2 Corinthians 2:12-13 — Parental Anxiety

October 15, 2021

Sometimes somethings are more important than an open door.

That is the upshot of these two fascinating sentences in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13.

Earlier Paul had intended to visit Corinth, then go to Macedonia, and then return to Corinth before he left for Jerusalem. However, the circumstances in Corinth led Paul to change that travel plans. Instead, he sent Titus with a tearful letter that confronted the Corinthians about the events of his most recent and painful visit, particularly how the Corinthians had sided with the one who had opposed Paul.

Now Paul is awaiting word from Titus about how the Corinthians responded to his confrontational letter. Apparently, they had intended to rendezvous in Troas, and so Paul went to Troas where he anticipated seeing Titus. After reuniting, they would then proceed, presumably, to Corinth.  

In these two verses, 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, Paul not only explains why he went on to Macedonia instead of waiting in Troas but also reveals his deep concern and care for the Corinthians themselves.

His relationship with the Corinthians and the ministry of reconciliation in Corinth was more important than the open door in Troas.

Paul is a minister of the gospel of reconciliation. Moreover, his own sense of vocation is to sow the seed of the gospel in new places (Romans 15:20); he plows new ground for the gospel. Consequently, he went to Troas “to proclaim the good news (or, gospel) of Christ.” This is his vocation. Seemingly, he expected to stay there a while for the sake of the gospel with Titus before heading on to Corinth.

The gospel is central for Paul. Paul refers to “our gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:3) and the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4) as well as again proclaiming the “good news (gospel) of Christ” as his missional task (2 Corinthians 10:4). Further, he also warns the Corinthians that they had accepted among them (presumably the so-called “super apostles” or perhaps others) some who preach a “different gospel” as well as a “different Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

In fact, Paul is engaged in a defense of not only his missional vocation to proclaim the good news but of the gospel itself. This explains, in part, Paul’s lengthy digression (if that is a good word for it) from this travelogue in 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4: Paul identifies, explains, and defends his practice of the ministry of reconciliation through the gospel. Paul rehearses the nature of his ministry and gospel so that the Corinthians may understand what compels Paul and drives him to share this good news with others, which included the founding of the Corinthian congregation and was the rationale for his participation in the suffering of Christ.  

It was for the sake of preaching the gospel that Paul came to Corinth in the first place, and it is the reason that he continues to walk with them through thick and thin. Paul’s priority is the gospel and how it reconciles us with God and each other.

It is surprising, then, to hear Paul describe how he went to Troas to preach the gospel but decided to move on to Macedonia without taking advantage of the open door in Troas. It was an open door, but he did not walk through it. Understanding how deeply committed Paul is to his missional vocation to preach the gospel, it is rather unnerving to watch him pass up a golden opportunity to spread the aroma of Christ in a new place. (Paul had visited Troas previously, but it was a momentary stay as he was called to Macedonia through a vision; see Acts 16:6-10.)

Why would Paul pass up this opportunity? We can only imagine his own anguish and struggle with the decision. This was, as Paul said, an “open door in the Lord.” It was opened, it seems, by God. Paul recognized this divine moment but hurried on to Macedonia. Something, it seems, was more compelling for Paul.

Paul, in fact, tells us: Titus was not there. He had expected to meet Titus, but he had not yet arrived. Paul felt compelled to go to Macedonia in order to find him. Why was Paul compelled? Literally, his “spirit” could find no rest while waiting for Titus in Troas.

This reveals Paul’s deep love for and anxiety about the Corinthians. Paul continually professes his love for the Corinthians, which includes his desire for reconciliation and the renewal of their mutual joy.

This desire creates an anxiety. It is not so much a lack of faith in God but a restlessness about the relationship. It is an anxiety that arises from the burden Paul carries for the churches he has planted. It is, actually, part of his daily burden, even daily suffering. Indeed, it is the last item Paul mentions when he catalogs his suffering in 2 Corinthians 11.

He writes, “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Literally, the word “anxiety” refers to cares or concerns but can refer to worries or anxieties. This is the only time Paul uses this word in his writings.

His burden or care for the Corinthians, as with other congregations, created unrest in his spirit. He wanted to know the result of Titus’ visit. He wanted to know the well-being of their souls. He wanted to know whether reconciliation was possible.

Paul did not know the answer to those questions, and, consequently, he was restless. This was a moment of desolation for Paul, and he wanted consolation, that is, the kind that comes from God through the Corinthians who reciprocate Paul’s love and comfort his anxiety.

Perhaps an analogy might be helpful. It is the sort of anxiety a parent fills when alienated or uncertain about their relationship with their children. Paul is the father of the Corinthian congregation; they are his children (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). And he speaks to them as his children (2 Corinthians 6:13; 12:14). Paul is experiencing an acute form of parental anxiety.

As a result, Paul does not wait in Troas and explore the opportunity to share the gospel there but rushes to Macedonia in order to learn from Titus as quickly as possible how the Corinthians responded to his letter.

Sometimes we are faced with an opportunity to minister but are also filled with anxiety about another situation. Sometimes, perhaps, it is appropriate to resolve the anxiety before pursuing the opportunity.

This is a place in which people often find themselves. We are sometimes too troubled about a relationship—too wounded, hurt, consumed, anxious—to pursue a different opportunity. Just as Paul sought Titus, sometimes we must seek reconciliation with others before we are healthy enough or ready to pursue other ministry opportunities.

At the same time, the burden we carry for the churches is deep because our love for those congregations is deep as well. The depth of love correlates with the depth of anxiety when the relationship is wounded, broken, or under repair. Sometimes the work of repair is more important than new opportunities.

It is good to feel this burden. It is a healthy anxiety or care; we want what is best for congregations. We seek their renewal, reconciliation, and repair. This is Paul’s passion for the Corinthians. It is also, I hope, our passion for people and congregations.

2 Corinthians 2:5-11 – Forgiveness

October 9, 2021

The one who grieved Paul (and the Corinthian congregation as a whole) should not be burdened with excessive grief but forgiven and consoled. Paul does not seek revenge for the wrong but reconciliation.

That is a bold claim. Apparently, the severe letter Paul wrote after his second (painful) visit addressed the problem this particular individual imposed. This is our first indication of the content of Paul’s letter, which, of course, no longer exists (unless it is found in 2 Corinthians 10-13).

In that letter, Paul opposed a person who had caused him great pain. Paul describes him as “the offender”—the one who wronged Paul (2 Corinthians 7:12). Perhaps he attacked Paul’s ministry style, gifts, or authority. Or, perhaps this person was one of the impenitent ones with respect to sexual immorality. Traditionally, the person has been identified with the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5. While some still contend for that identification, most modern readers have questioned it. In reality, we don’t know the specifics, though it seems likely that the problem is related to some of the misgivings of other Corinthians and/or the “super-apostles” rather than any sexual immorality. But we can’t be sure.

Whatever the case, the severe letter had a positive outcome (as 2 Corinthians 7:5-12 confirms). Apparently, Paul learned the outcome from Titus who reported the Corinthian response. A majority of the Corinthians responded by, in some sense, punishing the offender. Perhaps that included the exclusion of this person from the community. This kind of discipline (also envisioned in 1 Corinthians 5 for the incestuous man) intends to create an awakening by distancing people from their beloved community, which, it is hoped, creates a desire to return to the community. At the very least, it seems, it protects the community from further harm.

It seems this “punishment by the majority” had its intended effect. The offender was now overwhelmed with grief, a “godly grief” (1 Corinthians 7:11). The offender had repented and sought reconciliation.

It is important to recognize this move. Paul is not suggesting reconciliation for those who willingly and deliberately continue in their sins, abuse their victims, and continue to prey on others out of their own self-interests. Paul is not describing an impenitent offender. In fact, Paul will not “spare” the impenitent (2 Corinthians 12:21-13:2).

Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the ministry of reconciliation with regard to this offender. He called upon them to “forgive and console” the penitent offender. Just as God forgives (shows grace to us) and consoles us (as in 2 Corinthians 1:3-8), so they are to forgive and console this penitent offender. They are to treat him as Paul has treated them and, more importantly, according to the grace of the gospel founded in God’s own identity. In this way, the Corinthians would “reaffirm [their] love” for the offender; they would reaffirm the love of God in the community.

Forgiveness is the atmosphere in which the community of Christ lives. The Corinthians forgive and Paul forgives. This forgiveness is God-driven, rooted in Christ, and other-centered. As Paul writes, he forgives “for your sake in the presence of Christ.”

Paul forgives for the sake of the Corinthians; it is for their benefit. He does this, literally, “in the face of Christ;” forgiveness happens with Christ as a witness or before Christ’s presence. Given what God has done in Christ (which is the ministry of reconciliation, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19), we forgive others because of Christ and with Christ watching. Living in the presence of Jesus forms us into a forgiving people.

