First Timothy 3 and 1 Titus 1 are well-known passages because the describe the qualifications for church leadership. We usually fret the most over the line about “one wife” and perhaps that the leader must have well-behaved children, but there is far more here than those two more controversial points.

TimothyLike the previous section, Paul’s main concern is that the church be organized and led in a way which gives it a good reputation with outsiders. This is also true in business: good reputations are hard to build, they take time. On the other hand, it does not take much at all to destroy a good reputation and develop a bad one.

If you have ever read a restaurant review online, you know that one bad experience can lead to a terrible review and potential lost business. One cranky customer who has bad food or poor service can leave a review (anonymously) online, and scare dozens of people away. The same is true for church.  A family could visit on a Sunday when things were not quite right in the nursery, the musicians were out of tune and didn’t really know the songs, and the pastor finished his sermon on the way to church. This family leaves “unimpressed” and never comes back, but they tell their friends that they tried “that church” and it wasn’t very good.

But Paul is not talking about “church shoppers” in this text, since that sort of thing did not exist in the first century. There are people in the congregation who are leaders in a local house church who have a bad reputation with the community. Maybe they have some shady business practices, or they are quick to bring lawsuits, or maybe they are known to attend the banquets at pagan temples and fully participate in debauchery. If the leader has a bad reputation outside the church, then they bring that dishonor with them when the “desire to be an overseer.” To remedy this situation, Paul tells Timothy (and by extension, the churches) to appoint people to the office of Elder and Deacon who are qualified spiritually and morally for the task.

First Timothy 3:1 is another “trustworthy saying.” In this case it is not a theological statement, but that the person who aspires to be a leader in the church “desires a noble task.” Desiring to be a leader of a local house church is not a bad thing at all, it is a noble task, or a “good work” (v. 1).

It is possible that this line betrays a problem in Paul’s churches in Ephesus. It appears that people were not wanting to serve as leaders in the church. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps the false teachers had created a situation where good people were not inclined to challenge them, the did not desire to become involved in leadership because it meant challenging these false teachers. A second possibility is that the role of overseer or elder was not considered to be a job people wanted to do – it was not considered a “noble task.” It is also possible that people who were capable and qualified did not see themselves as up to the task of leading the church, perhaps for a combination of the previous two points.

One serious problem reading this passage is that we hear words like elder and deacon and immediately think of our modern “office” of elder and deacon. This is not necessarily going to help understand Paul’s view of church leadership. If at all possible, it is best for us to bracket out modern church practice for a few minutes and try to read Paul in the context of first century Ephesus.

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is perhaps the most troubling in the New Testament in terms of what Paul commands for his churches and his reasons for those commands. The command is for women “to learn in quiet and submission” (v. 11). As with Paul’s commands about modest dress, the most common way to explain these verses is to say that Paul is dealing with a particular problem with overbearing women teachers in Ephesus, and that the situation is unique. He is not intending to declare that women should be absolutely silent in church!  It is best to read this passage in the context of the quiet life Paul described in the first part of this chapter and as an extension of the other disruptions to the quiet life in the preceding paragraph.

Duct TapePaul does say that women should learn, but they ought to do so with the same sort of dignified grace that he encouraged in the first seven verses of the passage. What are these women doing that is not “quiet”? This is left unstated, but it is possible that the instructions on dress and teaching which follow are the hint that some women are “taking charge” in a way which would offend Greeks and Romans.

This verse does not indicate to whom they ought to submit. It is often read as if Paul says that they ought to submit to their husbands (like Eph 5:22) or to the (male) pastor of the church. But that is not actually stated, so it is at least possible that this submission is to the word of God itself.

More difficult, Paul states that he does not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (v. 12). This is consistent with 1 Cor 14:34, and is also consistent with Jewish synagogue practice as far as we know in the first century. In addition, there is no evidence of women assuming the role of a teacher in a philosophical school or public venue.

Women did teach, but in private instruction (of children, for example). Priscilla is an example of a woman who taught Apollos in Acts 18:26. Towner suspects that Paul’s freedom in Christ gave woman and slaves far more freedom in the church meeting than they would have had in a public meeting (Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 218.).

