Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. —Ephesians 3:7-10
For more than two thousand years Paul has stood at the head of the line of proficient Christian theologians. Paul stands head and shoulders above the many commentators who have filled libraries with their thoughts and ideas. And a good part of those thoughts and ideas are about what Paul said. It seems that Paul would be at the head of the line, not at the rear. How can Paul call himself “the very least of all the saints” (v. 8)? The phrase is the translation of one Greek word: ἐλαχιστότερος. It literally means the least of the least, or the smallest of the small, or the worst of the bad, etc.
How could Paul, who brought all of the skills and abilities previously discussed, think of himself as being least, smallest, or worst of the slew of humble, uneducated Christians, most of whom probably couldn’t even read, or couldn’t read much? Was Paul simply belittling himself to sufficiently cover the massive pride that dominated his previous life? How could Paul have been sincere in his self-deprecation?
First, we must assume that Paul’s assessment was both genuine and honest, that it was not a pretense to hide his pride. The Bible is true and it can be trusted to convey the truth. Allow me to compare my own situation with Paul’s in the hope that my experience might illuminate his.
Like Paul, my full conversion to Christianity came late. I was in my mid-thirties, and like Paul, I was not a stranger to religion because I had been interested in it since I was quite young. I grew up in a mainline Christian church and had an active interest in it ever since I can remember. My earliest Christian experience came in my early adolescent years. My earliest interests tended toward the philosophical. In college I majored in Philosophy, and studied various Eastern religions, which were popular at the time. In seminary I studied a couple of new religious movements close up. And by the time I found myself reborn in Christ, I had a lot of religious baggage and false ideas that needed to be straightened out. My conversion experience in the 1980s took several years to unfold. But eventually I came to understand how foolish I had been, looking for God in all the wrong places. I had a lot of false ideas that I had to unwind in order to understand and enjoy the simplicity of genuine Christianity.
Like Paul, I found that my studies and tangential religious rabbit hole hopping had been worse than a waste of time because I had to backtrack or undo so much of my previous thinking. It is in this sense that I can resonate with Paul’s comment about being the worst of the worst saints. Real Christianity or genuine faithfulness is not about all of the philosophical and theological complexity that clutters the annals of Christian history. Genuine faithfulness is more simple than Zen Buddhism because it is not trying to empty the mind, but is simply allowing the mind to be what it was created to be in the light of Christ.
True Christianity is not mysterious, it is ordinary. Sure, there are a lot of things that we don’t know, and there are a lot of things to learn, and we cannot ever perfectly understand everything. But we can trust what we do understand in the light of Christ, be it great or meager. In Christ our humanity and our individuality are completely fulfilled and complemented in and by the holiness and wholeness of Jesus Christ. And we can rest in that realization, that relationship.
Paul meant that all of his highfalutin education and his position and experience, his Phariseeism, had been in the way. It provided an obstacle to overcome that put him farther behind than those who did not need to overcome the stench of so much dung (Philippians 3:8).
(from Ephesians–Recovering the Vision of a Sustainable Church in Christ, forthcoming, 2014. I have also tweaked the title a bit.)