Paul wrote in a confrontational manner to “test” their obedience to the apostolic witness. While the “offender” protested–in some sense–Paul’s ministry, the letter asked the Corinthians to distance themselves from him. The Corinthians did obey and passed the test. But now another test lies before them.

If the Corinthians are to embody the gospel and practice the ministry of reconciliation, they must forgive and console the offender. Forgiveness is also a matter of obedience to the gospel, an expression of the ministry of reconciliation. It is conformity to the gospel of grace in Jesus the Messiah. Paul wrote the severe letter, in part, to test their obedience to the gospel. This reflects both the seriousness of the problem in Corinth (whatever the offense was) and the importance of forgiveness within the community of Jesus for past offenders.

Whether the Corinthians forgive or not is, in fact, part of the conflict between God and Satan. Conflict, particularly between Paul and his opponents, appears over and over again within 2 Corinthians, and Paul frames this as a conflict between God and Satan. The identification of Satan as the protagonist who lies behind this conflict pervades 2 Corinthians. Paul names him (2:11; 11:14; 12:7), calls him “the god of this age” (4:4), “Beliar” (6:15), and “the serpent” (11:3). Satan is the premier opponent of the gospel, deceives people, and rules this present evil age. Satan has “designs” and intends to undermine the ministry of reconciliation in whatever way possible.

When the community of Jesus fails to forgive penitent offenders, it gives space for the wiles of the Devil and, in fact, has been “outwitted by Satan.” Or, to put it another way, when the community of Jesus forgives penitent offenders, it subverts the reign of Satan and we watch Satan fall like lightning. Forgiveness is Christ’s victory over the designs of Satan.

At the same time, we must remember that reconciliation between believers is impossible when one of them persistently continues in their sinful practices. For example, predators and abusers in the community of faith should be “punished” (like this offender), and there is no reconciliation without confession, godly sorrow, and living amends (the fruit of repentance). Authentic repentance entails submission to the guidelines and healthy practices the community of faith puts in place in order to protect the flock as well as to welcome the penitent offender.

Paul’s language gives no sanction to forgiven offenders who protest communal practices that ensure the safety of the community due to their history, and neither does it demand reconciliation for those who are impenitent, arrogant, and resistant to healthy practices and guidelines that are committed to the ethics and goals of the ministry of reconciliation. Forgiven offenders seek peace rather than self-justification. They do not demand their own rights.

The forgiveness Paul describes here is a function of the ministry of reconciliation; it is about reconciliation. It forgives, consoles, and reaffirms love. It includes others in such a way that a wronged and grieved community is healed. Grief dissipates and joy is restored. In this particular text, Paul does not envision forgiveness without reconciliation.

At the same time, Paul does not seek revenge, harbor bitterness or malicious intent, or desire to harm offenders. But reconciliation between the abused and the abuser is impossible without repentance.

The ministry of reconciliation invites penitent offenders into a community of grace and forgiveness, and it does not “spare” those who arrogantly and persistently continue their offenses or insist on setting their own guidelines.

2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4 – Why Did Paul Change His Plans?

October 2, 2021

Some Corinthians thought Paul was fickle and unreliable because he changed his plans and did not show up in ways they expected or Paul had intimated. Paul responded that his decisions—his plan changes—were  rooted in God’s faithful grace rather than human wisdom.

There was more, however, to the situation than simply the rearrangement of Paul’s intended visits to Corinth. It is also involved the nature of Paul’s presence. In person he appeared weak and uninspiring, but his letters were bold and audacious. To Paul’s critics, it was obvious why he wrote letters in the place of visiting the congregation: Paul’s presence is ineffective.

Consequently, Paul needed to explain why he wrote a letter rather than visiting. In general, Paul made decisions according to the grace of God (1:11-1:22). In other words, his faithfulness to the grace of God moved him to write a letter rather than visit. More specifically, it was for the Corinthian’s own good that Paul wrote a letter rather than visiting. Paul acted in the best interest of the Corinthians, that is, writing a letter rather than visiting was the best way for Paul to pursue a ministry of reconciliation toward the Corinthians in faithfulness to God’s grace.

It Was to Spare You

God is central to Paul’s own identity as well as his relationship with the Corinthians. God’s own identity is the centrifugal reality that shapes their life together. Paul has already articulated this in several ways in this first chapter of 2 Corinthians.

  • God is merciful and consoling (1:3)
  • God raises the dead (1:9)
  • God is faithful (1:18)
  • God establishes believers (1:21)

Here, in 1:23, Paul appeals to God as a witness as to his motive for substituting a letter for a visit. Paul has already appealed to his conscience and integrity (1:12) but now appeals to God’s own integrity. He swears an oath upon his own life (literally, “soul”) in the presence of God, and such appeals occur elsewhere in 2 Corinthians (11:31; 12:19). Paul wants the Corinthians to know his decisions were made with a deep sense of his own integrity and before the presence of God.

The motive for writing instead of visiting? To “spare” the Corinthians.

As Paul explained later in the letter, he had warned them during his second visit that he would not “spare” the impenitent when he visited for a third time (13:2). While some had suggested that Paul was too weak and ineffective to act boldly toward his opponents and the impenitent, Paul had assured them that he would do so in accordance with the gospel. Exactly what that entailed is not necessarily clear at this point though future parts of the letter may help us understand what kind of action Paul had in mind. Neither is it entirely clear whether the problems are theological (doctrinal), moral, or both. At this point, Paul depends on their shared knowledge and experience, and he has no need to explain the details to the Corinthians. That leaves us—2000 years later—a bit in the dark.

At the same time, his intent to “spare” them expresses his desire to give space for their faith rather than lord it over or “control” (NRSV) their faith. The word kurieuomen (“we control” or “lord over”) is the verb form of kurios (Lord). Only Jesus is Lord and lords over the faith of others. Believers—brothers and sisters in the body—do not exercise lordship over each other, including Paul.

On the contrary, Paul, Timothy, and Silas (1:19), and perhaps Titus as well, are “co-workers” with the Corinthians. They, the apostolic team and the Corinthian believers, are co-participants in the mission of God, and the apostolic team wants to work with the Corinthians for their joy.

Joy is a rich, robust word. It is not a simple synonym for happiness, though there is semantic overlap. Joy expresses a deep sense of relationality, communion, and experience of God’s own life. The apostolic team wants to cultivate joy in the Corinthian community rather than hardship, grief, and conflict. It is something Paul wants to enjoy with the Corinthians so that his joy is also their joy and vice versa. This is part of the reality that the ministry of reconciliation produces—joy. In essence, Paul spares them a visit in this moment in order to serve the goal of the ministry of reconciliation between himself and the Corinthians. He wants to experience joy among them once again.

Paul does not seek to control their faith but work with them because the Corinthians, too, like Paul, “stand by faith” (NRSV). Actually the phrase may mean “stand in the faith” as well as “stand by faith.” Perhaps Paul is intentionally ambiguous, and either way the point is that “faith”—allegiance to the gospel of Jesus the Messiah as the revelation of God’s own faithfulness—is the realm or means by which the Corinthians remain in the presence of God and co-workers with Paul in the kingdom of God.

It Was To Avoid Further Grief

Joy is the end-game for Paul—shared ministry in the gospel of reconciliation. Paul seeks reconciliation with the Corinthians. Consequently, he wants to avoid disruptions to that process, including another conflict-ridden visit like his previous (second) one. That was a painful or grief-filled visit.

Paul is not specific about what caused the pain or why he experienced it as such. Whatever that cause (and more is revealed later in the letter), it is the opposite of Paul’s intent. Paul seeks their mutual joy rather than grief. When the Corinthians are grieved, Paul, too, is grieved. There is no joy in their relationship or in the gospel. In other words, another visit—at least in the immediate aftermath of the second one—had the potential of generating more grief than healing, and that did not serve the interests of Paul’s reconciling ministry.

Confrontation is sometimes necessary, but we also want to pursue the best possible means of securing reconciliation. Paul chose a letter rather than a visit, though another visit was in the immediate future.

In order to promote reconciliation and embody the gospel in their relationship, Paul shifts from making another visit to writing a letter. His letter is bold in its language and severe in its confrontation. But it arose out of the anguish and distress of his heart accompanied by “many tears.”

This conscientious appeal to God, his own conscience, and to the Corinthians for reconciliation—for joy—between himself and the Corinthians expresses Paul’s heart, which contains his “abundant love” for the Corinthians. While the letter may have produced grief and hurt among the Corinthians, Paul does not write it to generate pain but to secure mutual joy in the gospel.

