Bible Study, Catholic, Catholicism, Christianity

Day 101 – Paul First Letter to the Thessalonians

Today we start Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

Through clues in the Bible this letter can be fairly dated to late A.D. 50 or early A.D. 51 and is most likely the oldest book in the New Testament.

We know from Acts 17 that Paul has success in converting a few Jews and many pagans while in Thessalonica, this success caused the leaders to unite against Paul and run him out of town. He is most likely writing back to them a short time later. Paul had to leave town quickly and left his young congregation without leadership or instruction. His purpose in writing is to encourage them. Thus, unlike Paul’s other letters this letter is more pastoral. It has a “you are doing a good job keep it up” sense as opposed to a “this is the mistake you need to fix” sense. Being the earliest writing it offers some unique clues to early Christianity.

First we see that we should pray for one another:

2* We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers 3* remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This passage also shows us that prayers should speak to God of the past (“give thanks” / “remembering”), present (work of faith / labor of love) and future (always / steadfastness). We also see the three great Christian virtues Faith, Hope and Love mentioned in this passage. Notice also Paul proud of their work, their labor and their steadfastness.

Next we know that at this point there was no Bible. So how did these Christians learn the Gospel? We know that Paul taught them but look at what Paul says they did:

6* And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; 7* so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

They taught by example. They learned by doing! They didn’t read how to baptize, they saw Paul baptize and they copied him. They didn’t argue about faith v. works, they lived their faith by their works. They saw how Paul lived and they copied him (and the Lord), instinctively knowing (and inspired by the Holy Spirit) that this is what they must do. This is sacred tradition. The passing on of the Gospel by teaching and doing is what the Jesus commissioned the Apostles to do. By following the example of those who came before us the truth of the faith is transmitted organically.

For example, remember in Acts 19 when Paul met some converts that had never heard of the Holy Spirit. These were Christian disciples yet they didn’t know anything about the Holy Spirit. Remember that immediately clued Paul in that they had only been baptized by John and had not received Christian baptism. Paul knew this because Jesus said to baptize, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. So Paul immediately baptizes them. The tradition of how baptism is done is important because it protects the essential truth of the Trinity and insures that each new convert is explicitly told of this mystery at the time of their baptism.

This is the great history and tradition of the Church. Today, we read the bible and debate the meaning of verses of scripture. Reading the bible is important and debating the meaning of scripture can helpful but until the last 100 years or so most of the western world was illiterate. Today, about half the world remains illiterate. How does one pass on the truth of faith without altering it? This is what the work of the Church has been for 2,000 years and still is. Tradition and Sacraments are its tools Baptism teaches the trinity, confirmation insures every convert is known to the Bishop, Marriage teaches the trinity (husband and wife become one flesh and produce a new creation mirrors Father, Son and Holy Spirit), confession teaches repentance, the anointing of the sick teaches are utter and total dependence on God, and most importantly the Eucharist, the summit of the Christian faith, imparts the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

The Mass is tradition, established at the Last Supper in the upper room, we see it reenacted on the road to Emmaus, we see Paul tell us of it, and find it recorded as early as the first century in a work called “the didache” and again in the early 100’s in the First Apology of Justyn Martyr. From the beginning the scriptures were read at Mass. Every mass has a reading from the Old Testament, from the Psalms, from the New Testament and from one of four Gospels. An illiterate world learned the Gospel because Jesus established the tradition of having it read and explained to them at Mass.

Other traditions of the Church protect other great truths. Catholics bless themselves with Holy Water upon entering a Church; this reminds us of our Jewish roots of ritual purity and our baptism. We kneel before entering the pew to remind us we are in the presence of God. We have palms on Palm Sunday, Lent reminds of the Exodus, Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and prepares us for the joy of the resurrection.

Tradition also protects doctrine. Things that have been traditionally taught cannot be changed. Could a Pope or Bishop now change something that has been taught since the days of Peter and Paul? Of course not. That is why things like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the necessity of baptism, traditional marriage, the prohibition against divorce, the sinfulness of sexual acts outside of marriage, and the prohibitions against the ordination of women cannot change. The world moves on but the Church, through tradition, stays firmly rooted in the teaching of the Apostles.

This has been the way of the Church since Paul went to Thessalonia.