The problem in Ephesus is wealthy women in the church who were under the influence of the opponents, who used their prominence (wealth) to promote a teaching that Paul has already rejected because it is incompatible with the Gospel.

The key word in the verse is “have authority over” (αὐθεντέω). The verb has the sense of “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to” (BDAG), and the Jerusalem Bible has “tell a man what to do.” Much ink has been spilt trying to sort out what this word means in this context. (For example, G. W. Knight, “αὐθεντέω in Reference to Women in 1 Tim. 2,12,” NTS 30 (1984) 143-57.) The noun (αὐθέντης) is usually translated master, and BDAG speculates that the word is the source of the Turkish effendi.

The verb has the connotation of domineering, going a bit beyond the teaching of a lesson from the Scriptures. In the context of a problem with “wealthy women already behaving badly,” many scholars understand this term as prohibiting these women from assuming control of the church in order to promote their particular brand of false teaching. If the problem had been “wealthy men behaving badly,” Paul would have likely said the same sort of thing to them.  (Imagine, for example, what Paul might say to Fred Phelps!)

The background in Ephesus is therefore important since it appears that some wealthy women are taking the Pauline idea of equality in Christ to insist that they be considered teachers and elders in the church and pushing their particular problematic version of the Christian faith.

1 Timothy 2 is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, primarily because of the potential abusive applications of the second half of the chapter.  It has been used to silence the voice of women in the church, despite the very clear Pauline teaching that in Christ there is neither male to female.  Perhaps the situation is clouded by American political debate over feminism and the role of women in the church. Before getting to the really controversial section, I want to set the context of the chapter.

Quiet LifePaul’s main point in 1 Timothy is that the church ought to conduct itself in a way that is honoring to God and attractive to outsiders.  In order to honor God, Paul insists that Timothy guard the truth of the Gospel and train others to keep that deposit of truth faithfully.  In this section of the letter, Paul tells Timothy that the local church must conduct meetings in such a ways as to gain the respect of outsiders.  On the one hand, this means praying for authorities, but more problematic is Paul’s concern that the behavior of some members of the congregation run the risk of repelling the outsider, the Greek or Roman who needs the Gospel.

The reason Paul gives is that the Christian community would be seen as dignified and worthy of respect (v. 3-4). Paul wants his churches to be models of a dignified “quiet life.”  What is a peaceful (ἤρεμος) and quiet (ἡσύχιος) life?  This sounds a bit Amish from our modern perspective, but these two words are Greco-Roman virtues.  Socrates was a model for the Greeks of calm in the face of peril, (Theon, Progymnasmata, 8; Rhet. Graec., II, 111, 27 f.) and rulers ought to be calm (Xenoph. Ag., 11, 2. 6. 20; Isoc. Or., 2, 23; TDNT 6:646).

In a Greek papyri dated to the sixth century A.D. (P Oxy I. 1298) a father repudiates a betrothal because he wishes that his daughter “should lead a peaceful and quiet life” (εἰρηνικὸν καὶ ἡσύχιον βίον διάξαι, MM, 281). While this is dated well after the writing of 1 Timothy, a similar use of the The word appears in PsSol 12:5:  “May the Lord protect the quiet person who hates injustice; may the Lord guide the person who lives peacefully at home.”  This is a Jewish text, probably reflecting the Pharisees, predating Paul by about 100 years.  The writer parallels one who is quiet (ἡσύχιος) and lives peacefully (although the more common εἰρήνη is used).

Paul also describes this idea life as “godly and dignified in every way.”  Both words would be idea virtues in the Greco-Roman world as well as the Christian or Jewish. The word “godly” is the common word εὐσέβεια, and was used by Diogenes Laertius (third century A.D.) for “the pious follow sacrificial custom and take care of temples” and was common used in the Aeneid to describe “pious” people (BDAG). The word translated ‘dignified” (σεμνότης) The word is often translated with the Latin gravitas.  It is often associated with “denotes a man’s visible deportment.”