Paul’s commitment to the gospel of reconciliation is at stake in his relationship with the Corinthians. He ministers in the gospel for the sake of the world, including the Corinthians. His heart is breaking; his life has lost some of its joy. Consequently, he confronts the Corinthians not only because of his love for them as his children (he is the “father” of their congregation, 1 Corinthians 4:14-15), but because it is part of the ministry of reconciliation in which he and his apostolic team are engaged.

The Corinthians have become a sort of test case for the ministry of reconciliation itself. Can the gospel truly effect reconciliation? Can it last?

Paul’s heart is heavy with anguish and grief about the potential answer to that question between himself and the Corinthians.  He loves them, wants what is best for them, and seeks to know joy with them again. But at this moment—the moment between the painful letter and Paul’s reunion with Titus (2 Corinthians 7:5-12)—Paul is anxious about their response to his most recent letter (which is 2 Corinthians).

How will the Corinthians respond? That remains the open question at this point in 2 Corinthians.

2 Corinthians 1:12-22 — Operating by Grace Rather Than Worldly Wisdom

September 26, 2021

Paul makes ministry decisions according to the grace of God grounded in the faithfulness of God rather than according to fleshly or human wisdom rooted in self-interest and egoism. His goal is not to attain celebrity status within Greco-Roman culture but to embody God’s faithfulness for the sake of others.

Given Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, we might imagine the misgivings some had.

  • He appears fickle and unreliable in his plans; he does not do what he says he is going to do. It seems that with every encounter with Paul, he has a different travel schedule and fails to follow through on previous plans.
  • Paul’s history of suffering—from shipwrecks to beatings to imprisonments—is not the sort of credential that assures hearers that his message is true. Within a Greco-Roman context, suffering is not a strength but a weakness.
  • He is unimpressive in speaker with little rhetorical skill, and his presence is far from charismatic and striking. He sounds impressive from his letters, but in person he is weak and toothless.
  • He refused remuneration from Corinthian patrons, which made no sense in a Greco-Roman patronage system that respected teachers or philosophers typically followed.

The Corinthians, egged on by the “super-apostles” and Paul’s opponents in the community, have good cultural reasons to doubt Paul’s integrity and credentials, and this leads to doubting his message.

Paul does not fit the Greco-Roman cultural image of a respected and renowned teacher. But his response is: “No, I don’t, but I do represent the faithfulness of God who has established me with you!” That contrast is the subtle but foundational point of this opening to the body of the letter.

Paul’s Integrity (1:12-14).

Paul’s integrity, including the authenticity of his ministry, is the theme of the letter. This is Paul’s “boast” (or confidence).

This boast, however, is other-centered. He asserts his purity of motive—a singleness of purpose and a godly sincerity—in in order to say that he has conducted himself in this way for the sake of the Corinthians. His plans, and whatever changes that were made, did not serve his own interests but were directed primarily and abundantly toward the good of the Corinthians.

As such, his decisions are made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly or worldly wisdom. His decisions are not driven by some selfish motive or desire to elevate himself. Rather, they are driven by his experience of and commitment to the grace of God. Paul has no ulterior motives except to promote the grace of God in the lives of the Corinthians so that the Corinthians and Paul might “boast” in each other on the day when the Messiah appears again. Paul maintains his integrity and makes decisions according to the grace of God so that even now but also eschatologically the Corinthians would be Paul’s “boast” and Paul would be their “boast.” This boasting, we should recognize, is rooted in God’s grace rather than human pride.

Since this “boast” is Paul’s hope and goal, he wants the Corinthians to understand the nature of his ministry. They may understand in part, but they do not yet fully appreciate what this means for Paul. As the letter will reveal, the Corinthians don’t understand how suffering is an integral part of the ministry of reconciliation. Some, if not many, see it as a sign of weakness, but Paul understands it as an occasion for boasting.

Paul boasts in his weaknesses and suffering because the grace of God is his strength and the gospel includes the suffering of the Messiah himself. When the Corinthians see suffering as weakness, then they do not understand the gospel. If they don’t understand the gospel, then they cannot fully understand Paul’s approach to the ministry of reconciliation. This is why Paul will spend the major portion of this letter unpacking that ministry (2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4).

Changing Travel Plans (1:15-18)

Nevertheless, the constant change in Paul’s travel plans created doubt (perhaps suspicion) among the Corinthians. Why can’t Paul keep his word?

In 1 Corinthians 16:5-11, Paul expected to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia, then returning to Macedonian before once again visiting Corinth (“a double favor,” Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians 1:15). At that time, he was uncertain where or what he would do when he left Corinth.

In contrast to that expectation, Paul made an emergency visit to Corinth from Ephesus. This second visit was a “painful” one (2 Corinthians 2:1). Instead of going to Macedonia and then returning to Corinth, he sailed back to Ephesus but with an apparent promise to return to Corinth. Instead of returning, he sent a “severe letter” with Titus (2 Corinthians 2:4) and waited to hear from Titus. Thus, it was charged, Paul is more bold with his letters than with his presence!

Instead of coming to Corinth and then heading to Macedonia, Paul ultimately meets Titus in Macedonia. Paul, it seems, says or promises one thing, and then does something else.

Paul’s Plan in 1 CorinthiansPaul’s Plan after the 2nd VisitWhat Paul Actually Did
Located in EphesusLocated in EphesusLocated in Ephesus
  Went to Corinth
  Returned to Corinth
  Wrote the Severe Letter
 Go to CorinthSent Titus to Corinth
Go to MacedoniaFrom Corinth to MacedoniaWent to Macedonia
From Macedonia to CorinthFrom Macedonia to CorinthPlans to come to Corinth
From Corinth to ???From Corinth to JudeaPlans to go to Judea

It is rather easy to see how Paul is charged with saying “Yes and No” as if he were talking out of both sides of his mouth. Some may hear him saying what he needs to say to protect himself, advance his interests, and promote his status. He changes like the wind out of his own self interests. He does not want to deal with the Corinthians personally or perhaps particularly his opponents (including the “super-apostles”). He stays away and writes letters.

Paul admits he changed his plans. His intent when he wrote 1 Corinthians 16 was sincere but things changed on the ground. And he provides an explanation in the next section of the letter (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4). But he is more concerned about the charge of insincerity and unreliability. Consequently, he addresses this first.

This is the crux: did Paul change his plans for his own sake or for the sake of the Corinthians? To what was Paul ultimately faithful? Was he faithful to his commitment to the gospel for the sake of the Corinthians or to his own self-promotion and ego?

Paul did change his mind, but his adjustment is not a matter of fleshly wisdom but is faithfulness to his love for Corinth, for their best interest.  Paul’s commitment to Corinth is his “Yes.” Paul’s integrity means he will change his travel plans if it is better for the Corinthians to do so. Paul is not living in a “Yes and No” mindset but is living out the gospel-shaped character that loves the Corinthians so that he might be their boast and they his on the day of the Lord Jesus.

The Faithfulness of God—why Paul is faithful (1:19-22)

Paul is faithful because God is faithful. 

The message Silas, Timothy, and Paul heralded (proclaimed) among the Corinthians was the faithfulness of God in the gift of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus, God said “yes” to the divine intent to redeem the world from its sin and rescue it from the powers of evil in the world. Every promise of God is “Yes” in Jesus the Messiah. And the response of believers, in their hearts and in their assemblies, is “Amen!”

Paul’s message, then, was never “Yes and No,” but “Yes.” His commitment to the gospel means that Paul seeks to announce a “Yes” among the Corinthians, the “Yes” of the message of God in Christ.

Consequently, whenever Paul changes his travel plans, it is not about his comfort. He suffers for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation, for the sake of the gospel. Rather, it is guided by the grace of God. This is a godly wisdom that seeks the best interest of the other toward the goal of a mutual boast on the day of the Lord Jesus.

Paul changed his plans because of his faithfulness to the ministry of reconciliation, which expressed the faithfulness of God whose “Yes” appears in Jesus Christ. Paul was faithful to his commitment to the gospel when he changed his plans because he changed them so that the Corinthians might hear the gospel more effectively. He changed his plans for their sake.

What lies behind these decisions—made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly wisdom—is the ongoing work of God in the lives of Paul and the Corinthians. God, Paul wrote, “establishes us with you in Christ.” 

This language is foundational and pregnant with meaning. God is the actor; God establishes, confirms, or provides a foundation upon which to stand. Jesus the Messiah is the reality in which this happens; we are established in or by our union with Christ. Paul and the Corinthians experience this as a shared reality; Paul is established “with you”—it is mutual. God, in Christ, establishes a community (Paul and the Corinthians), and God continues to do this. The verb is present tense.

