Debating Paul



Abstract.  This classroom note describes the lessons I learned from the use of formal debates during the two semesters I taught “Paul and Early Christianity” to undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Ohio. The purpose of the course was primarily to give students the exegetical skills to understand Paul in his own context. The secondary purpose was to help students understand the role that exegetical differences play in different moral and theological uses of Paul. I found that the debates helped students understand the controversial nature of biblical exegesis, to read the course material carefully, to develop clear arguments, and to empathize with different points of view. The debates also entailed certain problems, some of which were hindrances that needed to be corrected. However, some apparent problems actually turned out to be teaching opportunities and even served as their own solutions. Appendices, including the course syllabus and debate questions and readings, can be found at:

You can always count on Paul to start an argument.

The apostle himself seemed always to be arguing. Walter Wangerin (2002), in his vivid and carefully researched Paul: A Novel, depicts him as engaged in debate at every stage of his life: first as a Pharisee and an opponent of the followers of Jesus, then as a controversial partisan within the Jesus movement.

What is true of Paul the historical figure is also true of his letters, which have been diversely interpreted over the centuries in the church, the academy, and society. Whether people discuss Paul's views of Judaism, slavery, women, or sexuality, Paul always has the potential to start a fight. “Few who know him are neutral about Paul,” writes Calvin Roetzel, “Some love him; others hate him. And so it has always been” (Roetzel 1998, 1).

Paul was a debater, and Paul is debated. For this reason, formal debate is an especially useful tool for teaching Paul. I discovered this when a series of circumstances allowed me to step beyond my primary area of expertise (historical theology), in order to teach biblical studies to undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Ohio. I hope the reader will benefit from the particular lessons I learned when my students debated Paul during the two semesters I taught “Paul and Early Christianity.”

Purpose of the Course

From the first page of my course syllabus, students learned that Paul was both an influential and a controversial figure. Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles”: credited with bringing Christianity to the ends of the Roman Empire, the most prolific and one of the most quoted New Testament writers. At the same time, Paul has been loved and hated, used as an authority and opposed as an enemy – in strikingly different ways – in arguments about topics ranging from sexuality to civil disobedience.

The purpose of this class was to enable students to read the letters of Paul in light of these controversies, and to give them tools for developing their own understandings of Paul and his writings, so that they could become informed and thoughtful participants in ongoing debates about this important figure in the Christian tradition.

This was primarily a course in history and exegesis. My first intention was to help students understand the meaning of Paul's letters in their own historical contexts: what he actually wrote in his letters and what he actually meant when he wrote them. The primary intention of the course was not for students to reach conclusions concerning how Paul's letters should be considered morally and theologically normative in the present.

However, while the course was primarily historical and exegetical, it also had a secondary, theological and ethical dimension. I wanted students to understand that different exegeses of Paul can lead to different normative uses and applications. I wanted students to understand, for example, that a good deal of current argument among Christians about the morality of capital punishment is rooted in the different meanings they assign to the word “sword” (macharia in Greek) in Romans 13:4. I wanted them to understand the role that different translations of two obscure Greek words in I Corinthians 6:9 (arsenokoitai and malakoi) play in current arguments among Christians about gay marriage or gay ordination.

Secondly, while I did not require students to reach normative conclusions about Paul, I knew that students inevitably would wrestle with the normative implications of Paul's writings. In fact, I knew that some students had taken this course specifically for the purpose of understanding texts that they considered sacred. I have found that it is helpful in the classroom to make a tensive distinction between normative and descriptive discourse, between “theology” and “religious studies.” However, I have learned from experience, as have others, that one cannot separate the descriptive and normative study of religion (or for that matter, almost any other topic) entirely (Smith 1988; Miles 2000, 471–472). Students are constantly forming normative beliefs, which both shape and are shaped by what they learn (Green 1971, 41–63). Because I knew that students would inevitably bring normative questions to bear on Paul, it was my hope that their improved exegetical skills would help them as they struggled with these questions.

For these reasons I exposed the students to different normative interpretations of Paul. And, while I did not require students to give their own normative moral and theological reflections on Paul, I did give them the opportunity to do so if they wished in their papers, and received several thoughtful reflections.

