St. Paul Logo Graphic

March 9, 2009

In the chapel of the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Edmonton are 12 stained glass windows. Each window has a representation of one of the apostles. There is, however, no representation of St. Paul.

This is interesting because almost all of Paul's letters begin with his proclaiming he is an apostle. At times, he is quite insistent about this. His being an apostle validates his authority.

Yet, the Acts of Apostles doesn't include Paul among the 12 apostles. It says those who are included among the apostles are "men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us" (1.22).

Acts, however, does devote well over half of its text to Paul's ministry. It does not minimize Paul's ministry or his authority. But, except for one fleeting reference (14.14), it refrains from describing him as an apostle.


Perhaps it is a moot point. Paul's letters are part of the canon of Scripture – they have been accepted for the ages as the inspired word of God. The later Church fathers do refer to Paul as an apostle, or simply as The Apostle, and throughout Church history he has generally been seen as one. As well, after Jesus, Paul is surely the most influential figure in the history of the Church.

Moreover, Paul's arguments in his letters are not arguments from authority – he does not expect people to accept them simply because he is Paul and what he says is therefore true. He argues, persuades and cajoles his readers into agreeing with him. He respects their own authority and their consciences.

Paul's letters are not addressed to the leaders of Christian communities, but to the churches themselves. He appears to see the life of the people of God as most important.

The way Paul talks about authority and the way he speaks with authority in the letters is charismatic. He does not devote a lot of attention to the importance of the hierarchy. He, for example, talks more about prophecy than about prophets, more about leadership than about leaders.

Protestant scholars have sometimes described this as though there were a sharp opposition between charismatic and hierarchical authority and that the early Church was untainted by man-made hierarchy.

They put considerable stock in Paul's view that the authority of the prophet is not invested in him or her by the Church or by its leaders. Prophecy is an inspiration directly from God.

But even the prophecies need to be tested. The transforming effect of prophecy and prophetic leadership can only be sustained if those gifts are formalized and institutionalized.

Paul pays little heed to that need for institutionalization. He seems to have believed that Christ's Second Coming was imminent and that there would be no need to secure the faithful proclamation of the Gospel over at least two millennia.

Late in life, he wrote three pastoral letters, two of which – 1 Timothy and Titus – begin to deal with the need for ongoing Church structure.


But even here, where the inspired author does discuss the role of overseers/bishops, presbyters and deacons, the emphasis is more on the personal qualities needed to assume these roles than on the responsibilities of these leaders. Nor is there any plea for the ordinary believer to obey the leaders.

In 1 Timothy, he says that one who desires to become a bishop "desires a noble task." Then he describes the bishop's character. He must be "above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome and no lover of money. . . ." (3.1-7).

In other words, he is to be a stalwart good citizen, but not someone who will set the world on fire. There is no mention of a need for the bishop to be a prophet.

The Church itself is now described as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 4.14), an important role in a sea of conflicting opinions to be sure, but a far cry from the expansive imagery of the Church as the bride of Christ found in Ephesians.

In short, we do not get a full picture of the structure of authority and ministry in the New Testament Church from Paul's writings. The charismatic elements of ministry are emphasized in his major letters, but that charismatic aspect cannot be separated too sharply from the structure of authority and order that Paul increasingly sees as important as the Church matures.

Pope Benedict has frequently distinguished the Marian and Petrine dimensions of life in the Church. The Petrine is the structure of order and governance. The Marian is that of holiness, faithful service and love.


The Church needs both to survive. But ultimately the Church draws its life more from love and holiness than from structure. We need leaders. We need saints even more. Paul was both. He longed for a Church where leaders were firm adherents to the truth as well as loving servants of the people.