Three years after his conversion, Saul, a former persecutor of the church, wished to work among the people of Jerusalem to share his new-found insights. Yet, the level of distrust and the depth of injury he caused kept the church in unrest and confusion. The thesis of this paper is that the way the leaders of the church in Jerusalem navigated through the painful, distrustful tensions between their members and the newly converted Saul can provide a model for churches today caught between forgiving the offender, addressing the redemptive consequences and the healing of hurting members.
INTRODUCTION TO PAUL
A Roman citizen from birth who was born in Tarsus of Cilicia and raised in the regions of Cilicia and Syria (Acts 16:37; 22:26-28; 25:10ff, Gal. 1:21) Saul was a Hellenist Jew who spoke idiomatic Greek (Acts 21:37-39). Even with his Roman and Greek background he describes his Jewish heritage in detail: “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:5-6, NIV). His Jewish name Saulos, a Roman additional or last name (the cognomen) would also be Paulos in Greek; Saul is also the name as the first king of Israel, also from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam. 9:1-2).
The phrase “Hebrew of Hebrews” seems to be a further refinement of the general distinction of being a properly circumcised Jew, an Israelite or a descendent of Abraham (cf., Romans 11:1; 2 Corinthians 11:25; Acts 6:1,9). Aramaic was his native tongue, spoken in his early childhood home and synagogue in Tarsus and the voice that spoke to him on the Damascus road addressed him in Aramaic, the native tongue of the Hebrew nation (Acts 26:14).
Paul states that he was “brought up in this city” (Jerusalem) and “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God…” (Acts 22:3). In Galatians 1:14 he states: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of our fathers”. Bruce concludes from these statements that Paul likely spent his childhood in Jerusalem advancing to the school of Gamaliel as a teenager (Bruce, 1977, pp. 32-52).
Paul’s designation as ‘a Pharisee’ is both his claim and a logical conclusion of one who was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel”, the leading Pharisee of his time. Before Agrippa Paul is even more explicit when he states: “according to the strictest part of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5) In Acts 23:6 he claims before the Sanhedrin to be “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.”
To discern where Paul may have found resonance in the several different sects within Pharisaism, Bruce makes an intriguing assertion based upon Paul’s absolute statement in Galatians 5:3 that “…to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law”. This betrays a clear view of the law as absolute and it gives insight to the vehemence with which Paul viewed the followers of Jesus and their beliefs.
To summarize, Paul’s birth into a Hebrew, Aramaic speaking, Pharisaic practicing home and community coupled with his Roman citizenship granted to him by birth and a natural comfort with the idiomatic Greek he grew up within gave him credentials par excellence in his world. Furthermore, his upbringing and training would establish his standing in the Jewish circles with Jerusalem as his second home, playing in the streets as a child and exploring his rich heritage as a teenager and young adult under the careful oversight of Pharisaic teachers and mentors. He would have been familiar with the leading scholars, the burning issues of the day and the owners of the local shops and eating establishments.
As Paul himself stated before King Agrippa, “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country [Syria/Cilicia], and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5). Jerusalem would be his home away from home; a place where he felt comfortable and accepted; a place to which he would return at every opportunity; a place where and from which he would operate to squash the Christian movement that threatened the very fundamentals of his assumptions, training and belief system.
PAUL, PERSECUTOR OF THE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM
The charge of ‘blasphemy against the temple’ had been unsuccessfully leveled against Jesus due to a lack of evidence (Mark 14:57-59); but now, with Stephen’s trial (Acts 7), this charge was asserted once again. This was the one capital offense that the Romans allowed the Sanhedrin to prosecute and Stephen’s accusers successfully pressed its case first by convicting and summarily executing him by stoning and secondly, by instituting a vicious persecution on the church in Jerusalem, which was aggressively embraced by Saul who “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2).
While we do not know what part Saul might have played in stoking the fires of public unrest against Stephen we can logically postulate his connections with men from his own Cilicia who were members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (cf., Acts 6:8-14). We do know that he was a part of the killing of Stephen by stoning, holding the clothes of those who were actively engaged in throwing the rocks (Acts. 7:57-58) and we know that he “was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1).
As the persecution intensified in the city of Jerusalem the Hellenistic Jewish Christians who were most closely associated with Stephen most likely escaped and carried their gospel message to the regions outside of Palestine. Consequently, the church in Jerusalem would have become more Hebrew. This would explain the comment that he was personally unknown in the churches of Christ in Judea three years after his conversion: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:21-24). This news of the converted Saul preaching the Christian faith came from Syria and Cilicia–likely due to fleeing Jerusalem at the outset of the persecution–and they described Paul as “our former persecutor”.