Structure of the Course and Choice of Readings

Each time I taught this course, it was divided into two parts. During the first half, we worked systematically through the Pauline epistles. Making use of Roetzel's textbook, The Letters of Paul (1998), we learned about Paul's time and place, about the form and content of his letters, and some of the basics of biblical criticism. We also used Wangerin's novel, Paul, during this section of the course. While it is a work of fiction, it is based on solid research, and vividly fleshes out aspects of Paul's context and biography that Roetzel explains in drier academic prose. The novel raised some of the issues (about Paul's views on men and women and Jews and gentiles) that the debates would focus on later in the course. Using the novel also gave me the opportunity to explain the role that imagination plays in the work of a historian.

The second half of the course centered on student debates. Early in the semester, I had given the students a list of debate questions and asked them to sign up for a topic that interested them. Each question had to do with where Paul might stand on a particular controversial issue. For example: “True or false, Paul would support the death penalty.” I then divided students into groups of four to six, based on their interests. Each group was responsible for dividing itself into two teams, with each team arguing either for or against the question. Each team was graded separately. Students were also graded individually on written work related to the debate.

During this second section of the course we made use of Victor Paul Furnish'sThe Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues (1985). We also made use of several controversial readings that dealt with the debate topics. I chose two of these readings for each topic, each offering an opposing interpretation of Paul's writings. I chose articles and essays that had very specific disagreements about a limited number of passages in Paul's writings. Another criterion was that the authors of these essays should approach Paul with clear moral and theological concerns. Some of these writers looked to Paul's letters for normative rules or guidelines to apply to their contemporary situations (House 1991, 59–70; Yoder 1991, 139–147). Others looked at Paul's letters, not so much as a source of rules to apply to the present, but as a historical example of a certain attitude, to be understood empathetically but critically (Pagels 1974, 538–549). Still others seemed to go even further in the direction of normative criticism of Paul (Ruether 1974, 95–107). But all the writers were personally concerned with the moral issue that was being raised, whether it was capital punishment, women's equality, Jewish-Christian relations, or another topic. And all were aware that exegetical interpretations of Paul were significant to contemporary Christian discussion on these topics.

As I have said, the primary purpose of the course was not for the students to come to a normative decision about Paul, but I did want them to see the role that exegeses plays in the normative use of Paul, and to offer different patterns of the normative use of Paul for their critical evaluation. In order to find good examples of different moral views, I made use of essays that were written not just by biblical scholars but also by theologians and ethicists who made use of biblical scholarship. For example, on the topic of capital punishment, students read “The New Testament and Capital Punishment” by H. Wayne House, who argued that Paul would approve of the death penalty, and “Jesus and the Civil Order” by John Howard Yoder, who offered an opposing interpretation of Paul (House 1991, 66–69; Yoder 1991, 145–146).

Because the readings were fairly sophisticated, especially for undergraduates who were just being introduced to academic biblical studies, I found it necessary to devote the class period before each scheduled debate to a lecture explaining the relevant readings. I also met with each debate group outside of class to check their progress and clear up possible misunderstandings about the debate, writing assignments, and the readings.

Writing Assignments

Writing assignments were essential for helping students understand the readings and participate effectively in the debates. Each student wrote an exegetical essay in preparation for the debate and a reflection paper afterwards.

The controversial readings I chose for each debate topic provided a starting point for the exegetical essay. Each student was to find a disputed passage from the writings of Paul in the two articles assigned for his or her debate topic. For example, in their respective articles, H. Wayne House and John Howard Yoder had very different interpretations of Romans 13:4, “authority does not bear the sword in vain.” Yoder argued that the “sword” in this passage was “the symbol of judicial authority, not the weapon either of war or the death penalty,” and therefore Paul's use of the term did not imply that he approved of capital punishment (Yoder 1991, 146). House, on the other hand, believed Paul's use of the term seemed “to go beyond the merely symbolic to the actual use of the instrument” and was therefore “far closer to an affirmation than a denial” of capital punishment (House 1991, 69). The student was to explain how each scholar interpreted the same passage differently, assess the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation, and give his or her own interpretation of the passage.

Students could assess the strengths and weaknesses of different exegeses, in part, by evaluating the internal coherence of each argument. However, to do a thorough evaluation, students needed to go to other sources. Our textbooks (Furnish 1985; Roetzel 1998; Wangerin 2002) included arguments about many of the disputed passages, which students could take into consideration. I also directed students to the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Achtemeir et al. 1996) and to concordances in order to help them understand the meaning of the terms used in the passages. I pointed them to different Bible translations (available on a number of websites, including, to see whether one or more translations favored either of the controversial interpretations. I also directed them to reliable commentaries (The International Bible Commentary, Farmer et al. 1998; The New Interpreter's Bible, Keck et al. 1994–1997) to better understand the context of the passages.

