Searching for the Pattern 1: Command, Example, and Necessary Inference

September 28, 2021

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.

David Lipscomb and the First Female President of Lipscomb University

August 11, 2021

This is a historic moment, and it is one I welcome. Dr. Candice McQueen has been appointed the President of Lipscomb University beginning in September, 2021.

What would David Lipscomb think about a female leader of the school he and James A. Harding founded?

The views and opinions expressed in that article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Lipscomb University.

I fully celebrate the appointment of Dr. McQueen as the President of Lipscomb University. I do not affirm David Lipscomb’s position as presented in this article. Rather, the shift from David Lipscomb’s own personal position (and practice of the school in his day) to the present practice (including hiring Dr. McQueen) is the point of the history in this article.

I appreciate the need for historical sympathy for how enculturated people are, including ourselves. We are all, to some extent, people of our times, and we may have thought differently if we lived then or Lipscomb lived now. In that sense, of course, we extend grace as we hope others will extend grace to us. To raise the question for Lipscomb about a female president in 2021 is rather anachronistic, to say the least.

At the same time, we must tell the truth. But we don’t tell the truth to berate the past; we tell it to understand ourselves, our journey, and the present moment. I hope that is part of the function of this article.

My interest in this piece is to illustrate the shift in understanding over the past 100 years. In 1911, it would have been inconceivable for those associated with the Nashville Bible School to invite a woman president to lead the institution. David Lipscomb did not believe women should be public speakers or any kind of public leaders, whether in church or society.

Lipscomb regarded this question–whether women should have public leadership in society–as the same sort of point as female leadership in a congregational assembly. According to him, both were rooted in the nature of men and women as well as rooted in the created order. One was as sinful as the other.

Of course, as readers of this blog would know, I do not think either is sinful. In fact, I believe congregations and institutions should encourage the use of gifts in both public and private spaces, in both church and society.

This is the link to the Christian Chronicle opinion piece.

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.

Tips for Discussions on Social Media (including Facebook)

July 8, 2021

1. Read the post carefully. If you think you want to respond, read it twice more. As far as possible, understand the main point of the post, its argument, and its tone.

2. Before you respond, take a few moments, even minutes, or if necessary hours to pray, calm your soul, and refocus your heart. Do not offer an immediate reply as if you have thought about this for a matter of seconds. Give it a few minutes, or whatever time it takes to channel the emotion into something profitable, loving, and edifying.

3. When responding to a post, begin with affirmation. What do you appreciate about this post? Do you appreciate its curiosity, its point, its tone, its argument, or its search for understanding? Name what you appreciate about the post or the person.

4. Restate what you understand the point of the post is. It is helpful to think in these terms, “What I hear you saying is . . . .” Often we don’t hear as well as we think we do.

5.  When responding to the point of a post, state the response as succinctly as possible but with sufficient clarity and explanation. Make the point direct rather than circumnavigating the globe–direct, but kind and open to correction and dialogue. Refrain from long posts and cryptic ones. If it is too long, it won’t be read carefully. If cryptic, your expectation that the reader will fully understand is a hindrance to dialogue and may come across as smug.

6.  Deflections and defensiveness do not lead to healthy dialogue. Consequently, in your response do not deflect by changing the subject (“what about…?”) or becoming defensive (“do you think I’m stupid?”). Instead, address the point at issue directly. If you want to extend the point in a different direction, clearly identify that is what you are doing (“I know this is not your point, but I think it would be helpful to think about this as well in order to illuminate our discussion”).

7.  Don’t speak in absolutes; rather, speak out of the situated character of your thinking. For example, “in my experience,” “as it seems to me,” or “this is how I see it fitting into . . .” State your conviction, argue for it, and provide substantial reasons while, at the same time, demonstrating humility and openness to listening to the other.

8.  In longer posts (which are not typically recommended), it is sometimes helpful to enumerate the points you are making so that readers don’t miss them, confuse them, or conflate them. For example, I might respond to a post by listing three separate points. They may all three respond to the same argument, or they may be three different questions or issues related to the post. Enumerating them helps subsequent responders to precisely identify the referent of their response.

9.  Clearly state where you agree with the post. Then state clearly the point of disagreement(s). We will disagree. It should be understood that a statement of disagreement is not a personal insult; it should have no intention of offending the other. At the same time, the disagreement must be stated in a way that does not insult or intentionally offend the other (e.g., attack their character or intelligence).