While Saul often ventured outside of Jerusalem in his days against the church he makes it clear that the primary focus of his attention was in Jerusalem. Referring to his own activities against the church, in Acts 26:9-11, Paul states:
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.”
When he did venture beyond Jerusalem, his goal was to bring them back there to be punished which he states before the Jewish audience in Jerusalem in Acts 22:3-5:
“I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
The extent of the damage Paul inflicted on the early church, primarily in Jerusalem, can hardly be overstated. The list of offenses begins with the execution of Stephen, and continues with arrests, imprisonment, torture and even death. Families were torn apart, friendships destroyed, property confiscated and lost, businesses dissolved and fear instilled in anyone who might be suspected of participating in or aiding this movement called ‘The Way’ that was promoting blasphemy against the temple. The suffering and grief among the Christians of Jerusalem would have been pervasive and intense.
PAUL: THE EXCITED NEW CONVERT
In Acts 9 we read of Saul’s vision along the road to Damascus, Ananias’ conversation with the Lord and his conversion. At this point it is unclear what exactly happened next. His account in Galatians 1:17-24 tells us that he went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. Yet, Luke (Acts 9:19-25) says nothing about Paul’s trip to Arabia but only mentions his time spent in Damascus where he preached in the synagogues. It is there that the Jews realize the threat Paul now poses to them as a traitor to the cause. So, they plot to lie in wait at the city gates, ready to take his life. This plot was was thwarted by the disciples who let him down outside the city walls in a basket so he could escape.
Whether Paul’s journey to Arabia occurred before the Damascus incident or afterwards, it would be three years before he would finally return to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18). Luke tells us that Paul actually tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem but that they were all still afraid of him after three years and did not believe he had become a disciple of Christ. It would be Barnabas who actually presented him to Peter and James, telling them of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus and how he had “preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).
During those 15 days in Jerusalem he actually stayed with Peter and James but did not see the other apostles while, at the same time, he moved about freely, again, “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). It is also likely that Saul engaged in a debate with Jesus during this time. Jesus tells him, “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me” (Acts 22:17-21). Bruce’s observations here are significant: “Perhaps his return to Jerusalem as a Christian filled Paul with a burning desire to witness to his former companions, but he was assured that he was the last person to whose testimony they would listen” (Bruce, 1977, p. 81). Saul was certain that his time was best spent there, in Jerusalem, working to convince everyone of his change of heart.
‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.
And what was the Lord’s answer? “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’ “(Acts 22:21). Perhaps this answer was still not satisfying to Paul. All we know is that somewhere along the way he begins to engage his former allies: the Hellenistic Jews, trying to convince them of the truth. Of course, the only thing that made sense to them was to kill Paul, the ultimate traitor to their cause. “Perhaps,” Bruce adds, “his return to Jerusalem as a Christian filled Paul with a burning desire to witness to his former companions, but he was assured that he was the last person to whom they would listen. For his own safety, then, his new friends took him down to Caesarea and saw him on board a ship bound for Tarsus” (Acts 9:29 ff; cf. Bruce, 1977, p. 94).
In fact, it is Luke who tells us about “the brothers” who, in Acts 9:30 “took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus” (vs. 30). The words ‘took’ (“brought him” in NASB) and ‘sent’ are significant here. There is no mention of Saul deciding or choosing; he was taken and he was sent. What the Lord told him he must do, in the end, he did not do voluntarily; instead, the disciples decided for him. So, they took Paul and sent him away to a place where people knew his family and he could start all over again: his hometown of Tarsus on the border of Cilicia. A place where people only knew of his reputation as a former persecutor of the church who is now a disciple of Christ. A place where the church could accept him, embrace him and work with him to bring the good news to the Gentiles. A place where he could thrive and grow in his ministry unhindered by his past.
Luke tells us the immediate result: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Note that it was the church that enjoyed a time of peace after Saul was gone, not necessarily the city of Jerusalem. The issue was not about the Hellenist Jews who were still trying to kill Saul; the issue Luke was addressing was peace in the church.