This process of establishing—the continual activity of God—to form us into a community in Christ is grounded in God’s past (and present as well) pneumatological (Spirit) act:

  • God anointed us
  • God sealed us
  • God gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment

God anointed us with the Spirit, just as God anointed Jesus with the Spirit. This is more than delighting in the anointed one. It is also a commission. The anointed are invested with a mission. Christians (those who belong to the Christ) are also anointed as the Christ was, and we are commissioned to follow Jesus into his ministry and participate in the mission he was given by God as God’s Anointed.

God sealed us with the Spirit, just as God sealed Jesus with the affirmation: “you are my son, whom I love; I am delighted with you.” God seals those who belong to him. Our identity is found in God’s community rather than the world. We act out of the grace of God rather than making decisions according to fleshly wisdom.

God gave the Spirit to us by pouring the Spirit into our hearts by whom we cry “Abba, Father.” God communes with us through the Spirit. To give the Spirit to our hearts is to enable an intimacy that exceeds God’s presence or immanence within the creation. This is true because this is an eschatological gift—it comes to us from a future dwelling with God that is face-to-face and full. As yet, we know this through the experience of the Spirit as a first installment or a down payment, but this first payment is a guarantee of what is to come. Our present experience of intimacy with God is the promise of a future intimacy that is beyond our imagination.

Some suggest, with good reason, that perhaps Paul is alluding to a common past experience that all believers have and share with Jesus himself: baptism. When we are baptized into Christ, we are anointed, sealed, and given the Spirit of God. While Paul is not explicit about this and his emphasis lies on the Spirit, the past tense (aorist), language, and relation to Jesus generate a baptismal allusion. This is the shared experience of believers in Christ. We can rightly imagine that the Corinthians would have recalled their baptism with this language. We can recall ours as well.


Paul heralds this message: God has faithfully kept his promises for the redemption of the world through Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. God has said “Yes” to the groans and cries of the world ravaged by death, sin, and the powers of evil.

Paul’s ministry also says “Yes!” His commitment to the faithfulness of God and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah means he will behave in the world according to the grace of God rather than according to worldly wisdom. While this means Paul will also suffer with Jesus, he will nevertheless seek the best interests of others through the gospel. Consequently, he will change his plans when it serves the interests of the proclamation of the gospel for the sake of others.

Paul is not fickle. He is committed. But his commitment is to the gospel of Jesus, the grace of God, and the work of the Spirit rather than boasting about his credentials. The ministry of reconciliation is his credential, not his own exploits and pride.

Part of Paul’s intent, then, is to deepen the Corinthian understanding of that ministry and the nature of the gospel. If they understand the gospel—including the cross of Jesus, then they will understand Paul’s affliction for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. When they understand that, it will clarify why Paul boasts in his weaknesses and afflictions rather than in his credentials.

2 Corinthians 1:1-11 – Salutation and Doxology

September 20, 2021

The God who raises the dead addresses desolation with consolation through the suffering and victory of Jesus the Messiah.

Salutation (2 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Like most letters in the ancient Greco-Roman world, 2 Corinthians begins with an identification of the sender and its recipients. In this case, Paul is the sender and the church at Corinth is the recipient.

The interest, however, is wider than simply Paul and Corinth. Timothy, who was Paul’s envoy to Corinth and had recently returned from there, is also a sender, and Achaia, which is the Roman province in which Corinth is located, is also a recipient. A wider community has a stake in the reconciliation of Paul and Corinth. Paul and Timothy address all of God’s holy ones (“saints”) in Achaia.

We, too, are part of this wider community as we read 2 Corinthians. As we overhear this letter, we enter into Paul’s narrative of gospel ministry to understand the dynamics of the ministry of reconciliation and what that means for our lives. Though the letter is not specifically written to us (it was written in Koine Greek, for example), we are nevertheless addressed in the sense that we share a common identity with these early believers: we are children of God of Israel, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Like the Corinthians, we also live in, under, and through the grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus.

Significantly, Paul’s self-description stresses his apostolic standing. He is an apostle of Jesus the Messiah by God’s will. In other words, (1) his ministry did not arise out of his own imagination but by God’s calling, (2) he was sent (apostle) to represent Jesus the Messiah, and, consequently, (3) his ministry is not self-interested or ego-driven. His apostleship (his “sent-ness”) is grounded in and is pursued for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. Paul identifies his sacred calling in the first line of the letter, and the significance of this calling—apparently questioned or perhaps contested by some—appears again and again throughout the letter.

Doxology (2 Corinthians 1:3-11)

Immediately after the formal opening of the letter (“Dear Saints”), Paul breaks out in praise of God (“Blessed be . . .” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7), and then specifically locates this praise in a particular and recent circumstance in his own life (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).

Paul praises God for the consolation that God gives amidst moments of desolation.

I am reminded how Ignatius of Loyola counseled that we ought to pay attention to both our desolations (what stresses us, or what sucks the life out of us) and our consolations (what pours joy into our hearts, or what gives us life). It is a way, spiritually speaking, to pay attention to our own heartbeats.

Life is filled with both desolation and consolation, and Paul’s praise is that though we often experience desolation, the God who raises the dead also provides consolation.

Blessed be God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We bless God because the God of Israel is “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction.”

Typically, Paul follows his salutation with a prayer of thanksgiving, but in this case, he offers a doxology (like in Ephesians 1:3-14). It seems rather strange, however, that Paul’s doxology is focused on desolation and consolation. For example, the Ephesian doxology (Ephesians 1:3-14) focuses on God’s act of redemption and adoption through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. The topic is God’s saving work.

Here, however, the topic is affliction or suffering (used seven times in five verses) and God’s comforting response (used nine times in five verses). But how are desolation and consolation the topic of praise or God’s blessedness?

Perhaps Paul highlights affliction or suffering because this is a major point of contention between Paul and the “super-apostles” he identifies later (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). The latter boast in their victories, but Paul boasts in his sufferings. Those sufferings are not marks of shame for Paul. On the contrary, they are marks of the suffering of Jesus (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:10-11). Moreover, they are enriching experiences that yield opportunities for and empower the ministry of reconciliation.

In this light, the suffering of the Messiah is a pattern for our own suffering. When we suffer, we suffer with the Messiah and participate in his suffering. Our suffering, therefore, is not meaningless or pointless. Rather, through suffering, we participate in the ministry of Jesus, which is the ministry of reconciliation. Moreover, we participate in each other’s suffering as well.

Also, our desolations and the subsequent consolations equip us to minister to others in their desolations because we are enabled to console others with the consolation we have received by the mercy and comfort of God’s work in our lives. This consolation is rooted in the work of Jesus whom God comforted and through whom God promises to comfort us with that same consolation God provided to Jesus.

There is a connection between suffering and comfort. Just as Jesus suffered for our sake, so his consolation is for our sake as well. In a similar way, Paul’s suffering for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation is for the sake of the Corinthians, and his consolation is for their sake as well. Just as Jesus and Paul have the hope of consolation in their suffering, so the Corinthians have that same hope when they suffer for the sake of the ministry of the gospel.

God consoled Jesus in his suffering, and that is also the promise that God will comfort us in our suffering. When we suffer, we share (commune with) both the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of fellow believers, and this means we will also share in the consolation of Jesus and the comfort of other believers. God pours comfort into the hearts of the afflicted so that the afflicted might pour that comfort into the hearts of others who are afflicted.

Suffering empowers us because God comforts us. And this is why we say,  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction.”

The Corinthians Need to Know (2 Corinthians 8-11).

While Paul offers a broad doxology concerning suffering and comfort, he apparently has a recent experience in mind. He wants the Corinthians to more fully understand his experience as they seem to have already been aware of it. They prayed for Paul; so, they must have known something about his circumstances.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about it other than what is written here. We can glean that Paul was uncertain whether he would live through the experience or not. Perhaps it was an illness. Perhaps he was imprisoned and in danger of a death sentence while in Ephesus (the capital of the province of “Asia”). We do know that, at times, Paul encountered severe hostility in Ephesus (see Acts 19).

Whatever the specifics, it was a dire instance of “affliction” due to his commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. The depth of his despair included a sense that he might not live through it or perhaps that his ministry would come to an end, though Paul never despaired of the significance and importance of his ministry. Though sometimes perplexed in the midst of his ministry, he never despaired over the task and its meaning (2 Corinthians 4:8).

What is particularly important about Paul’s statement is not so much the reason for his despair and alarm, but the reason for his consolation. What is the source of consolation when we are filled with dread and under the sentence of death (whether external or internal)?

The doxology actually answers that question, and it is important to see the connection between the two sections (vv. 3-7 and vv. 8-11). We bless God, the Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who raised Jesus from the dead. We bless the God who raises the dead.