10.  Kindness and gentleness are always good and healthy virtues. There is no place for name-calling or attaching a label to one who does not accept it or see themselves in that way. There is no virtue in beating up or shaming the other. Gentle correction is appropriate. Posting ought to assume one is willing to receive gentle correction, but unkind putdowns, labelling, or dismissals are unacceptable and counter-productive

11. In closing, express your love, commitment to dialogue, or your desire for peace between you and the other. One can say this simply, “Peace, sister” or more expansively, “thank you for your commitment to dialogue and understanding; that means so much.”

12. When do I stop replying/posting on a thread? Typically, two or three responses is sufficient to address a specific question with an appropriate give-and-take. FB is not a good place for extensive discussion and long posts. But here are a few pointers that have helped me: (a) when I feel frustrated and I cannot respond well with kindness, I don’t respond; (b) when I feel like we are at an impasse or at the level of a fundamental disagreement and we have both made our point; (c) when the time it is taking is not worth the effort in the light of other things I need to be doing (including resting); and (d) when I summarize my point, clarify, and “let it go” while acknowledging this will be my last word in this thread but inviting the other to offer a final reply.

Response to the Review of Women Serving God in the Christian Chronicle (July, 2021)

June 27, 2021

I thank Renée Sproles for taking the time and energy to write a brief notice of my recent book Women Serving God. Her review appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Christian Chronicle. I appreciate her attentive effort to summarize and raise questions about it. I welcome such engagement.

I appreciate Renée’s sensitivity to the difficulties of a “no participation” (traditional) view. She recognizes that the restrictions found in many traditional churches are inconsistent with New Testament practices, and those practices have been personally frustrating to her. I share her commitment to a “way of doing church that honors God and embraces revealed freedoms.”

Many other women have found traditional practices frustrating as well. Women Serving God contains essays by Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, Lauren Smelser White, and Bethany Joy Moore. They not only offer their own theological perspectives but share their own stories about growing up in churches of Christ.

At the same time, I think there are some insufficiently nuanced statements in the review. I do recognize an economy of words was necessary for such a brief piece where she intends to fairly express what insights the book has as well as her dissatisfaction with its conclusion. Understandably, she abbreviates points in order to meet the word limit she was given. Her task was a difficult one as brevity always is. I have more space in my blog response than she did in her published article. That, I hope, tempers my own remarks.

Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to respond to a few points, though neither her review nor my response can substitute for reading the book as well as her book entitled On Gender or the dialogue between Renew and myself through multiple blogs.

I will begin with her final paragraph. Her final question is: “what would our churches look like if we submitted to God’s revealed Word, taking advantage of our freedoms, and submitting to its boundaries?” I answer: it would look great!

I affirm the question and its sentiment. That is the purpose of my book: to identify the freedoms and boundaries in order to submit to the teaching of God’s word. I fear her question might insinuate that I am not interested in that agenda, but I trust Sproles recognizes that I, too, seek the same goal.

She is exactly correct that much of the problem lies within us as we presuppose certain perspectives about gender or patriarchy. That is why I wrote the book. I want to submit to God’s word just as much as Sproles does. We share this common interest and goal.

We both recognize that commands and instructions are embedded in occasional documents that address culturally situated contexts. For example, the command to greet one another with a holy kiss–a command that occurs more often than any seeming restrictions of women in the biblical text–is culturally embedded. This does not mean that culturally embedded commands are inherently relative. Rather, the commands address the readers in those contexts because they arose from a theology grounded in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. They are not simply cultural, though they are articulated within a culture. They are expressions of theological values rooted in God’s own life and identity, and they reveal the will of God. We read Scripture in order to listen to God’s voice and learn God’s will. The question is: how do we identify those values and apply them in our contemporary contexts? The search is not for “nuggets” (I never use that word in my book) but a pattern of divine activity that calls us to participate in the mission of God.

Paul says, “man is the head of woman.” I affirm that. The question is, what does Paul mean? What is the meaning of his metaphorical use of “head”? Whatever it means, Paul affirms women who pray and prophesy in the assembly as long as their own heads are covered. I offer a brief opinion as to what Paul might mean (which should not be reduced to a simple “source” understanding, though that is shorthand for a range of perspectives), but I neither stress it nor make an argument based on the meaning of “head.” This is not a major concern of mine in this book because whatever headship means, it does not delimit woman from audibly and visibly participating in the assembly, according to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Sproles and I agree that Paul authorizes women to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the worshipping assemblies of Corinth.