With these tools, students were to decide which of the two controversial exegetical claims was more probable. Students were also to give their own interpretations of the disputed passages. Students accomplished these tasks with varying degrees of success. Almost all of them were successful in understanding the different exegetical arguments of each of the controversial articles. The more successful papers evaluated the internal coherence of each argument. The excellent papers (of which there were quite a few) also made use of the dictionary, commentaries, different translations, and other critical tools in order to make an argument for the greater probability of one interpretation.

In addition to the exegetical essays, students wrote reflection papers near the end of the course. In these papers, students had the chance to address the same exegetical questions they had discussed in the previous paper, having had the benefit of participating in the debates. These reflections also gave students the opportunity to provide general critical remarks on the debates and to further develop their own interpretations of Paul's writings.

One advantage of having each student complete two writing assignments, as well as participate in an oral debate, was that students were able to develop their own interpretations over time. A student in the capital punishment group might take House's side in her first paper and in the oral debate but, after struggling with the two authors over time, decide in her second paper that Yoder had a stronger argument. I encouraged students to express their developing viewpoints honestly in their papers, but to also explain them clearly and thoroughly – critically evaluating the sources.


Each debate officially lasted forty-two minutes, with each side having three opportunities to speak for up to seven minutes. The conversation was then opened to the whole class. Students who were not participating in that day's debate were also assigned to read some of the relevant material and to prepare questions ahead of time for general discussion. The debate, general discussion, and time for classroom management easily took up the whole hour and a quarter class period. And the four or five debates, interspersed with lectures and time for review before the final exam, easily took up the second half of the semester.

Exegesis as Controversy

The use of classroom debate had a number of advantages. The most obvious has already been stated. The controversial character of Paul himself, as well as his writings and their various interpretations, lends itself to debate. Furthermore, Paul argues about (or his writings are used in arguments about) subject matter that most students seem to find interesting: gender, sexuality, the relationship of church and state, and the relationship of Jews and Gentiles.

Students seemed to enjoy the performance and competitive aspects of formal debates. Of course, some students are more comfortable than others with public speaking, especially when there is a competitive undercurrent. I tried to allay their potential anxiety by stressing that students were not competing against each other for grades. However, I found that for the most part, these elements of the debates were helps rather than hindrances. They stimulated the students' interests and focused their energies, and lent a sense of excitement to the class. On the day of the first debate, during the first semester I taught the course, I was pleased to walk into the classroom to find that the students had already arranged the furniture for the occasion. The two teams sat at their opposing tables at the front of the classroom, ready to face off.

On a deeper level, the dialectical and controversial nature of debate brought into focus the dialectical and controversial nature of biblical interpretation. It helped students to understand and begin to use the various subdisciplines of biblical interpretation in order to make exegetical arguments.

Many students came into the class with the understanding that (as one student indicated in her paper) when the Bible “says” something, it says one thing in a fairly “straightforward” way. This assignment helped students to discover, sometimes for the first time, that more than one interpretation of the same passage is possible – that two people, each using similar historical critical tools, could make good arguments for very different readings of the same text.

The assignment went beyond merely exposing students to different views, however. I have found that undergraduates often dismiss such differences very quickly with either an uncritical dogmatism or an uncritical relativism. Students might simply ignore interpretations that disagree with their preconceived notions. Or they might conclude that disagreements over exegetical questions are simply matters of opinion – that the existence of many possible interpretations of what Paul meant implies that all interpretations are equally valid. Often when students make some apparently tolerant and open-minded statement, such as “there is no right or wrong answer,” this means that students have ceased to take seriously and engage the arguments that are before them. Educational specialist William Perry appears to have noticed similar attitudes when he describes the tendency of some undergraduates to entrench themselves “in the absolutisms of reaction or of indiscriminate radicalism” (Perry 1968, 75).

This assignment required students not only to recognize different interpretations but also to analyze and evaluate them in comparison with each other. It required students to follow the way in which a critic argues that his or her position is probable, more probable than opposing interpretations. It required students to make use of critical research tools in order to adjudicate between the conflicting claims: for example, between H. Wayne House's and John Howard Yoder's conflicting interpretations of Romans 13:4. It also required students, especially in their papers, to argue for their own positions.

By studying and evaluating how other writers read and made use of Paul, and by reading and making use of Paul themselves, students were able to discover that exegesis is in itself a form of debate: a critical conversation between multiple points of view.