This command is not unusual in the Pauline letters. “live a quiet life” is similar to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonica 4:1-12.  In that context, there were individuals who were not working to provide for their own needs.  The ultimate motivation for living in a quiet, dignified manner is that the outsiders will see this and “come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Since the quiet, dignified life was a virtue in the Greco-Roman world, any chaos or discord in the church would drive people away from the Gospel. With this “quiet dignified life” in mind, Paul then turns to a problem in the Ephesian churches which is disrupting that kind of life and potentially bringing shame on the church.

But this is not a problem limited to the ancient world. Do Christians today make it their ambition to live a life worthy of the Gospel by “living in a quiet, dignified manner”? There are far too many examples of Christians living un-quiet, undignified lives which dishonor God. What are some practical ways Christians can live the “quiet life” in contemporary culture?

Paul thanks God because God has enabled him to be faithful to the service to which he was appointed (v. 12). To “strengthen” someone is to give them the power of ability to do a particular task. This is the same verb (ἐνδυναμόω) Paul uses in Phil 4:13, and will use in 2 Tim 4:17. In both cases, Paul describes his weakness and inability to do the task God has given him, yet God gave him the strength to not only fulfill his commission, but to do so successfully.

Paul refers here to his commission to be a servant of God. The Greek noun διακονία can refer to any sort of job, assignment, or obligation. While we tend to think of “service” as those voluntary jobs we do for our church or school, the word can mean much more than that. In English we refer to someone who has been appointed to the role of an ambassador as being in the “foreign service.”

approved-stampPaul’s “appointment to service” is his commission to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). He was appointed to this particular role by God himself after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. From the very beginning of his new life, Paul was told that he was a “chosen instrument” to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This commission was repeated in a vision given to Paul while he was worshiping in the Temple (a calling not unlike Isaiah). Paul’s point here is that despite being an unlikely candidate for this particular commission, God chose him and enabled him to fulfill this his calling to be the light tot he Gentiles.

Paul also recalls his former life before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (v. 13, 16). He says that he was a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” In English, the word blasphemy has taken on the connotation of speaking against a particular religious view. In the context of the book of Acts, Paul did not “blaspheme” by speaking slanderously about God, rather, he unintentionally blasphemed by speaking slanderously about Jesus, denying he was the messiah and denying that God raised him from the dead.

But in Greek, the words translated as blasphemy (βλάσφημος, βλασφημία, and the verb βλασφημέω) are usually associate with slander, demeaning speech, or even disrespectful talk. This might be mocking a particular view, a sarcastic parody, etc., usually with the intention of shaming people who believe that sort of thing. In a public debate, it is easier to mock the opponent rather than engage their ideas. This might be personal attacks, or using a straw-man argument. It is far easier to create a simplistic characterization of a person’s ideas and attack that rather than seriously examining what they actually say!

This fits well with the third word in this line, Paul was insolent. The noun (ὑβριστής) is rare in the New Testament, only appearing here and Rom 1:30 (a vice list). The word is also rare in the LXX (10 times), but it does appear in Prov 6:17 as one of the seven things the Lord hates (“haughty eyes”). The word appears in secular descriptions of vice in secular Greek as well. Aristotle describes the wealthy as “insolent and arrogant” (Rhet. 1390b, 33); “insolence means to do and say things that bring shame to the victim” (Rhet. 2, 2, via BDAG).

Taken with the slander implied with the Greek idea of blasphemy, perhaps we can think of this sort of speech as the lowest form political discourse, the old-fashioned “mudslinging” and yellow-press tactics which most politicians say they will not use (unlike their communist, atheist, baby killing, rap music loving opponent).

Since Paul was the “worst of sinners,” God’s demonstration of patience and mercy to him was a demonstration of how great God’s mercy can be. If God was merciful to Paul, of all people, then how much more will he be merciful to you? This is perhaps an intentional contrast with the false teachers he will mention in verse 20.

Paul therefore claims to have been called to serve God, but sees that calling as an example of God’s grace. Anyone who is called to any form of ministry ought to see their calling as just that, God lavishing his grace on someone who is unworthy.  This humble way of thinking seems to me to be missing in too many western (American) ministries.