We trust in the rescue of God from trouble, or the redemption our bodies from death, because we believe in the God who raises the dead.

This is Paul’s identifying marker for God. His joy, confidence, and hope rests in this God, the God who raises the dead. This theological affirmation—the God who raises the dead—undergirds Paul’s apostolic ministry. The ministry of reconciliation does not make sense without it; it is the ground of salvation and hope.

God is the God of all mercies and comfort because God raises the dead. Specifically, the God of all comfort is the God, the Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who raised Jesus from the dead. Further, just as we participate in the abundance of the sufferings of Jesus, so also we will participate in the abundance of his consolation. This means that, though we, too, will die, the God of all comfort will raise us from the dead just as God raised Jesus from the dead.

But this rescue is not only about resurrection from the dead. While that is the ultimate rescue, there are smaller graces of comfort in our lives in the midst of suffering.

Paul’s affliction did not end in death; he was recused from it. Paul attributes this rescue to the prayers of the Corinthians. Through their prayers, many give thanks to God for the comfort God poured out on Paul through a divine rescue from his affliction in Ephesus.

Corinthian prayers—their participation in the ministry of reconciliation—resulted in thanksgiving to God by others. God rescued Paul through their prayers by which thanksgiving rose to God from other believers. Prayer, apparently, was a powerful instrument that contributed to Paul’s rescue.

Somehow God and the Corinthian prayers cooperated in Paul’s rescue. God works with our prayers and through our prayers for the sake of God’s people and God’s mission. Prayer is no addendum to the Christian life but a powerful means by which God works for the sake of the people of God.


Paul is an apostle of Jesus the Messiah, which means he follows Jesus into his ministry. Suffering is no surprise because the Messiah suffered, and we participate in that suffering with him. Suffering is a mark of authentic ministry.

In this context, we bless the Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah who is the God of all mercies and comfort. Though we suffer, God is at work in our suffering to console us, empower us, and make-meaning in our lives through our participation in the life, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus.

Every particular moment of affliction shares in the suffering of the Messiah, and every suffering carries with it the hope of God’s rescue because the God we confess is the God who raises the dead!

The God who raises the dead is the God of all mercy and comfort in conformity to the life, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Outline of 2 Corinthians

September 9, 2021

This outline follows and adapts the work of Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians: A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: WJK, 2003).

Opening: Salutation and Doxology (1:1-11).

Part 1 – The Crisis Over Paul’s Apostolic Integrity (1:12-7:16).

  1. Paul Narrates Recent Events (1:12-2:13).
    1. The Letter’s Theme (1:12-14).
    2. Paul’s Reliability (1:15-22).
    3. A Change of Plans and a Harsh Letter (1:23-2:4).
    4. Forgiving the Offender (2:5-11).
    5. Paul’s Anxiety at Troas (2:12-13).
  2. The Integrity of Paul’s Apostolic Ministry (2:14-7:14).
    1. The Ministry of the New Covenant (2:14-4:6).
      1. Qualified by God (2:14-3:6).
      2. The Ministries of Moses and Paul (3:7-18).
      3. Paul’s Apostolic Integrity (4:1-6).
    2. Ministry and Apostolic Suffering (4:7-5:10).
      1. Life and Death in Apostolic Ministry (4:7-15).
      2. Present Transformation (4:16-18).
      3. Final Transformation (5:1-10).
    3. A Ministry of Reconciliation (5:11-6:10).
      1. Ambassadors for Christ (5:11-21).
      2. Appeal and Defense (6:1-10).
    4. Paul’s Appeal for Reconciliation (6:11-7:4).
  3. Paul Narrates Recent Events Resumed (7:5-16).

Part 2 – An Appeal to Complete the Collection (8:1-9:15).

  1. The Grace Given to the Churches of Macedonia (8:1-6).
  2. An Appeal to Complete the Collection (8:7-15).
  3. Recommendation for Titus and Two Brothers (8:16-24).
  4. Paul’s Purpose in Sending the Delegation (9:1-5).
  5. The Relationship Between Sowing and Reaping (9:6-9).
  6. Theological Significance of the Collection (9:10-15).

Part 3 – Defense and Warnings in Preparation for Paul’s Third Visit (10:1-13:10).

  1. Paul’s Integrity and Missionary Assignment (10:1-18).
    1. Bold Whether Absent or Present (10:1-11).
    2. Paul’s Assignment (10:12-18).
  2. Boasting Foolishly (11:1-12:13).
    1. An Appeal to Bear with Paul (11:1-4).
    2. Not Inferior to the Super-Apostles (11:5-15).
    3. A Renewed Appeal to Bear with Paul (11:16-21a).
    4. Daring to Boast as a Fool (11:21b-29).
    5. Boasting in Weakness (11:30-33).
    6. Boasting in Visions and Revelations (12:1-10).
    7. Peroration (12:11-13).
  3. Preparations for Paul’s Third and Final Visit (12:14-13:10).
    1. Announcement of the Visit (12:14-21).
    2. The Need to Prepare for Paul’s Visit (13:1-10).

Closing: Exhortation, Greetings, and Blessing (13:11-13).

On Reading 2 Corinthians

September 8, 2021

Reading 2 Corinthians, we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation about which we are largely ignorant.

The Conversation

We were not there when Paul founded the congregation at Corinth or his subsequent two visits. We don’t have access to two other letters Paul wrote to Corinth; we only have two of four (and we don’t know if there were any others). We don’t know the discussions that took place between Paul and Timothy upon Timothy’s return from Corinth, between Paul and Titus upon Titus’s return from Corinth, or between visitors from Corinth and Paul in Ephesus. And we certainly don’t know what happened in Corinth in the aftermath of Paul’s final (third) visit to Corinth. There are so many things we don’t know about Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth.

There are so many swirling interactions that it feels like we have dropped into the middle of an ongoing family quarrel. As we read 2 Corinthians, we are keenly aware that we lack lots of background information about this squabble.

At the same time, the focus of 2 Corinthians is apparent: Paul is defending his apostolic ministry and integrity against opponents. This defense requires Paul to explain his travelogue, describe his reconciling ministry as an apostle, encourage Corinth to fulfill their commitment to the collection he is gathering for the poor in Jerusalem, and defend his integrity in response to the arrival of challengers in Corinth.

In essence, 2 Corinthians is an exploration of the nature and integrity of Christian ministry. While the focus, of course, lies on Paul’s own ministry, he also lays the ground for how all believers may reflect on their own lives as servants of Jesus the Messiah. How do we pursue lives of service in the wake of opposition, tribulation, personal attacks, and disruptions of health and safety? How do we minister amidst crisis? What theology, convictions, and practices give life to ministry in such dire circumstances? These questions are not just for paid staff (Paul was not paid!), but address every disciple of Jesus as they become servants to all people.

Whether we ever understand the intricacies of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians (we never will!), Paul’s second letter (as we call it) to the Corinthians provides a rich theological and pastoral resource for this exhortation: don’t give up!

Perhaps this is a particularly important message for COVID and/or Post-COVID communities of faith: don’t give up! In this series, we will overhear Paul’s stormy relationship with Corinth to glean what grounded him, encouraged him, and motivated him to continue his ministry even when the struggle was acute and painful.

A Possible Scenario:  The Conversation between Paul and Corinth.

Scholars disagree about the sequence of events, the number of letters and their content, and the exact nature of the problem in Corinth. Below is one way to construe this relationship, though little is absolutely certain about the chronology. Nevertheless, we may enjoy a fair confidence in the gist of the following scenario.