Indeed, this one action of sending Paul away had at least two results. First, even after three years, this one action highlighted the wounded church in Jerusalem and its injured members. They needed more time to heal from the wounds of Paul’s persecutions. Second, outside of the crucible of Jerusalem Paul was empowered to reflect upon and focus upon his walk with Christ on his own. In the end, the process would verify his conversion as genuine when Barnabas came looking for him. Neither of these objectives were being accomplished in Jerusalem, especially as he embroiled himself with the Hellenist Jews day after day coupled with a church that was still deathly afraid that Saul’s conversion may not have been genuine; i.e., a plot to deceive them (Acts 9:26). They all needed a lengthy time out.
TEN YEARS TO GROW AND TO HEAL
For the next ten years Saul would spend time processing the logical conclusions of the new gospel that had found him on the Damascus Road, comparing his new-found insights to the Biblical text and years of training and education. Furthermore, those ten years provide a place for us to postulate the five times that he received “forty lashes less one” from the Jews (2 Corinthians 11:24) that are never mentioned elsewhere by Paul himself, or Luke.
This may have also been when Saul experienced an ecstatic, out-of-the-body experience that apparently led to the acceptance of ‘a disagreeable’ consequence” of the thorn in the flesh, “giving his self-esteem a knock-out blow and keeping him constantly dependent on the divine enabling, proud to be a help, not a handicap.”
The diversity of experiences with his new-found faith in the region outside of the reach of Jerusalem left Paul the room and time that he would need for the Lord to prepare him for his recurring conflict with his fellow Jews while fulfilling his mission to the Gentiles. What better place to work out the logical extensions of the doctrine of grace as he considered the plight of his Jewish brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem over the years.
Ten years later the church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas to Antioch to find out about the Greeks who were becoming Christians because of the preaching of some men from Cyprus and Cyrene who probably had caught wind of what happened in Cornelius’ home (Acts 10). What he found was ample evidence of the grace of God working among the Gentiles. He encourages the budding church and brings a large number of them to the Lord. In fact the response is so strong that he realizes that he needs help (Acts 11:19-30).
So, Barnabas goes to Tarsus, only a hundred miles away from Antioch, to look for Saul (vs. 25). Saul has been seasoned over those 10 years and he may finally be ready. And so Barnabas takes Saul to Antioch and for the next year they work together to minister to the church and to teach great numbers of people and the disciples. Saul now realizes more fully his commission which the Lord had told to him on the road to Damascus and which Ananias had confirmed for him while he was in Damascus: ‘to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel’ (Acts 9:15), and which Jesus had reaffirmed to him in the temple during his short trip to Jerusalem (Acts 22:21).
Finally, when Agabus comes to Antioch and predicts a severe famine that will overwhelm the Roman world during the reign of Claudius, the attention of the church in Antioch turns to Jerusalem. They raised a collection to provide help to the church in Judea and they sent their gift to the elders by way of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30) soon to be called Paul (Acts 13:9).
More than eleven years had passed since Saul was last in Jerusalem; fourteen since his experience on the road to Damascus. Bearing gifts from the church in Antioch, accompanied by Barnabas and seasoned by the sands of time, Saul is now ready to capitalize on Peter’s work with Cornelius and his own work in Antioch to bring the gospel to the Gentile world with the blessing of the apostles in Jerusalem. Time, a truly transformed Saul verified by the work he and Barnabas did together over the year in Antioch, plus the financial support from Antioch may have been just the right mix of needed elements to help the church finally move on past their pain and into a new future. The events of years ago were finally behind them and the apostle Paul begins his first missionary journey in Acts 13 with the blessing of the Christian community he had once worked so hard to destroy.
Then there is this little note that Luke makes in Acts 21:8: “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven.” The Seven can best be identified with those friends of Stephen who had worked with six other Gentile brothers who were attending to the food distribution to the Grecian widows (Acts 6:5). After the stoning of Stephen and the resultant persecution, the healing had finally come full circle and Paul was ready to face the impending challenges ahead.
One of the severest challenges churches can face occurs when a church leader compromises his or her ministry. Not only do they injure their own integrity but they create victims who trusted their spiritual authority but, instead, must now deal with the pain of recovery because of that leader’s behavior. The impact upon the congregation at large can be significant as people naturally begin to deduce their own conclusions, choose sides, and actively work to promote their perspective on how things should be handled.