In order to illustrate what he means by “the disobedient, ungodly, and sinners,” Paul offers a sin-list. For the most part, this list is the standard sort of things that one expects.  Paul has two words for sexual sins.  The first covers a wide range of deviancy from norm, the second refers specifically to homosexuality (ἀρσενοκοίτης).  From BDAG:  “Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution. . .or limited to contract with boys for homoerotic service” Remarkably, “enslavers” is on the list (ἀνδραποδιστής). The word only appears here and might be translated as “kidnapper,” although in a first century context a person might be kidnapped in order to make them a slave.

1 Timothy

Remarkably, the final item in Paul’s list is “anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine.” Paul’s description of “sound doctrine” is “healthy” teaching (τῃ ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ).  This description of sound doctrine appears here and in 2 Tim 4:3 and Titus 1:9, 2:1; “sound words” in 1 Tim 6:3, 2 Tim 1:13, “sound in faith” in Titus 1:13, 2:2.

The definition of “sound doctrine” in verse 11 is “the gospel which was entrusted to Paul.” This is not unlike the sorts of things we read in other Pauline letters.  Paul frequently refers to being given the gospel as a sacred trust from God, his commission to preach the Gospel among the Gentiles is a calling from God.

To be “entrusted” with the Gospel is a critically important concept in 1 Timothy. Paul was entrusted with the gospel, he has passed that Gospel on to Timothy, and Timothy is now responsible for guarding that deposit of faith in the next generation. “Healthy Doctrine” is the only cure for the “unhealthy doctrine” of Paul’s opponents in Ephesus.  By teaching the truth, Timothy will expose the false in the “other gospel” which is being promoted in Paul’s churches.

I am rightFrequently in both letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus Paul emphasizes holding to the traditions which were already delivered to the church. This body of truth is called “sound doctrine” or “sincere faith” or simply “the truth.”  Timothy’s task included appointing good elders and deacons who will hold to the Gospel which was initially preached in the city and will be excellent examples of living out the Christian life so that outsiders will be attracted to the Gospel.

What is sometimes overlooked is Paul’s solution to the problems in Ephesus.  He does not recommend that more ecclesiastical structure be imposed on the local churches.  He tells Timothy to appoint qualified elders and deacons, but the qualifications are fidelity to Paul’s teaching and high moral commitments.

Unfortunately most Christians define “healthy doctrine” as “what I  believe” and bad doctrine as “what that church across the street believes.”  This is not at all what Paul has in mind here!  He has not created a 39 point doctrinal statement that has to be signed by all members of the church for them to be declared “orthodox.”  For Paul, the core of the Gospel is non-negotiable, but also a set of ethical parameters which work out the gospel in very practical ways.  Rather than declaring the Calvinist or Arminianism “right” or “wrong”, Paul ask if the Gospel is clearly preached, are the members of the  the congregation behaving in a way that brings honor to the Gospel.

I understand the importance of doctrinal statements (I sign several every year myself).  They help define communities of believers around a common set of beliefs.  But it is remarkable that conformity to the Gospel and proper ethical conduct are the two tests Paul set for Timothy when dealing with the opponents in Ephesus.

Do churches (or individuals) err by putting too much emphasis on either “sound doctrine” or “good morals”? If there a place for a “doctrinal statement,” what can be done to keep this statement from becoming more important than Scripture?

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

didache-largeThis may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders). By the end of the first century a short book of church practice known as Didache did circulate, although the contents are not quite the same as this collection of material.

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles. Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

What are the implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in these two letters? Does this “early Christian standard” of ethics help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century?

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

The idea that the church is the bride of Christ is common in popular thinking, especially in hymns and songs. This is based on the common metaphor drawn from the Hebrew Bible that Israel is God’s bride. Beginning in Hosea, the prophets use the metaphor of a marriage relationship frequently to describe God’s relationship to his people. This metaphor is almost entirely negative since Israel was an unfaithful bride. Jesus employs similar language as the Hebrew prophets, calling his himself a bridegroom and comparing both his current ministry and future return to a wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-12, 25:1-14).

Veiled BrideAs the idea that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people became dominant, it was quite easy to extend the metaphor of a marriage to the church. Just as the idea was common in the Hebrew Bible, so too the image of the church as the bride of Christ became pervasive in medieval theology and art. For many, the idea of the church as the bride of Christ is the dominant metaphor in their theology. But the basis for this metaphorical transfer is a replacement theology (even if it is implicit); anyone who rejects replacement theology will also think about the usefulness of this metaphor for the church.

