Does the Apostle Paul Really Contradict Jesus?

I hesitate to say the Bible disagrees with itself. I find an elegant consistency when read as a whole. But I will say I find apparent discrepancies that require examination. One of them has to do with fathers.

Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. (Matthew 23:9.)

It seems rather clear: don’t call anyone father.

Why then does Paul, the most prolific New Testament writer, apparently flout this teaching?

Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. (1 Corinthians 4:15, emphasis added.)

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632) (Wikipedia)

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632)

It turns out the words translated into English as “father” in various places in those two passages are based on different Greek roots in the original writing. In Matthew 23 the word “father” is translated from the Greek root word pater along with the derivation patera, and the first use of “father” in 1 Corinthians 4 is also a derivation, pateras. (Strong’s Greek, 3962, patér.) The word that Paul applies to himself in 1 Corinthians 4:15 (translated above as “I became your father”) is a different word entirely.

Paul wrote the word egennēsa, which translates as “have begotten” or “did beget.” Paul used it only twice, and in each context he appears to be talking about people who came to faith in Jesus after Paul explained the gospel to them. (Other than the Corinthians, Paul referred to Onesimus as one whom he begot in the Lord. Philemon 1:10.) The context in each passage show that Paul is appealing to his authority regarding the spiritual lives of those people: he’s telling his readers to trust him to steer them straight when it comes to spiritual matters. Fair enough.

That’s not the end of my wondering about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, though.

Self-exaltation, Paul?

In the initial passage above, Jesus was speaking against the Pharisees and religious teachers who puffed themselves up due to their supposed religious superiority, taking the titles of rabbi and teacher and father to themselves in order to be prominent in the community. (Matthew 23:1-12.)

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  (Matthew23:5-12.)

Jesus taught his followers to humble rather than exalt themselves. It seems simple and straightforward enough for anyone to understand. Take a look, then, at how Paul presented his position to the church in Corinth.

Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father [that is, have begotten you] through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:15-17.)

So far, it looks like Paul is merely trying to reinforce the need for the Corinthians to pay close attention to his teaching about Jesus. However, Paul follows up with the claim that he has a power and authority that the members of that Corinthian church do not. In comparing Jesus’ admonishment to be humble and his description of the self-exalting spiritual superiority of the religious leaders, Paul comes across closer to the latter than the former:

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit? (1 Corinthians 4:18-21.)

Paul probably did have that power and authority. But the way he presents himself here not only seems to violate what Jesus said in Matthew 23 but also Jesus’ words in Mark 10, Matthew 20 and Luke 22, each of which record this teaching:

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown (1856) Wikimedia

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown (1856) Wikimedia

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45.)

Perhaps Paul was merely using culturally appropriate speech in order to correct grave problems in the Corinthian church. After all, they were a church of gentiles and, as Jesus said, gentiles were used to leaders who acted like lords. But this is the very behavior Jesus told his followers to avoid.

So why did Paul write his letter in a way that exalted his authority (that is, showed it to be higher than any power or authority among the Corinthian believers)? Might he have slipped up? He saw a problem and tried to correct it, but his methods might not have been those we should emulate if we want to obey Jesus’ direct teachings.*

On the other hand, and returning to the issue of cultural context, Paul was writing to a group of people who were used to their leaders taking what we would consider extensive measures to exalt themselves, seeing it as a competition of who would be considered the greatest benefactor of the city or province. This was the way things were done in the Greco-Roman culture. (See Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in Paul’s Collection, p. 54.)

In light of what the Corinthians and other churches in that culture were used to, Paul’s language might have come across as quite restrained. That’s how I tend to look at it in context.

I’d Rather Relate than Emulate

That doesn’t mean we should emulate his chosen language in our own cultural context, though. It goes back to the Greco-Roman culture I mentioned above, the one that shows Paul’s language was likely appropriate for his audience. In 21st Century western culture the language Paul uses comes across as heavy handed, and if I were to use it I think I’d be violating Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 23 and Mark 10. Paul’s points are well taken, but can be presented more effectively today by choosing a different way to say them.

Discrepancies in the Bible? I think it is more a matter of discrepancies between cultures. And discrepancies between cultures do not mean the Bible has no application today. It just means there is a lot of thinking to do to understand how to relate the Bible’s eternal message in one culture and another.

I find no discrepancy in that.


*Before anyone says “Hey Tim, who are you to question the Apostle Paul’s methods?” let’s remember the Bereans were called noble for comparing Paul against the Scriptures. (Acts 17:11.)


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15 Responses to Does the Apostle Paul Really Contradict Jesus?

  1. Very refreshing post, Tim. I was at a meeting of writing instructors this week and we were talking about collaborative writing, and how challenging it is for 4 or 5 people to write separate parts of a document and then make the whole thing read like it’s a seamless, single voice. It strikes me that that is a challenge for Scripture, too. Some things do appear inconsistent at times but I like your point that it has more to do with cultural differences: the writer’s intention, his sense of how his contemporary audience would have responded to what he said, etc. That’s part of what makes the Bible so interesting.

  2. nmcdonal says:

    Good exegesis, Tim!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Nick. I figure that if something looks like a contradiction it’s a good idea to look at the context.

      • Linda Overall says:

        YES!!!! PLEASE check the context….PLEASE! Good advice and great exegesis…also thinking that Paul was trying to set an example…sort of …if I did it so can you type of thing. I went before you and am now trying to disciple you….attitude and context…everything.

  3. Jesus-culture is Jesus-culture and to Jesus-culture I agree that we bring our contextual, including contemporary, cultural biases to that. Furthermore, I think that perhaps, some believers such as Paul, have a heightened sense of self-awareness of their relationship with Christ. But all believers are dependent upon Jesus, so none are justified in superiority-thinking. We’re reminded of this in James 4:10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up in honor”. What do you think, Tim?

    • Tim says:

      Great tie in with James’ admonition. What that looks like might vary in one relationship or another, but the base standard is still humility.

      • Yes, and we’re all in need of God’s forgiveness and humbled when we realise our vulnerability e.g. come compromised health etc. Thinking of you caring for your Dad. Take care, Tim.

      • P.S. Originally I was particularly thinking about the fine balance between human dignity and humility when I said that we’re all “dependent on Jesus”. But I was being constantly interrupted at the time, which makes it a little challenging to focus. Keeping focussed on God’s purpose for all seems like a good place to stand.

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  5. I think Paul mellowed a lot as he grew as a Christian. His argument with Barnabas still had a lot of the old Saul about it. What is interesting about 2Cor is the way he has to summon his full authority, and very reluctantly, to deal with people who thought Paul was a pussycat. 2Cor 10:9 I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. 10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”

  6. joepote01 says:

    A very good post, Tim!

    I agree with your assessment of Paul’s authoritative style in this first letter to the church in Corinth. I also see his second letter as reinforcing this understanding. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives a long list of items in which he exceeds those who have been putting him down, while simultaneously saying how foolish it is to even talk that way. It comes across as basically, “This is crazy to even have this discussion, but if these worldly views are what hold your attention, let me show you my qualifications.”

    And, yes, it is a good example of adapting our communication style to fit the culture. The fundamental message does not change, but how it is communicated must change.

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