11 thoughts on “Day 101 – Paul First Letter to the Thessalonians”

  1. “Tradition also protects doctrine. Things that have been traditionally taught cannot be changed. Could a Pope or Bishop now change something that has been taught since the days of Peter and Paul? Of course not.”
    Jesus built his Church upon the rock that was Peter, so tradition tells us that Peter was the First pope and Peter was married, Luke 4:38- “38 And he arose out of the synagogue, and entered into Simon’s house. And Simon’s wife’s mother was taken with a great fever; and they besought him for her.”
    , so if that’s the case, who changed the rules so that priests aren’t allowed to marry? It had to be a pope, right?

    And Paul in his first letter to Timothy wrote,

    1 Timothy 4 King James Version (KJV)
    4 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
    2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
    3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

    So, isn’t the church forbidding it’s priests to marry and commanding the Church to not eat meat on Fridays during lent? Doesn’t that seem like the Church changing the early teachings of Paul and Peter?

    1. Daley – Thanks for commenting

      All tradition must be rooted in scripture and you site some verses that seem to comment on the matter. Let’s look at what scripture says directly on the subject. Our Lord says,

      “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others–and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:12

      Jesus is obviously talking about people who are not having sexual relations. Jesus is saying that some people will choose to abstain from sexual relations for God. This isn’t for everybody but those that can choose it should.

      Saint Paul also recommends it. He writes,

      5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 1 Cor 7: 5-7

      So Paul is saying a husband and wife should have regular sexual relations but he wishes that all were as he is – from the context we can tell he means celibacy. Later in the same chapter he says:

      I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

      So he discusses the subject of unmarried men being free to serve the Lord.

      Therefore we can see from these verses that celibacy is RECOMMENDED by Jesus and Paul but it is NOT REQUIRED. Consequently, the Catholic Church has always said that the celibacy of priests is a discipline, not a dogma. Disciplines can change but dogmas cannot.

      In fact, there have been at different times different rules for the marriage of priests. Even right now, Roman Catholic priests do not marry but the tradition in Eastern Catholic Churches (not orthodox but Eastern Rite Catholic that also follow the Pope) is of married priests. There are even Roman Catholic priests that are married, usually when an priest converts from another denomination and being already married is re-ordained as a Catholic priest.

      In theory, the Pope could change the discipline of unmarried celibate priests in the Roman Catholic branch of the Church however it is unlikely any would ever do so as the vast majority of priests agree that while difficult when they are young it is a vital part of their ministry. Finally, one thing the Pope could never do is the opposite – require priests to be married as the freedom to choose celibacy was been given to them by the Lord.

      Now let us look at the verse you cite about Peter. It is absolutely clear that he was married. However it is also fairly certain that he was a widower. The scripture does not say it directly however the absence of any mention of his wife is striking. The verse even says that when his mother –in-law was healed that she waits on them. However, if Peter’s wife was there it would have been her responsibility to wait on the guests. That Peter was widowed is an ancient tradition, not conclusive but fairly reliable. Regardless of whether she was alive or dead again the option to become celibate would have been Peter’s choice.

      As for the verse you cite from 1 Timothy. We have to look at this in the context of the above other information on celibacy. The verse talks about “forbidding to marry”, therein is the key. The Church does not forbid priests to marry. It asks them to voluntarily take a vow of celibacy before they are ordained. Thus we can be certain that the phrase is not talking about vows of celibacy.

      This passage is speaking of institutions that will forbid marriage generally. This prophecy has been fulfilled at least 2 times already. First, the Gnostics, who believed the body was a shell holding back the spirit. They forbade all earthly pleasures, including marriage. Second, in Rome, around AD 250 forbid marriage until men first served in the Army. (As an aside that is why Saint Valentine is associated with love b/c he married couples in spite of the Roman prohibition). In contrast, the Church loves marriage. It’s never forbidden marriage. If anything it’s being accused now of being unreasonably pro-marriage.

      It is the same analysis with regard to the reference to eating meat. The church does not prohibit Catholics from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Rather, it asks us to voluntarily abstain from meat during the season of lent as a sign of penance. Notice to the rest of the verse about meat. It says, “… commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving”. This recalls Peter’s vision when God ordained the Old Testament prohibitions on meat ended and all meats clean. Thus, the verse is not condemning a temporary abstaining from one type of meat (that was clean in the first place) it is really condemning any attempt to return to the old dietary restrictions and of declaring whole categories of food, like pork, off limits. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled multiple times as well.

      The bottom line is the Church’s teaching on celibacy and married priest is consistent with all the scriptures.

  2. “The Church does not forbid priests to marry. It asks them to voluntarily take a vow of celibacy before they are ordained.”
    If they don’t take the vow, are they still allowed to become priests?