It remains a fact, however, that Paul describes the church as a virgin being prepared for marriage in Eph 5:21-33. Christ’s love for the church is described in 5:25-26, 29. Paul cites foundational text for marriage in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 2) and draws an analogy from it. The relationship of Christ and church similar to that of the married couple – they are “one flesh” in Gen 2. Therefore there is some intimate connection between Christ and the church which can be described in similar terms.

There is something of an eschatological perspective in this bridal metaphor in Eph 5. Christ is the head of the church, which submits to his authority. That all things will submit to the authority of Christ is a view of the future when Christ returns (cf. Phil 2:5-11). But, on the other hand, the marriage is already in existence and there are aspects of a realized eschatology here. On the other hand, the idea of a splendid church (5:27) may imply a future eschatological element is present.

At some point in the future the church will finally be a pure and spotless bride prepared for the bridegroom at the Second Coming (the “wedding supper”). I am tempted to see this as another aspect of the already / not yet tension of Pauline eschatology, but I am not sure that Paul’s topic in Eph 5 is eschatology at all, but rather the purity of the church in the prestent age.

It could therefore be argued that Paul, who took a negative approach of sexual purity (commands not do be immoral, 5:3-7), now adopts a positive argument, “reflect the love of Christ” in sexual ethics (your own partner). The “function” of the metaphor is to get the husbands to see themselves as in some ways an “ecclesial bride,” if Christ and the church are “one flesh,” and covenant loyalty is obvious and required, then the husband ought to have the same level of commitment to their wives.

So Paul does use the marriage metaphor, but he spins in the direction of a ethical teaching on the relationship of a husband and wife in their marriage relationship.

Several times in Ephesians Paul mentions rulers and authorities, powers and dominions. Most commentators observe Paul has spiritual forces in view when he uses this kind of language. By the first century, Judaism had developed a complicated view of angelic and demonic forces which operated “behind the scenes.” Sometimes these dark forces were responsible for persecution or troubles for God’s people. In Daniel, for example, an angel tells Daniel he was delayed by the “prince of Persia” (10:21) and did not escape until Michael (the prince of Israel) came to assist him. 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) offers a detailed description of demonic activity before the flood.

PAradise LostTimothy Gombis develops this view of powers and dominions as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This book argues Paul is using imagery of spiritual warfare drawn form the Hebrew Bible to describe what Jesus has done on the cross.  Using Ephesians 1:20-23, for example, Gombis points out that Paul says that Jesus was vindicated by being raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.

This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority,  power and dominion.  These are spiritual forces at work in the world, the actors in the apocalyptic drama, as Gombis describes Ephesians.  Jesus has an authority which is so high above every spiritual thing in creation that it does not even make sense that human rulers should be considered as competitors to Jesus’ rule and authority!

Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much.  If the “rulers of this age” are the spiritual forces behind Rome, and if those spiritual forces have already been defeated, then the Empire itself is doomed to defeat.  This situation reminds me somewhat of the end of the Soviet Union.  The “union” dissolved so quickly that I imagine there were many people living in areas formerly controlled by the USSR that had no idea they were under a “new government.”  I always wondered if Gorbachev went to work one morning and found his offices “under new management,” although most of his staff just kept on working as if nothing had happened!

This is what happened when Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of the Universe, died and rose again.  The power of the spiritual forces of this dark age was broken – but it happened in such a way that the world did not really notice.  But for Paul, the victory has already been won and Rome has no real power anymore.


After spending some time reading in the so-called anti-Imperial texts in Paul, I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire.  But Paul does not encourage the sorts of anti-government protests and social actions people in the West would recognize.  The reason Paul is anti-Empire is because in reality Rome has already fallen and God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus.

I do not think that Paul is coded his letters with subtle anti-imperial language.  He is in fact drawing upon the well-known (and not particularly subtle) language drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially as it was translated in the Septuagint. Jesus is Lord, but not because Paul is encoding an anti-imperial message by using words with subversive meanings The Greek word κύριος was already used in the LXX to refer to the Lord, God of Israel.  By calling Jesus “our Lord” in Ephesians 1:2 Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Hebrew Bible.