It is perplexing that Sproles believes the restrictive texts are more facil than difficult given the history of their interpretation. Indeed, the “limited participation” view has a wide diversity within its own advocates. Some believe women may lead worship (or singing), prayer, read Scripture, offer testimonies in a worshipping assembly, share the pulpit with a male leader in the assembly, or offer communion talks from the pulpit as well as teach Bible classes that include men. Others oppose some, if not most, of these practices. Sproles affirms some kind of “limited participation” perspective, though I am not sure where she draws the line on some of these practices. She does believe only men are to do the authoritative teaching in the assembly (and in other spaces?).

Ironically, the defense and practice of “limited participation” only emerged with any significance in the 19th century (by the earliest women itinerant preachers, in fact), and the interpretations of the restrictive texts that permitted this were not widely promoted until the late 20th century (particularly through authors like Grudem, Piper, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). The interpretations offered for “limited participation” are new interpretations. They are neither ancient nor traditional. In other words, few understood these texts as permitting “limited participation” in a worshipping assembly until the last 150 years or so. Perhaps outside pressures influenced and moved people to create a new interpretation that is now called “soft complementarianism.” That highlights the difficulty in understanding these texts, whether or not limited participation is correct. I don’t think, however, the “limited participation” view is the best understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.

These texts, particularly 1 Timothy 2:12, have been used to forbid women from voting in political elections, teaching in higher education, sitting on boards, voting in church business meetings, teaching eleven year old baptized males, teaching the Bible to any men under any circumstance, leading their husbands in prayer, baptizing men, eight year old girls from addressing a group of several men (including their fathers), pre-adolescent girls from picking up attendance cards, making announcements, or offering testimonies in the assembly, etc. I could continue this list if I wanted to use the space (some lists have over 100 items). Such applications indicate these texts have never been simple. The interpretations have been widely debated over the last 100 years unless one wants to return to a “no participation” view where, historically, women were not even permitted to sing in public worshipping assemblies during most of the Medieval period.

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a difficult text. 1 Timothy 2:12 has at least twelve different possible interpretations, and Paul’s rationale in 1 Timothy 2:13-15 has at least six different possible interpretations. Even Renew’s article on 1 Timothy characterizes their understanding of the text as one which “likely means that women should not be in a teaching role” (my emphasis). “Likely” reflects some uncertainty or at least credible doubt, and this accentuates its difficulty.

Sproles asks, “How can Galatians 3:28…be a seed text to overturn male-female distinctions in the worship since Paul, who proudly co-ministered with women, writes to Timothy in a later letter affirming gender distinctions, even grounding them in creation order?” In response, I would say, because 1 Timothy 2 does not mean what Sproles thinks it means, and Paul is not grounding his thought in a hierarchical creation order. I answer her question in the book. One may not agree with my interpretation, but the answer to Sproles’s question is fairly straightforward: Paul does not mean what Sproles thinks he means.

Moreover, I never describe Galatians 3:28 as a “seed text” as my own view, though I did use it once in reference to a broad view of “full participation” when outlining three major positions at the beginning of the book. For myself and in my argument, however, I do not claim Galatians 3:28 is a seed text. Rather, it is consistent with Paul’s theology throughout his writings and applied to varied situations. Paul calls women to fully utilize their gifts within the assembly and the church, which expresses their status as co-heirs with men, just as the enslaved are called to fully utilize their gifts as co-heirs with free peoples with the faith community.

If Genesis 1 teaches a shared vocation and identity, and Genesis 2 teaches complementarity with differentiation without hierarchy, then servant leadership is mutual. Paul affirms this mutuality rather than excluding women from participation in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Godly male leadership is present across the testaments and so is godly female leadership (Miriam led the congregation in worship, Deborah judged Israel, Huldah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the king’s representatives and the High Priest, and Esther instituted a new festival and commanded Israel to keep it).

I do appreciate that one can read my book and be left unsatisfied. I understand that. I do not expect everyone to agree. Everyone will have to do their own assessment after reading the book for themselves.

I wrote the book to begin a discussion. One of its first fruits has been the dialogue between myself and Renew. I think it has been a healthy discussion, and I invite everyone to read it.

Thanks for your review, Renée. I appreciate your commitment to the word of God and your desire to submit to it.

May God give disciples of Jesus peace, wisdom, and discernment.

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).