But the debates did not just teach students how to argue. The debates also taught them empathy – the kind of empathy that is necessary for a critical understanding of different points of view.

This happened, in part, because the debates shifted the conventional roles of the classroom and allowed students to become their own teachers. Often in other classes I had taught, I found myself in the position of defending a point of view that was unpopular with students. My purpose in doing so was not to promote any agenda of my own, but to help students develop a sympathetic understanding of the assigned readings. Nevertheless, students at times responded to me as if I were posing my personal opinions against theirs. This was especially the case when students had not done (or thoroughly understood) the reading.

The formal debates shifted this dynamic in a number of ways and helped to create an environment that was more conducive to learning. The responsibility for defending a point of view, whether it was popular or unpopular, now belonged to the students. Because students faced the prospect of taking center stage and performing in front of their peers, they were more highly motivated to learn the material themselves.

Furthermore, students were aware that the debates were academic exercises, not contests of personal opinions. While students were required to give their own interpretation of the controversial passages in their exegetical papers, students were not required to agree personally with the exegetical positions they took in the classroom debates. In fact, in order to have two opposing teams for each question, a number of students needed to argue for positions that were not really their own. Participants in the debates were expected to give the most sympathetic and persuasive argument for one side of the question or the other, regardless of their personal opinions. This helped students to look critically and carefully at the arguments that were being presented, rather than the personalities of the presenters.

In fact, a student might, for the purpose of having a debate, take a position that he or she personally finds repulsive. Some students might be uncomfortable arguing for positions that they do not personally agree with, even in an academic exercise. Others are remarkably comfortable in arguing either side of a question. In order to help each student find his or her own level of comfort, I left it to each group to divide into two roughly equal opposing teams. Some students made surprising choices. On the day of our debate on Paul's views on slavery, for example, I was surprised to hear an African-American student echo the arguments of nineteenth-century American proslavery “fire-eaters,” while two white students argued for an abolitionist interpretation of Paul.

The element of role-play involved in the debates allowed some students to stretch their imaginations and view the Bible with new eyes. Some of the students who said they benefited the most from the project were those who, for the sake of having two opposing teams, agreed to argue in class for positions that were not their own. One evangelical Christian student found himself arguing that Paul would approve of gay ordination. This student wrote in his paper that he at first believed that necessity had forced him to take the “wrong side” of the argument. But he added that his views changed “dramatically” throughout the project. At the end of the semester, this student still could not approve of, or accept that Paul would approve of, homosexual behavior. However, based on his understanding of Paul's view of the universality of sin and the unconditional nature of grace, he concluded that a gay sexual orientation should not in itself exclude someone from ordination to ministry.


Along with its advantages, the debate format brought with it a number of challenges and problems. Some hindrances that I discovered the first time I taught the course could be corrected the second time. For example, I learned the difference between a good debate “proposition” (an affirmative, simple declaration, prefaced with the words “true or false”) and a bad (negative and convoluted) one (Freeley 1961, 14).

However, I also found that not every problem necessarily needed correction. Some actually proved to be teaching opportunities, and even served as their own solutions. One of these “good problems” was the anachronistic nature of some of my debate questions.

As I have explained, the primary purpose of the debates (and the whole course) was to deal with exegetical, not theological issues. We were to argue about what the historical Paul actually wrote in his letters and what he actually meant when he wrote them, not whether and how his writings should be considered normative in the present. However, we were to reach these historical conclusions by debating questions loaded with moral and theological content – questions that were also anachronistic – using language that Paul would not have used, and even referring to events that were not part of Paul's world. For example, “True or false, Paul would approve of gay marriage,” or, “Paul would break the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.”

For a number of reasons, anachronistic questions were unavoidable. While I wanted the students to engage in primarily exegetical arguments, I also wanted to teach students that exegetical differences can lead to different moral and theological uses of Paul. I also wanted to grab the students' attention with debate questions that brought up social issues that they cared about. I found that I could not accomplish these tasks without some anachronisms. In fact, when I tried to avoid anachronisms the first time I taught the class, I only succeeded in creating convoluted debate questions. Once I dropped my apprehensions about anachronisms, clear and interesting debate questions were much easier to create.

In various ways, I attempted to allay anxiety about the questions. I told the students from the outset that I realized the questions were anachronistic. I acknowledged that this made their task difficult, but I also suggested ways they might work through these difficulties. I told the students in the “Paul and the Fugitive Slave Law” group to read what Paul said about slaves and masters, about obedience to civil authority, and imagine what Paul might have said or done about such a law.