    1. No but that doesn’t mean its not voluntary. When you join the military you agree to listen to the orders of you superiors. You know the rules going in. You either join or you don’t.

  3. “Therefore we can see from these verses that celibacy is RECOMMENDED by Jesus and Paul but it is NOT REQUIRED. Consequently, the Catholic Church has always said that the celibacy of priests is a discipline, not a dogma. Disciplines can change but dogmas cannot.”

    If you can’t be a priest without taking the vow of celibacy, then I would say that being celibate is REQUIRED.

    1. First, your holding the Church to a standard that you would not hold other organizations. You can’t be a cop if your not going to wear the uniform. You can’t be firefighter if your not going to stay at a certain level of physical fitness. Etc.

      Second, there are married non-celibate priests in the Catholic Church. Again, these are largely in the Eastern rites but they are in the Roman rite too. The tradition of priestly celibacy took hold more strongly in the Roman rite and proved so effective that it became the standard.

      Third, one cannot consider a recommendation from Jesus and Paul on the same level as where is a good place to go for dinner tonight. If Jesus says, “I recommend you do X”, you better believe I’m going to do X. That doesn’t mean that there is not room for exceptions or qualifications to the recommendation but a recommendation from Jesus must be taken with the utmost serious as establishing the norm for the standard of behavior.

      Finally, if establishing a Church with a hierarchy and giving it authority Jesus clearly gave the Church the ability to govern itself internally. That is why celibacy is defined as a discipline not a dogma. The Church has the inherent ability to define who can be its ministers and what the rules for living the life of minister should be. Granted we believe and practice a process of discernment of God’s will on these things and believe that God guides the Church.

  4. and also, “When you join the military you agree to listen to the orders of you superiors.” Didn’t we have the greatest superiors, in Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul, tell us what to do, only to have things changed down the road?

    When the Church was participating in the Inquisition, was that Church following the orders of its superiors, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit or was that the Church following the orders it’s earthly superiors, the pope, bishops, etc?

    1. As I expiated in the previous reply, Jesus, Peter and Paul do not command that Priests be allowed to marry. In fact, they strongly recommend the opposite. Again, we have absolute evidence that Jesus and Paul were unmarried and celibate. So how is giving a priest the choice before ordination diverging from their example? We also know that Peter was married at some point. Even if he remained married his entire life (which as previously explained is unlikey) we have no evidence that any of the other 11 apostles were married. We also know that most of the early Church fathers were either unmarried or remained married and gave up sexual relations after ordination. On balance the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the Church’s position.

      As for the inquisition this is a topic that is often used as a “gotcha” when most people don’t know much about it. First, there was not one inquisition. There were dozens. Inquisitions were just theological courts they were established in almost every country. When people say “the inquisition” they are generally referring to the Spanish inquisition. In that country a unique situation developed.

      You may be aware the Spain was invaded and occupied by the Muslims for several hundred years. Eventually they were driven out but another century or so of war followed as the Muslims tried to recapture the country. The constantly shifting border created a situation where you often didn’t know who was an enemy and who was friend. An army invades a town and 1/2 the population might switch sides the next day – if only to stay alive. Thus, the commitment to your religious beliefs became a paramount question, NOT for the Church but for the RULERS. If you weren’t Christian you were a potential traitor. The result was that neighbors would often accuse neighbors of heresy. Sometimes out of valid concern, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes as a way of eliminating enemies / business rivals / etc.

      The king, not the Church, would want to put those accused of heresy to death. The accused would ALMOST ALWAYS invoke their right to be tried for heresy in front of the inquisition. The inquisition was remarkably fair. It acquitted most people and if it didn’t most people recanted their heresy and were freed. The idea that torture was used is a historical exaggeration. It was threatened but rarely used. To the extent it was you have to consider the times. These people considered the salvation of your soul of paramount importance and any suffering in this world was well worth your eternal salvation. Finally, the idea that the Church executed anyone is anther historical exaggeration. A person found guilty of heresy would be returned to the royal courts. A sentence of death might be imposed but it wasn’t a forgone conclusion.

      For more accurate info on the inquisition visit he website of historian and professor Steve Weidenkopf: http://ourcatholichistory.com/

  5. “That doesn’t mean that there is not room for exceptions or qualifications to the recommendation but a recommendation from Jesus must be taken with the utmost serious as establishing the norm for the standard of behavior.”

    Matthew 23:9King James Version (KJV)
    9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

    Is this one of those things were Jesus recommends that we do something, but since the Church says it ok, we can do it. I’m referencing the fact that we call priests, “father”

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