  1. Founding Visit (51-52 AD). Paul, later joined by Timothy and Silas, established a congregation in Corinth while staying with Priscilla and Aquila who had recently come to Corinth from Rome. Paul stayed 18 months in Corinth. Acts 18:1-17; 2 Corinthians 1:19.
  2. Conclusion of 2nd Missionary Journey. After stopping in Ephesus and leaving Priscilla and Aquila there, Paul returned to Antioch. Acts 18:18-23.
  3. Beginning of the 3rd Missionary Journey. Paul, then, returned to Ephesus through Galatia and Phrygia where he stayed for three years (53-56 AD). Acts 18:23-19:41.
  4. First Letter to Corinth. While in Ephesus, Paul sent a letter to warn them against sexual immorality. We do not have a copy of this letter. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11.
  5. Corinthian Response. Paul received some communication, probably both by personal messengers and letter, from Corinth which reported divisions within the congregation as well as raising some specific questions about theology and practice.  1 Corinthians 1:11; 16:17.
  6. Second Letter to Corinth (54-55 AD). Paul responded to Corinth in what we call 1 Corinthians. He dispatched Timothy with the letter to address the problems. Paul intended to visit Corinth by way of Macedonia in the near future. 1 Corinthians 4:17-21; 16:10-11.
  7. Timothy’s Report. Timothy probably returns with a mixed report—some problems corrected but new problems have arisen (possibly the arrival of the “super-apostles” described in 2 Corinthians 12). Timothy is with Paul when he writes 2 Corinthians (cf. 1:1, 19).
  8. Second Visit to Corinth. Paul changed his plans to visit Corinth by way of Macedonia due to an immediate need to deal with the new problems in Corinth. Consequently, he made an emergency visit to Corinth which he called “painful.” 2 Corinthians 2:1; 12:14; 13:1-2.
  9. Third Letter to Corinth. Paul, disturbed by the experience of his visit, sends a tearful and severe third letter to Corinth. Apparently, it directly confronted problems in the Corinthian church. He sends this letter with Titus. 2 Corinthians 2:3-4; 7:8-12.
  10. Travel to Macedonia. Paul anxiously awaits a response from the Corinthian congregation through Titus. Paul travels to Troas and then Macedonia looking for Titus. They finally meet in Macedonia (Philippi). 2 Corinthians 7:5-7.
  11. Fourth Letter to Corinth (56-57 AD).  Paul writes a fourth letter to Corinth from Macedonia, now called 2 Corinthians. Titus carries the letter to Corinth. 2 Corinthians 8:16-19.
  12. Third (Last) Visit to Corinth (Spring 57 AD). Paul, then, visits Corinth for the third time after they had received 2 Corinthians. He spent three months in “Greece” (presumably Corinth). During this visit, Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1-2; Acts 20:1-3; Romans 15:26. As far as we know, Paul never returned to Corinth again.

The Assembly and Male Authority: Response to Renew #12

July 23, 2021

I am grateful to Renew for the invitation to offer a 2500-word response to their 12-blog series “On Gender and the Bible.” Renew will follow my response with a 1500-word reply. I will regard their response as the end of our discussion with no further reply from me.

In their first blog, Renew identified my book, Women Serving God, as a primary interlocutor. Several blogs directly interacted with it; others did not. I responded to those blogs where Renew engaged my book specifically. A list of the blog interactions, with links, may be found here. I recommend everyone read both Renée’s book (On Gender) and mine as well as the blogs for a full account.

First, I will address our differences about the participation of women in the assembly. Second, I will offer some general perspectives regarding Renew’s 9,000+ word summary (blog #12). My response is entirely too brief, but I appreciate the space Renew has afforded me.

The Use of Gifts in the Assembly

My book focused on a specific question, “Does God invite women to fully participate through audible and visible leadership in all the assemblies of the saints where men and women are gathered to glorify God and edify each other?” (p. 16).

On this question, Renew and I find significant common ground.

  • We both affirm the practice of women praying and prophesying in the assembly as a function of audible and visible leadership.
  • We both believe 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a narrow concern and does not entail prohibiting women from speaking (e.g., praying, testifying, and reading Scripture) in the assembly.
  • We both affirm there are forms of leadership within and outside the assembly (including teaching adult Bible classes, leading small groups among other functions) that do not dishonor “male headship (authority).”

Gratefully, Renew rejects the historic traditional position that silences women in the assembly except for singing (though much of history also silenced the singing of women). In other words, their interpretation of “male headship (authority)” is itself a new interpretation of the restrictive texts which began to emerge with some significance in the 19th century. The “soft complementarian” position is a new position in the context of traditional practices. Traditionalists see this as caving into the women’s movements of the last two centuries.

In relation to the assembly, our primary difference is simply this: Renew believes authoritative teaching belongs only to “male headship in the local church.” This teaching “leads and sets direction for the congregation.”

Does this mean any lesson delivered from the pulpit on a Sunday morning “sets direction for the congregation?” Does this exclude women from all preaching or only some forms of or contexts for preaching? In other words, how does one discern when a function exercises headship (excluding women) and another function only exercises leadership (including women)?

Renew and I agree women may lead the assembly, but Renew restricts women from “authoritative teaching,” that is, the task of the “main preacher” and elders/overseers. They do so primarily on this basis:

  • They see prophesying as less authoritative than teaching because women prophesied in the assembly but they are not permitted to teach authoritatively. The gift of prophecy, however, is given priority over teaching in the same way apostleship is given priority over prophesying in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “first, apostles; second, prophets; and third teachers.”
  • Women should not exercise ecclesial [my word] authority over men (Renew’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12). However, (a) the translation of the rare word as “authority” is highly disputed; (b) it is not Paul’s word for ecclesial authority anywhere else (including 1 Timothy), and (c) women elsewhere exercised communal authority over men in Scripture (Deborah and Esther).

I don’t find these two points credible.

  • Prophesying is speaking the word of God for the sake of edification, teaching, encouragement, and revelation. The distinction between prophesying and teaching in terms of authority is weighted in the wrong direction; prophesying is more weighty than teaching. It is also a distinction of recent origin—a new interpretation.
  • To exclude women from authoritative teaching on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12 is precarious because the grammar, lexicography, and context is problematic. I have identified twelve different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12. Renew’s own discussion of 1 Timothy 2:12 identified their position as “likely” rather than certain. Their interpretation is dubious (see this video for a more thorough discussion).

Contrary to identifying a single office or gender as leaders in the assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What is the outcome of this, brothers and sisters? When you meet together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All these things must be done to build up the church.” When Paul says, “brothers,” in 1 Corinthians, he includes both men and women (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:6, 20; 15:1). Both men and women are singing/praying (psalm), teaching, prophesying (revelation), and speaking in tongues in the assembly. Women were teaching as well as prophesying and praying. Renew does not think 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 totally silences women except disorderly ones (Oster) or those who judge the prophets in 14:29 (Sproles). This leaves lots of space for women to exercise audible and visible leadership in the assembly.

My point is a simple one. In terms of the assembly, Renew and I, disagree only on one particular: they exclude women from serving as authoritative teachers.

Renew and I agree that whatever “male headship (authority)” is, it does not silence women in the assembly. The problem of identifying exactly what is a “male headship (authority)” function in the assembly is not explicit in the New Testament. It must be inferred, which is why soft complementarians (including those in the Renew network) often disagree about where to draw the line.  

  • Some don’t permit women to teach adult male Bible classes; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to co-preach with a male leader; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to lead worship; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to officiate at the communion table; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to permanently lead small groups that include men; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to be lead ministers over programs in the church involving men; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to preside over a baptism; some do.

I could go on. In 1995 (revised in 2006 & 2013), Grudem identified nine governing activities, ten teaching activities, and one “public visibility or recognition” position that are restricted to men while he detailed nineteen governing activities, twenty-five teaching activities, and nineteen activities related to “public visibility or recognition” that are open to women. The application of “male headship (authority)” is no simple matter.

Should not such an important principle that is foundational to male/female relationships be more clear?

Such applications, however, are unnecessary. No text explicitly restricts the participation of women in the assembly based on “male headship (authority).” Women prayed and prophesied even as they honored their heads. Headship (whatever that means) actually supports women in their praying and prophesying in the assembly, and prophesying—speaking the word of God to the assembly—carries authority to which the assembly should submit, after they are properly tested like all words should be. Since prophecy bears authority, it might be that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not mean what Renew thinks it “likely” means.

Summary Blog Post #12

If we appeal to history (not necessarily a bad thing), it cuts both ways. Perhaps worldly patriarchy has always (for centuries) influenced the interpretation of Scripture just as much as some think worldly egalitarianism influences the interpretation of Scripture today.

  • The vast majority of Christians were traditionalists (totally silencing women in the assembly).
  • The vast majority of Christians excluded women from any public roles in society as well the home and church. As late as the early 20th century, many Christians opposed suffrage because a woman should only exercise authority through a man (supposed meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12).
  • The vast majority of Christians believed women were inferior intellectually, inherently gullible (easily deceived), and too emotional for leadership, even into the early 20th century (if not still among some).
  • The vast majority denied women and men were equally created in the image of God. For them priority in creation implied Adam was a superior human. This includes some of the most renowned Christian theologians. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said females—as created—were inherently “deficient” and not made in the image of God in the same way males are.
  • Many (though difficult to quantify) Christians overlooked, sanctioned, or even justified the maltreatment of women from domestic violence to sexual abuse.

Historically, female itinerant preaching emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at about the same time Christians began to advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Nevertheless, it is better—Renew would agree—to seek the restoration of God’s intent in creation rather than use historical arguments as theological principles. History is filled with good and bad, and the way to adjudicate is through biblical theology.

