Was Paul an abuser before he was converted?
Prior to his conversion, Paul was on a religious crusade to crush the idea that this dead guy Jesus was the Messiah. Paul thought that idea was blasphemous to God, so he was trying to stop it spreading. He was wanting to protect the people of God from being sucked into that error. He fervently persecuted Christians, thinking he was serving God in doing so. He described this fervency when he was addressing the Jews from the steps of the Roman fortress in Jerusalem after the riot had been quelled by the Roman soldiers:
Men, brethren and fathers, hear my answer, which I make to you.
When they heard that he spoke in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence.
And he said, I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and thoroughly taught in the law of the fathers. And I was fervent-minded toward God, as you all are this same day. And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prison both men and women, as the chief priest bears me witness, and all the elders – from whom also I received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring those who were there as prisoners to Jerusalem, to be punished. (Acts 22:1-5, NMB)
But on the road to Damascus, Paul was confronted by the light and heard Jesus speaking to him, and he realised he was wrong! He realised that Jesus is God. With that conviction he immediately asked, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” (Acts 9:5, 22:6-10)
An abuser, by our definition, is a person who believes that for his own selfish gratification he is entitled to disrespect, mistreat and wield power and control over those he targets with his abuse. (I used the masculine pronoun generically in that sentence.)
In his persecution of Christians, Paul did not evidence the base fleshly lust that characterises the abuser’s mindset and conduct. Paul did not think “It’s all about me!” Paul was trying to obey and serve God. And he was zealous in keeping the Law. Paul was not motivated by mere selfish gratification. He believed he was serving God by crushing the Christians.
Paul simply hadn’t yet believed that Jesus was God. Contrast this with an abuser: the abuser never wants to obey and serve God. He actually wants to BE God. And the abuser wants his targets to treat him like God.
Paul testified that he received mercy because he did it ignorantly and in unbelief. This is not to excuse his slaughter of the Christians.
Paul said what convicted him was the law “you shall not covet”. Paul says he died—was slain—by the law:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. But I would not have known what sin meant, if not by the law. For I would not have known what coveting meant unless the law had said, You shall not covet. But sin took occasion by the means of the commandment, and wrought in me all manner of inordinate desire. For without the law, sin was dead. I once lived without law.
But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I was dead. And the very same commandment that was ordained for life, was found to be to me an occasion of death. For sin took occasion by the means of the commandment, and thus deceived me, and by the same commandment slew me.
(Rom 7:7-11, NMB)
We do not know whether the Apostle Paul ever had a wife, but the chances are he was married at some point prior to his conversion. I say this with a fair degree of confidence, because religious Jews took “go forth and multiply” as a command to marry and bear children. It was the norm for Pharisees to be married men.
Paul may have been a widow when he was converted. Early death from infection and disease was common; many women died in childbirth; any bacterial infection could lead to death in the days before antibiotics.
But what we can know for sure is that Paul didn’t do the kinds of things abusers do to their family members. We know this because Paul testifies that before his conversion he was blameless according to the law and traditions of the fathers, at least as far as outward observance:
…as for the righteousness that is in the law, I was unrebukeable. (Phil 3:6, NMB)
The righteousness that is in the law that God gave through Moses stipulates that it is a sin to abuse another person.
Pastor Sam Powell has heard many testimonies from abused women and I’m quoting Sam’s words with his permission —
Paul didn’t burn his wife with cigarettes because he got off on it. He didn’t rape his children or other people’s children. He didn’t call his loved ones fat and stupid and lazy and not worth loving. He didn’t go to synagogue and sing hymns of praise and then go home and abuse his wife just for fun, knowing he could get away with it.
Paul never had a sense of entitlement where he enforced absolute terror on his family, cause them to fear every waking moment. He didn’t keep them awake at night in order to terrify them into submission. He didn’t beat his children until blood ran down their legs. He didn’t pimp out his daughters or get drunk and push his wife down the stairs because she wouldn’t give him sexual intercourse. He didn’t starve his children, and make them watch him eat while they starved because they looked at him wrong.
And the church respond to those wives by saying, “Paul was a sinner too, and he repented. You still don’t have cause for divorce. You need to take him back.”
Sometimes victims are killed, like a woman in Minneapolis who was killed by her husband after her pastor told her she had to take him back. Sometimes victims are excommunicated for contumacy, and left penniless and friendless.
And far too often the person who systematically raped and terrorized is still accepted by the visible church as a member in good standing. And the abuser continues scutinising the church attenders, looking for victims to rape, abuse and terrorize.
The church did not simply accept Paul’s word that he had changed. As Sam Powell noted, “The church in Antioch only received Paul because they had supernatural revelation.” (see Acts chapter 9).
The story of Saul/Paul is perhaps the only narrative in the Bible where a persecutor of the church changed instantly and miraculously. That is not the norm. God sometimes brings a person to regeneration very quickly, but the normal means of grace to bring a soul to repentance and rebirth are the preaching of the Word, the sacraments and church discipline.
UPDATE. Thanks to a suggestion from a new commenter, I would like to amend what I said in the above paragraph. The amendment is in red.
Sacraments and church discipline are not the same as hearing the gospel preached. By themselves sacraments and church discipline do not lead to regeneration. Hearing the gospel preached can and does, by God’s sovereign grace, lead some souls to repent unto the faith that brings rebirth / regeneration.
Hearing the gospel preached can and does prompt born-again Christians to conviction and repentance in their ongoing walk while they live out their lives in their mortal bodies in this temporal world.
But so far in my searching of scripture, I can find no scriptural warrant to say that the sacraments, or the right use of church discipline can, in and of themselves, without the preaching or reading of the Word, bring a person to rebirth.
Paul was not an abuser by my definition. Here is how the ACFJ ministry defines abuse:
Definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or in-actions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his* target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.
Definition of a domestic abuser: a family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he* chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.
* Sometimes the genders are reversed—see our posts about male survivors.