For years, Christians clung to his words about faith, fruits of the Spirit, and redemption. However, modern audiences have been less inclined to support all of his views. After all, readers might only remember him as belittling the role of women, approving of slavery, and arguing with the apostles. Yet, his letters still contain much truth that could benefit people today.
Paul’s teachings are relevant for the modern Christian life because he explains Christian unity, supports the role of women in the church, and connects the New Testament to the Old Testament with the covenant.
First of all, Paul brings up the important point of unity within the Christian church. Many of his letters address elements of the church from personal appearance to use of prophecy and tongues to the Lord’s Supper. However, one of the main points that Paul insists upon is believers acting as one body with many parts.
This is addressed thoroughly in Romans 12:3–21, 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, and Ephesians 4:1–6. In these passages, the apostle urges Christians to see themselves as “one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Romans 12:5). That means that believers should treat others with respect and love as a member of the same family (or even the same person) in the Lord.
There are many ways according to Paul that one should go about this. One message is that the gifts of all should be recognized as contributing to the body. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:12–26 different body parts are listed and telling others of their lack of importance in order to show the ridiculousness of the situation. Obviously, an arm is not more important than an eye; each body part serves a different function. Likewise, Paul’s message for the church of his time and today is that each person fills a different role with his or her gifts.
No part is more or less important, and each should be valued as vital to the community. Not everyone can be a senior pastor nor can all cook the meal for the funeral luncheons. Both people and their contributions to the parish play a part in building up the unity of the body.
A second way of being a unified church is by loving each person selflessly. Paul addresses this myriad times throughout his letters. Ephesians 5:1–2, for example, states, “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”
This high standard of unselfish love is certainly not simple. Yet, that is what brings Christians together. Even when believers disagree, the continued wish for the well-being of one another allows them to differ respectfully. Different points of view do not need to divide the church, just as a family can think uniquely but still support one another.
Although Paul brings up other ways for Christians to be unified, these two are his main points. The Pauline letters are relevant today because of his teaching that the church should be unified through respect for each other’s gifts and selfless love.
Secondly, the letters of Paul offer value because he supports the role of women in the church. One of the misconceptions about Paul is that he wants to repress females and keep them silent, unimportant housewives who only live to serve and listen to their husbands.
Several scripture verses that are often quoted to support this view. 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, for example, says: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
What many readers do not know, however, is that in most of Paul’s teachings women are actually rather revolutionary and forward-thinking for his time. The chapter of Romans 16 is a great example of this. First of all, he applauds Phoebe in 16:1–2 as “our sister, who is [also] a minister of the church at Cenchreae…[and] a benefactor to many and to me as well.”
The fact that Phoebe was given the letter in the first place shows the depth of the apostle’s trust in her. She would have been wealthy to be his benefactor and to be traveling to Rome. Carrying the document also would have meant that she could read, an uncommon trait for a woman of that era. Furthermore, one of her roles upon arriving in Rome would have been further explaining the contents of the letter to the listeners. Once again, that shows Paul’s respect for her.
Other names in Romans 16 are probably female, such as Prisca (v. 3) and Junia (v. 7). Both of them supported Paul in vocal, public ways. In turn, he mentions them with high regard. These examples show that the apostle respected women and the roles that they played in the church greatly, which is still relevant for Christians today.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Paul connects the New and Old Testaments with the covenant. Beginning with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and arguably even with Adam and Eve), God made a covenant with the people that became the nation of Israel. They would be His people who worshiped and honored Him while He provided for them. Although they sinned and turned away, repentance could reestablish the covenant.
Sometimes Christians disconnect that covenant from today and fail to see the relevance of the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not come to eradicate the old covenant, but fulfill it. Christians are now members of the covenant that Israel was in throughout history.
Paul states this in 2 Corinthians 3:5–6 that “our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” In this, the apostle is not erasing the old but showing how Christ brought life and the fullness of the Holy Spirit to all who believe.
N.T. Wright explains this further in his book Paul:
As gradually becomes clear, this is of course an account precisely of the dikaiosynē theou, God’s faithful covenant justice, which seems to be called into question both by what has now happened and indeed by the nature of the promises in the first place (Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau, and so on). Israel, declares Paul (10.3‒4), was ignorant of God’s covenant justice, and sought to establish its own status of covenant membership, of being in-the-right, and so did not submit to God’s covenant plan, the plan which came to its goal in the Messiah…And the result is that now, instead of the return of ethnic Israel to the Holy Land, as envisaged in Deuteronomy, the message goes out to all people. (32)
Having this sense of unity between the old and new creates less friction with the Jewish people and also a better sense of identity as the people of God. Therefore, understanding Paul’s theology of the new covenant is important for believers today.
Overall, Paul’s teachings are relevant all Christians in the modern world because they address unification of the church, respect for strong women in the church, and connection of the covenant of the Old and New Testaments. Too often, this apostle’s works are disregarded or thought to be overdone. However, his letters provide many important points for the church to still consider. Paul continues to inspire and infuriate people now as he did years ago.