In letting the anachronisms stand, problematic though they were, I believe we learned a few things from them. For one thing, they helped the students understand what “anachronisms” are, and why they are problematic. The very difficulty of the “Paul and the Fugitive Slave Law” question taught the students about the problem of historical contexts, more effectively than a number of lectures on the subject could. It illustrated a point that should be, but is not always, obvious. Paul in fact lived in the year 50, not 1850. He lived in the Roman Empire, not the United States of America. One can not simply take Paul's statements about slaves, masters, and civil authority out of his own historical context and apply them to another, at least not without doing a good deal of interpretive work.

But the interpretive work can be done. Students were still required to debate these problematic questions. We worked with the assumption that writings of Paul, though rooted in particular historical circumstances, gave clues as to what he would say about issues that have arisen in later centuries. We assumed that the question: “What would Paul say” about slavery in the nineteenth century or homosexuality in the twentieth century was a meaningful question, and that one could find a meaningful probable answer.

In fact, a thorough understanding of Paul's context can sometimes bring the ongoing relevance of his writings to light. At least one student discovered, as she wrote in her reflection paper, that the major problem with nineteenth-century proslavery interpretations of Paul is that they took certain Pauline sayings out of context. Whatever Paul meant when he gave “instructions” to servants and masters in the ancient Mediterranean world (a world he believed was quickly coming to an end – I Cor. 7: 21–24, 26), Paul was not approving morally of the kind of racial, chattel slavery that was practiced in nineteenth-century America. In fact, the student argued – making use of an abolitionist exegete (Perkins 1850, 13) – Paul may not have approved of involuntary servitude in any form, even the kind that existed in his own time and place. Paul gave “instructions on how to act under slavery,” she conceded, but this is “not the equivalent of an approval of slavery.” Paul also gave “instructions” to Christians on how to behave under religious persecution, “that does not mean that he approved of persecution.”

The same student also argued that Romans 13:1, which instructs Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities,” is not necessarily an admonition to obey all laws, even the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in all circumstances. Noting that Paul himself “was imprisoned for violating the laws of the land (Acts 16:20–24),” she concluded that Paul's admonition to “submit” (Rom. 13:1) to authority could allow for a kind of civil disobedience. She implied that Paul would affirm, with Martin Luther King, Jr., that Christians must at times disobey unjust laws, but should do so “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (King 2000, 72).

Rediscovering Paul

Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of the debates was that they motivated students to discover things in the writings of Paul that they did not imagine were there. Some students described this process of discovery in personal terms.

One student, who participated in a debate on Paul's views of women as leaders in the church, wrote of her childhood: “Since I was six years old, I was taught by females at a Catholic school, some of [whom] were nuns. At a young age, I remember being puzzled by the fact that no priests were ‘girls.’ I was brought up to believe that I could do whatever I wanted and be whatever I wanted. . . . Although I never had aspirations to be a nun or a priest, it bothered me that . . . women could not take part in rituals that male priests did.”

This assignment challenged the student to look beyond the oft-quoted, brief passages in which Paul (or perhaps a pseudonymous writer) appeared to silence women in the church. In delving more deeply into Paul's writings (with the help of Furnish 1985, 102–110), she discovered that Paul “recruited . . . women to become active within the church. Women such as Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, and Prisca all agreed to help gather and lead [Christians], just as Paul, a man, had done.” She affirmed that “these women aided in prophesying and were active at public assemblies” (I Cor. 11:5). She was pleased to find that Paul, in Romans and Philippians, “not only mentioned and greeted women in his ministry, but more importantly commended them for their labors,” referring to them as “fellow workers” who “labored side by side with me in the gospel” (Phil. 4:2–3). This for her was “astounding . . . evidence” that “Paul did not support the subordination of women; instead he respected them and considered them his peers and apostles.”

“Where is the Debater of This Age?”

Paul was a debater, and Paul is debated. For this reason formal debate is a useful tool in teaching Paul. The format entails risks. Despite his skill as a polemicist, Paul himself sometimes doubted whether debate was a useful means of arriving at the truth, saying “where is the debater of this age” (I Cor. 1:20)? Nevertheless, despite its risks, I have found the debates to be highly effective in motivating students to learn about Paul and about biblical studies in general. One student wrote in an evaluation: “The debates made me feel more confident in my ability to discuss biblical content in a way I wasn't comfortable with at the start of the class.” For Paul, who exalted humility but who also exuded boldness, perhaps this kind of confidence would be something to admire.