As such, he evokes the image of Jesus as the God of the Bible, but especially in apocalyptic literature. In most apocalyptic literature, the people of God are an oppressed minority looking forward to the time when God will break into history with some sort of decisive victory of his enemies. The people of God can have confidence that their oppression is going to be reversed in the near future. God will vindicate them, reward them for their suffering and punish the oppressors.  For most of apocalyptic, the evil empire can be safely ignored since the time of its final judgment is near.

Does Paul think the Roman government can be safely ignored?  This seems to be the case since Rome has already been defeated!  God decreed long ago that the coming Son of Man would destroy the power of the kingdoms of men and establish the rule of the Ancient of Days. With the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the power of the empire has already been broken.

The “son of man” language comes from Daniel 7:14, but I would include the image of the statue from Daniel 2 as well.  The greatest of the kingdoms of men will be destroyed and turned to dust when God rises to defend his people.  The grand conclusion to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is that God will restore his people to Zion by dealing justly with the kingdoms of this world.  Paul says that this apocalyptic event in many ways happened when Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God.

If this is on target, Paul describes the death of Jesus as victory of apocalyptic proportions! Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?

I read an article by Denny Burk in JETS a few years ago which was a decent summary of anti-Imperial readings of Paul, although I think that he has lumped N. T. Wright along with Richard Horsely and Hal Taussig. To me, Wright is not doing the same sort of work as Horsely, even though there are some similarities.  Both make the same sorts of observations concerning Paul’s alleged use of imperial language, but Horsely and Taussig take the issue much further than Wright by applying Paul’s anti-Imperialism to the imperialism of the United States.

SpartacusFirst I will lay out the basics of anti-Imperial readings of Paul and then I will make a few observations about why this is an important issue for reading Ephesians.

The increased interest in the impact of the Imperial cult in Asia Minor in the first century has driven anti-imperial readings of Paul.  In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord (κύριος) and god in art and coinage.  Since he was the one who brought peace (εἰρήνη) into the world, the emperor should be thought of as the savior (σωτήρ)  of the world.  News of the Emperor was announced as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον).  This imperial propaganda was pervasive and could not be avoided, although most people in the first century would have simply accepted the equation of “Caesar as God” and moved on with life.

Paul preached the good news that Jesus was the Lord and savior of the world, the one who brings peace.  For those of us with Christian ears, these words are all quite familiar .  But to anyone who heard them in the first century Roman world they were just as familiar, but applied to Caesar, not Jesus!  By calling Jesus Lord, it is argued, Paul is setting up an implicit anti-Roman narrative.  Once words like gospel, Lord, savior, and peace are taken as anti-imperial, then other less common Pauline concepts are seen through this lens, such as the language used for the return of Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-18.

For the most part, the implications of these anti-Imperial readings of Paul for reading Ephesians is to confirm the non-Pauline nature of the book.  It is thought that Ephesians lacks the anti-Imperialism of Romans or other certain Pauline letters, This is evidence of a later, more pro-imperial writer.  This is a major factor for Crossan and Reed in their In Search of Paul.  Ephesians is not considered to be Pauline because of the reversal of the egalitarianism evident in Romans and Galatians.

But as Wright says early on in his Paul: A Fresh Perspective, “The argument recently advanced (in North America particularly) that Ephesians and Colossians are secondary because they move away from confrontation with the Empire to collaboration with it is frankly absurd.”  The reason for this “absurdity” is that Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text.  In fact, if there is actually an anti-empire subtext in the choice of terms Paul uses to describe Jesus and his mission, the Ephesians ought to be considered right at the heart of Pauline anti-Imperialism.   I suspect the section on submission of wives drives Ephesians out of the Pauline corpus for most of the anti-Imperialist scholars.

What elements of Ephesians might be considered “anti-imperialist”?   What benefit is there in reading Ephesians 1-2 in this way?


Burk, Denny.  “Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology,” JETS 51 (2009): 309-338.

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About Me

Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time. Author of Jesus the Bridegroom(Wipf & Stock 2014).

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle

ACI Profile for Phillip J. Long

Christian Theology


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