Church leaders, in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation sometimes choose to work with the offending leader in hopes of rehabilitating them and their ministry. While this is happening, those who have been personally hurt suffer silently while the leaders of the church wrestle with the perpetrator and the conflict within the congregation. Expecting the church leaders to protect them from further injury, the victims are expected to worship and fellowship as usual while in the presence of the person who has caused them harm. Especially in cases of clergy sexual abuse where a minister has abused his perceived spiritual authority to take advantage of another person this can add insult to injury. This is especially true when these wounded people express their continuing fear and their distrust of the offender. Criticized as being unforgiving, resentful and judgmental, not living up to Jesus’ command to forgive (Matt. 5:23-24) the suffering is prolonged. In those circumstances the only realistic option will be for the hurting members to quietly leave to find healing elsewhere.
The way the church in Jerusalem worked with Saul is an illustration of a way to biblically handle situations such as this. Saul in Jerusalem is dealing with both friends and acquaintances among whom he had grown up, with whom he had studied in school and with whom he had played in the streets. In his older years, in the midst of those relationships and before his conversion, he had done irreparable, horrific damage to the Jewish-Christian community…the Hellenist Jewish Christians had left town when the persecution began and they knew of Paul only by reputation. So, when he met Jesus on the Damascus road he did a complete transformation and became the biggest advocate of Jesus and His church. But the damage he had done did not evaporate into thin air as he began trying to approach his friends with the gospel. At his first attempt three years after his conversion even the apostles and the Christian community were still afraid of him. The situation was impossible to reconcile, at least, on an emotional level, with those he had hurt. His best efforts were coming to naught in spite of his good intentions; but, even a direct appeal from Christ would not dissuade him from his goal.
The church needed time and space before they could fully accept the transformation that took place in the life of Saul. And so, Jesus tells him he must go but he resists; in the end, it was the people of the church themselves that sent him away.
From that time on, I believe that the 10 years he was away gave time to help the hurting members of the church in Jerusalem to heal while Paul learned more about himself, his need for greater humility before God, and the importance of grace among other things. Those 10 years were filled with experiences that tested him, honed him, sharpened him and, most importantly, humbled him. In Paul’s situation the sequence is clear.
- An egregious offense or series of offenses have occurred in the life of Saul.
- His conversion convicts him about the error of his ways and he hopes to tell his community of his change.
- Nonetheless, his presence surfaces the victims of the Jerusalem church; they are afraid of him.
- The desire of all concerned is to restore healing, trust and full fellowship.
- They send Saul away for his good and the community’s good.
- Over time, Barnabas monitors Paul’s progress and spends a year observing the depth of his transformation.
- After a time came restitution, repentance, forgiveness and healing when conditions are met and sufficient time has elapsed.
From this biblical example, when anyone damages the innocent from within the body of Christ I believe the initial action is, as the church did with Saul, to ‘take’ and ‘send’. For the church in Jerusalem it would require more than 10 years before trust was re-established and healing could begin. Once the separation is accomplished three very important values must govern the actions taken by leaders.
First, as on the battlefield, triage of the victims must be initiated immediately so the healing process can begin as soon as possible thereby shortening the healing time and reducing the negative impact of the injury, opening the door to transformative forgiveness that goes beyond obedience.
Second, once the offense is exposed the leadership must act quickly and proactively to protect the congregation from internal divisiveness. Communication must be clear and reflect decisive action to enforce separation in order to protect the victims and to help the perpetrator in his or her recovery. They must assure the congregation that all measures to find help for the perpetrator have been taken to speed his or her healing along as well.
Third, the need for healing extends to the perpetrator as well, addressing deeper issues at a spiritual, psychological and emotional level while also providing an atmosphere where his or her healing and recovery can be verified and validated. So many factors can go into the length of time needed; but, the overriding consideration is the condition of the victims in their healing.
Especially in cases of ministerial sexual abuse, leaders in churches must be careful that they do not become expertly manipulated victims of the abuser themselves, becoming shepherds who reverse their roles and end up guarding the wolf from the sheep. The primary work of the leaders must be to protect the wounded and help them heal so they will one day be enabled to fully forgive. On the other hand, they must also consider the proactive intervention with the offending leader who needs to be cared for, tested and proven to be faithful and trustworthy. All of these qualifying factors require time and space. In cases like this, there just has to be a way for a the body of Christ to declare a ‘time-out’ to catch its breath, to re-group and to solidify so that, in the end, they can integrate all persons into completing the healing process to the glory of God.
Bruce, F. F., Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, MI; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 1977.