1. God created males and females to be different.

I prefer to say, God created males and females different. Males and females are differentiated. This a created good. God created diversity within nature and humanity. This diversity enriches life and brings different perspectives and experiences to the table. Difference does not imply a difference in authority, however. Rather, God enjoys the diversity of the human community because it enriches the community as they share life together in mutual submission.

2. God created male headship (authority) in the beginning.

This is the crux because it fundamentally and unnecessarily conflates primogeniture (authority as first created) with headship.

Does the creation of Adam have primogeniture significance? This is an unnecessary inference because (a) the text of Genesis does not read as a primogeniture text because the climactic moment is the creation of women so that humanity is whole (good); (b) primogeniture is not absolute in Genesis as Isaac is given the promise over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Rueben, and Ephraim over Manasseh; (c) the only explicit identification of authority in Genesis 1-2 is their shared authority over the creation; (d) the woman was created as an equal help/ally (one who corresponds or is “face-to-face”); (e) if it is primogeniture, then men should have authority over women not only in the home and church but in all social relationships; and (f) 1 Timothy 2:13 may be read differently as a narrative sequence rather than assuming primogeniture (see this blog).

Does Paul use the word “head” as a synonym for authority? This is not certain. There are other potential meanings from “ontologically superior” (traditional reading) to “source” to “head/body-unity/nourishment” to “prominence in terms of what came first.” I don’t think Paul means “authority” because (a) women participate in the assembly with their own authority (1 Corinthians 11:10, NIV, CEB); (b) though women came from men, now men come through women, and all things come from God—in the Lord, there is mutuality rather than gendered authority; (c) this is the only text (1 Corinthians 11:3) that indicates that “headship” is a relationship that every man sustains to every woman, but if it means authority, then this should apply to society as well as home and church (why is this not universally true rather than only in the home and church?); (d) headship in Ephesians 5 is about the head/body analogy where the head nourishes the body (rather than having authority over the body) and this relationship is characterized by mutual submission; and (e) if “head” means authority, then it appears men have authority over women in an analogous way that Christ has authority over the church—which is absolute authority, a Lordship authority.

In other words, this claim is far from certain, based on a few ambiguous lines in a few texts, rooted in inferences rather than explicit statements, and has created a primogeniture understanding in place of the mutuality and shared authority of Genesis 1. I think perhaps worldly patriarchy has influenced Christian interpreters throughout the centuries (leading them to traditionalist conclusions) rather than hearing the intent of the word of God. Soft complementarians, I believe, need to reclaim the original divine intent for creation rather than one influenced by worldly patriarchy.

3-4. Marriage

I understand Ephesians 5 in a much more mutual sense than a hierarchical one. Since my book did not discuss this question, I will move on due to space limitations.

5. Male Headship in the Local Church is Reflected in the Teaching-Authority and Elder Roles.

I offered my perspective on “teaching-authority” in the previous section. As to elders, my book makes no case about elders, so I will conserve space. Yet, though insufficient, I note that elders are never described as “heads” as part of their function in the local church, there are no male pronouns in the Greek text when Paul describes the qualities of elders/overseers, and Paul begins 1 Timothy 3:1, “if anyone” which is gender neutral.

6.  Men and Women are to submit to and honor the authority of male headship in the church.

Of course, this sense of “authority” depends on: (a) the meaning of “head” and (b) the meaning of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. These are dubious conclusions and far from certain.

I have no problem with believers submitting to teaching and appropriate functions/gifts of other believers. The question is whether that authority is gendered such that no females may serve as authoritative teachers (though women prophets did). Since believers are to submit to every fellow-worker and laborer, and women are included among Paul’s fellow-workers and laborers (20% are women in Paul’s letters; 1 Cor. 16:15-16; Romans 16:3, 6, 12; Philippians 4:3), then believers should submit to women as they serve within the community of faith. Submission is not about a gendered hierarchy of authority among believers but mutual submission to each other in the exercise of our gifts.

Authority lies in giftedness rather than gender. We submit to those who exercise their gifts within the community.

7. On Blessing the Church.

I have some questions.

  • What if we have perpetuated worldly patriarchy instead of embracing mutual submission?
  • What if we excluded gifts (including teaching) from the assembly because of worldly patriarchy?
  • What if we have suffered loss (the common good for which gifts are designed) because we have excluded women from the exercise of some gifts due to worldly patriarchy?

I could ask more questions, but I am out of space.

“Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.”  Many women can testify to that. They have been victims throughout church history.

I, with Renew, affirm: “men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered [sexually differentiated, JMH] ways, the nature and character of God in the world.”

We mirror the glory of God in differentiated but mutual ways. Neither spiritual gifts nor authority are gendered. Rather, God’s glory is manifested through the diverse exercise of gifts within the community of faith.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.

Women and the Bible: Notes on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

June 4, 2021

The NRSV reads (my two translation adjustments are in brackets):

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but [she] was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings [upright], but they have devised many schemes.

This text has been used as an example of the Bible’s (or, at least, this particular author’s) misogyny. While some suggest that we should not be surprised that the “Teacher” would hold pessimistic and/or misguided views of humanity, I think a misogynistic reading is a misunderstanding of what the Qoheleth is doing in this critical juncture in the book’s argument.

This is a significant moment in the book where an unfulfilled search is emphasized (“I did not find what I was looking for but only found something more bitter than death itself”) as well as the inability of human beings to know much of anything that has enduring significance by their own wisdom.

“I have tested” (7:23) recalls Qoheleth’s quest that begun earlier in the book (2:1). That testing followed folly, not wisdom. The conclusion is that wisdom [she] is inaccessible (“far off”) and unfathomable (“deep, very deep”). No human being can discover it.

The search (“turning my heart toward”) itself is traumatic and fraught with dangers. The search seems like a good idea, that is, to “know, search out and seek wisdom and significance” (7:25).  The Hebrew term behind “scheme” or device is attested only in 7:25, 7:27, and 9:10. A cognate appears in 7:29 often translated “plans, schemes, or inventions” (only elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible at 2 Chronicles 26:15). The point seems to be something like generating meaning or significance with the embedded idea of self-creation perhaps.  Perhaps the point is something like this: when we cannot discover authentic meaning, we create our own (or, as the existentialist Sartre said, we create essence out of our existence).

What does one find out (or discover)? The Hebrew term translated “find” is used eight times. The movement of the text is something like this:  I wanted to find X, but instead I found Y; finding X is harder than finding one human being in a 1000 (or, “finding a needle in a haystack”) since I was unable to find X (wisdom personified as a woman). What I did find is Y, which is folly (personified as a woman).

“Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom,” prominent in Proverbs 1-9 (especially 9), form a wisdom backdrop for this section.  “Dame Folly” is a snare, a trap, much like an adulterous seductress (Proverbs 5-6). “Lady Wisdom” (Proverbs 8) is the embodiment of the wisdom that arises out of the fear of the Lord. Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but discovered “Dame Folly.” Bartholomew’s commentary on Ecclesiastes puts it this way (p. 275): “Human autonomy is so ingrained in modern culture, even though it has been challenged but not abandoned under the guise of postmodernism, that it is difficult for us to see the radicality of the ironization of an autonomous epistemology here in 7:23-29…[it] demonstrates that starting with an autonomous epistemology is not wisdom but folly and will lead one not to truth but right into the arms of Dame Folly.”

While 7:28 is sometimes read as misogynous (women are less virtuous, or they are inferior intellectually, etc.), it is probably better to see it as either hyperbole as in there is no one who is upright, male or female (taking the cue from 7:29, and consistent with 7:20), or proverbial as in it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to find “Lady Wisdom” (taking the cue from 7:25-26). In other words, finding Lady Wisdom is more difficult than finding one man in a thousand. He did not find wisdom; rather, he discovered folly. And this is consistent with humanity in general: though they were made upright, human beings devise many foolish schemes.

Qoheleth has a moral compass—the one who pleases God (e.g., “good before the face of God”) and the sinner (cf. Ecc. 2:26; 5:5; 8:12). Though Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but did find something—“this alone I found”—“that God made ‘adam upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” God created humanity with dignity, identity, and vocation, but humanity created their own paths (folly).

Theologically, the creation narrative lies behind this reflection in Qoheleth. God made ‘adam (human being; cf. 3:11, 14; 7:14; 11:5; 12:1). The Solomon persona in 2:5-6, 11 contrasts with God’s own creative work. While God created something good, Solomon seeks some that satisfies his own interests. The “Fall” narrative is part of this context as well: “they” (human beings) have created their own meaning and wisdom through their various schemes.

Qoheleth’s search, personified by Solomon, is rooted in the human ego or autonomy; it is the process of self-discovery. Qoheleth did not employ traditional wisdom (which begins with the fear of the Lord) but rather employed a version of Hellenistic wisdom where humanity is the measure of all things. Qoheleth adopts the dominant cultural worldview in order to examine “vanity” (hebel, used 37 times in Ecclesiastes) and discover “wisdom.” It did not work. He did not find authentic wisdom but only folly.

