How “trendy” was St. Paul? An analysis of his life and letters shows us a very culturally-aware and culturally-engaged apostle who was well-traveled, conversant in the idioms and ideas of various cultures, able to interact with popular poetry and philosophy, and eager to use symbolism from sports, war, and theater.+
And yet, and this is perhaps the most important thing to know about Paul as apostle at large, he was remarkably un-trendy in his perspective on honor and power. You see, in Paul’s world, the hottest commodity was honor or reputation. It wasn’t dying with the most toys that mattered – it was dying with the highest number of honors recognized by the most number of people, popularity through status and virtue. Sometimes a concern with honor can be a very good thing, like a business “priding itself” on fine craftsmanship or excellent, trustworthy service. However, good “pride” can all-too-easily turn into greed and self-absorption wrapped up in the paper of “reputation.” While many first century people tried to position themselves as superior in the great race for honors in culture, Paul was far too busy being untrendy in the work of the gospel. Here are four ways Paul was noticeably “untrendy.”+
Paul promoted hard work, not high positions.
One of the funny things about the earliest Christian leadership positions is that we have very few descriptions of them. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that leaders like Paul focused less on the “office” of the elder or pastor and more on the work and character of leaders. In 1 Thessalonains 5:12, Paul tells the church to respect those who “labor among you.” They are not told to respect these as “bosses,” but to acknowledge and honor the work and the workers who serve the people. This would have been noticeably untrendy in a world where you worked your way up to less labor-intensive positions. Is there not a message in here for us today? I am afraid too many Christians (pastors included) think that being a grace-filled community and people means that we can let hard work slide, especially when we can rest on our position’s “privileges.” Paul does not recognize “high” and “low” jobs, but he does differentiate between the hard working and the lazy (2 Thess 3:10-12).+
Paul valued transparency and integrity, not bright lights and entertainment.
Paul’s ministry was not attractive because of his showiness. He did not fill a stadium or make headlines (at least not in a good way!). His messages weren’t heart-warming in the “chicken soup for the soul” way. He was given a hearing because he spoke words of truth, words that pierced the soul. He was a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy.+
It is all the rage to be a polished communicator in our culture (just as it was in Paul’s), to look and act the part of the super-pastor – impervious to doubt, pain, problems, weakness. By contrast, Paul shows surprising intimacy and warmth that can be nothing but genuine. He shows meekness and vulnerability. He tells the Thessalonians – we felt so strongly about you – how could we not hand over to you, not just the good-news message about God, but even our deepest, most vulnerable and sensitive selves. Why? Because you became a community we fell in love with and cared for like family (paraphrase of 1 Thess 2:8).+
It is one thing for a pastor to say, from a stage looking out onto a dark auditorium with the undifferentiated faces of the masses, “I care about you.” It is another thing for him or her to really get to know them and say it, that this is real affection borne out of intimate and vital communion. That happens to be untrendy (because leaders might appear too needy and broken, rather than independent and perfect), but, in the end, extremely gratifying when you catch a glimpse of real “wounded healers.”+