If the apostle Paul were a preacher today, he’d probably end up robbing Peter

One of the most famous passages in The Brothers Karamazov, has to do with the existentialist Ivan Karamazov telling his brother a parable called “The Grand Inquisitor.” The parable examines what would happen if Christ returned to the contemporary world of Christendom. The result, Ivan tells us, would be no different from his first experience — he would be charged and sentenced to execution.

In his 1993 expose of evangelicalism’s theological demise, No Place for Truth, David Wells gives a similar scenario for the apostle Paul. Wells doesn’t think Paul would fare too well in today’s church climate (pp. 290-291):

We can only guess how well the apostle Paul might have fared had he sought pastoral employment among evangelicals today, but we would not be risking much to suppose that he would start out with a few strikes against him. Happily, there would be a constituency deeply appreciative of his teaching and service. But he would not be without his critics. Indeed, they might very well be numerous. Some churches would doubtless be delighted that he was willing to support himself and leave more of the church budget for other matters, but more professionalized congregations would probably be embarrassed by this. Who, they might ask, really wants a cut-rate pastor?

Wells continues:

Few would warm to his personality, and that would be no small matter. Today, most pastors stand or fall today by their personalities rather than their character. Many would be agitated about his insistence on discipline in the church. Many would be offended by his refusal to grant the legitimacy of each person’s private views so long as they were held sincerely. His insistence that truth is given objectively in Christ, not subjectively through private intuition as the pagans thought, would make him strangely out of touch.

It’s been over a decade since No Place for Truth was published, yet personality seems to remain a driving criterium for what one considers in a pastor. Strangely, the death knell these days for a pastor is to be boring. Preachers today can get by for a while with theological inaccuracy, but heaven forbid a pastor ever be boring. Again, Wells:

Indeed, his preaching, judged by contemporary standards, would be considered by many a failure because the brief summaries that we have of what he did show no penchant for telling stories at all. Besides, Paul was apparently in the habit of extending his discourses long beyond the twenty minutes to which many churches would limit him. He would probably end up provoking a churchly insurrection — for all the wrong reasons. Few would be able to make much sense of his concern with the connections between New Testament faith and Old Testament promises, because the Old Testament is terra incognita in the Church today.

Wells neglects to mention Paul’s bald head and bow-leggedness. With a history of putting people to sleep with his sermons, Paul’s resume would look pretty bleak.

His passionately theological mind would get him into trouble on two counts: his preaching would be judged hopelessly irrelevant because its theological focus would put it out of step with modern habits, and his passion would simply prove embarrassing. His vision of God’s purposes in the world, one supposes, would probably seem interesting but, in the small world of church life, not really compelling. And so the difficulties would mount. Paul would probably be condemned to flit from place to place, not out of choice but necessity, never finding secure lodging anywhere, his resume fatally scarred by his many pastoral failures until, abandoned and worn out, he would be left to pass his closing days in a home for the aged.

It’s pretty safe to conclude from Wells’ thesis that Paul would have little work in today’s church marketplace. The fact that church is even treated as a marketplace doesn’t help the matter. Since the Chinese have pretty much cornered the market on tentmaking, Paul’s only chance for income might be robbing his old friend Peter.