Traditional Hebrew wisdom actually lies in the backdrop of Qoheleth’s thinking. Qoheleth pursued an alternative but it was a dead-end and ultimately returns to what is “known” (what is confessed; cf. 3:12, 14; 8:12) and the fear of the Lord (5:7 is an imperative; cf. 3:14; 8:12-13). “Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom” form a backdrop throughout the book as well.

Theologically, Qoheleth’s search is about the nature of epistemology (autonomous?) and the fundamental resource of wisdom, which arises out of the fear of God. Postmodern readers resonate with the dead-end nature of autonomous human discovery, which attempts to discern a metanarrative to give meaning to human life.  Job 28 also shares this. The question is “who narrates the world?” Qoheleth probes the meaningfulness of Israel’s narrative for a Hellenistic setting and provides a theological resource for probing that narrative in the postmodern setting. This is part of its canonical function.

Theologically, Qoheleth lives with both the “vanity” (hebel) of life and the goodness of creation (“rejoice” of 11:9 and the imperatives of 9:7-9). The text ultimately orients us toward a humble, though frustrating, fear of God in the face of death.

Christologically, one may not only see the eschatological response to death but also the embodiment of the goodness of life in the midst of death in the ministry of Jesus. “Vanity” (hebel) is not denied; indeed, it is shared with humanity. At the same time, it is redeemed in the context of an “already, but not yet” eschatology.

Helpful resources:

Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Exegetical, 2014)

Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible, 1997)

Michael Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions (Sheffield Academic Press, 1989).


March 19, 2021

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

If the reasons Paul gives for 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are difficult to understand and subject to a wide range of meaning in addition to the questions and interpretations surrounding 1 Timothy 2:11-12 themselves, it is precarious to assume their universal import and impose restrictions on women based on this text. There may be situated cultural reasons rather than universal ones for Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

Eleven Questions

1.  What is the significance of “first”? Is it prominence in a marriage, primogeniture rights, narrated chronological sequence? What does “first” entail? What sorts of honors, rights, privileges, inheritance, or authority are involved? Why does Paul appeal to “first” rather than “headship” explicitly if this is his meaning?

2.  What is the significance of the fact that Adam was not deceived but Eve was? Does this imply something about women as weaker, uneducated, more gullible, or inferior? How does this factor into Paul’s rationale?

3.  Why is it important to emphasize that Eve was deceived? How does this illuminate the situation in Ephesus? How does it illuminate why women are not permitted to “teach or have authority” over a man?

4.  Why is the transgression of the woman noted but not the transgression of Adam when in other places Paul highlights the transgression of Adam and the responsibility of Satan?

5.  What is the transgression of Eve? Is it merely the eating of forbidden fruit or is it also the assumption of leadership authority in the marital or spiritual relationship between Adam and Eve? Is the transgression of Eve the same as the transgression of the women in 2:9-12, or is the transgression of Eve similar because both the women of 2:9-12 and Eve were deceived?

6.  What is the nature of the rationale? Does it provide a ground for a universal principle or an example (narrated story) of why deceived people (in this case women) should not teach?

7. Why does the rationale contain events from both creation and the fall? How is the “fall” part of the rationale for 2:11-12? Are these two separate rationales (creation and fall) or is this a narrated sequence derived from Genesis 2-3 about Eve as a deceived woman?

8.  What does “saved” mean? Does it refer to salvation from sin, from the curse (a reversal of Genesis 3:16), from death, or taking her proper place in the domestic world rather than public life?

9.  What does “childbearing” mean? Does it refer to the birth of the Messiah, to child-rearing, to childbirth itself, or is it a metaphor for domestic life in general?

10.  Who is the “she” of verse 15 and who are the “they”? Is this merely stylistic? How are the “she” and “they” connected? Is it Eve who represents all women and “they” are all women? Is it about husband and wife (“they”)? Are the “they” the women of 2:9-10?

11. To what extent does Genesis 3:16 as the reversal of the fall through salvation and hope for healthy marriage and/or sexuality play a factor in understanding Paul’s rationale?

Six Interpretations

The first three interpretations are essentialist readings (that is, there is some thing about the created nature of reality) of Paul’s rationale while the final three interpretations are about the situated nature of Paul’s rationale. The former lend themselves to universal applications (though there is a difference in whether it applies to home alone, home and church, or to home, church, and society). The latter lend themselves to limited applications to the situation in Ephesus.

1. For Adam was formed first as the image of God, then Eve as an inferior helper; and Adam was not deceived because he was not as gullible as Eve, but the woman was deceived because her nature is more gullible and became a transgressor that ruined the whole human race for which she is punished, according to Genesis 3:16. Yet she [Eve or women] will be saved from further sin, ruin, pain, or perhaps even death through childbearing as she keeps to her domestic responsibilities, provided they [all women and/or her children] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This is the dominant interpretation of the post-Constantinian church. The rationale suggests that women are not equipped for leadership in the home, church, and society because of their secondary essence. Their role is confined to the domestic sphere.

2. For Adam was formed first with primogeniture rights where the chronological order is an enactment of a divine hierarchical intent, then Eve as a dependent helper in the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived as a good, instructed leader would not be, but the woman was deceived as she listened to the serpent and became a transgressor when she assumed a leadership that did not belong to her and led her husband into sin. Yet she [Eve or women] will be saved from the further effects of Genesis 3:16, sin, ruin, pain, or perhaps even death through childbearing as she keeps to her domestic responsibilities, enjoys renewed marriage/sexuality with her husband in reversal of Genesis 3:16’s distortion of the intended created order, and refrains from public leadership in the church, provided they [all women or her children] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation grounds Paul’s teaching in a hierarchy of roles. Because men have primogeniture rights, which is how “first” is understood, they are invested with the responsibility to authoritatively lead the home and church. It is a hierarchy of authority. For some, this includes society as well, but for others it is restricted to the home and church alone. Women are excluded from particular roles by virtue of a hierarchy of authority.

3. For Adam was formed first as the prominent leader, then Eve as a co-worker and marriage partner in the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived because he was instructed well, but the woman was deceived because she was uninstructed and the woman became a transgressor due to her lack of learning. Yet she [wife] will be saved from the further effects of Genesis 3:16, sin, ruin, pain, sexual exploitation, or perhaps even death through childbearing in the context of her married home life as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of God’s intent, provided they [husband and wife] continue their marital relationship and life in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation locates Paul’s rationale in the marriage relationship as grounded in the story of Adam and Eve. The application of the text, according to this interpretation, relates to household relationships rather than public leadership in the Christian community. This may be an accommodation to culture, or it may reflect an understanding of husband-wife relations patterned after Adam and Eve in creation.

4. For Adam was formed first, then Eve in contrast to pagan and Gnostic myths that say otherwise or give prominence to the woman; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived by the lies of the serpent and became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [women] will be saved from pain and death through childbearing as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of original mutuality and/or sexual exploitation, provided they [all women] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty rather than seeking the help and aid of Artemis or other pagan gods.

This interpretation locates the rationale in the context of the conflict with false teaching in Ephesus. Some were promoting female dominance and priority (including teaching that Eve was created first or had some priority). Paul responds with the chronology of the Genesis narrative and the role of Eve in the fall. Further, in contrast to how women sought protection (salvation) in childbirth from Artemis, Paul counsels they trust God through continuing in faith, love, and holiness.

5.  For Adam was formed first in chronological sequence, then Eve was created to complete humanity so that together they might pursue the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived because she listened to the serpent and then Adam listened to Eve and through her deception the woman became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [women] will be saved from this false teaching through honoring their marriages and having children rather than embracing asceticism as part of the false teaching as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of original mutuality, provided they [Christian women or husband/wives] continue their discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation believes the problem in Ephesus was generated by the presence of false teachers. Just like Eve, some women were deceived into following and promoting their myths. Paul’s resolution is the rejection of the asceticism that plagued this false teaching and encourages women and men to embrace healthy sexuality, including having children as well as continuing in a godly marriage and community.

6. For Adam was formed first in chronological sequence, then Eve was created to complete humanity so that together they might pursue the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived because she listened to the serpent and then Adam listened to Eve and through her deception the woman became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [Eve] will be saved from her transgression through the birth of the Messiah [“the childbearing”], provided they [all women or the women of 2:9-10] continue their discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation understands the problem in Ephesus was generated by the presence of false teachers. Just like Eve, some women were deceived into following and promoting their myths. Paul’s resolution is the birth of the Messiah who will save from sin all those who continue in faith, love, and holiness.