Paul, Power and Gender


There is a longstanding error in biblical studies of failing to see how Paul’s theology of Christian power informed his theology of gender. References in Paul’s letters to ecclesial order, such as addresses to elders and deacons, have been mistaken to represent a Pauline endorsement of communal hierarchy within the church. Similarly, passages pertaining to gender such as 1 Timothy 2 have been interpreted as instructing a kind of God-ordained gender hierarchy. Both these apparent endorsements of hierarchical power differentials among Christians have created an interpretive grid that has disallowed many readers and scholars from seeing the true revolutionary nature of Paul’s theology of power. This filtering has led to the widespread assumption of a kind of hierarchical Pauline theology that has then fed back into the interpretive loop as an additional lens through which the gender passages have been interpreted. 

The result has been an assumed theology in support of power and communal hierarchy that has then shaped Pauline interpretation. Paul then is seen to institute relationships of authority and submission in numerous passages, including those pertaining to gender and the church. Elders are to have authority over their congregations and men are to have authority over women. This traditional interpretation is the cyclical and self-reinforcing result of the traditional interpretation of Paul and power. To view Paul as endorsing authoritarian, hierarchical leadership leads one to see Paul also endorsing differences between male and female status and authority. The opposite is also true. A self-reinforcing interpretive loop has been established based upon interpretations of Paul’s theology of power, and therefore neither the traditional view of gender nor of power can be reconsidered without the other being reconsidered as well. 

The thesis of this paper is that the traditional views on Paul’s theology of power and gender are both wrong. This self-reinforcing interpretive grid has functioned to perpetuate misinterpretation both in the realm of gender differentiation and the Christian ethics of social power more broadly. Paul adopted a radical view of power directly from Christ’s teachings and applied that ethic to the New Testament churches. The very passages used to support gender complementarity and restrictions upon women in ministry are, ironically and tragically, those in which Paul sought to apply his ethics of power to men and women such as to elevate and empower women as full and equal co-heirs in the kingdom and the church. 

Paul and power

Jesus consistently taught his disciples a foundational kingdom ethic of the reversal of the world’s ways of power and status. Following Christ’s self-sacrifice and resurrection, the apostles finally came to fully understand this lesson and consistently adopted Christ’s ethics pertaining to power. 

Each of the synoptic gospels contains stories of Jesus’ disciples vying for positions of status in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus responded, saying, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant (diakonos, i.e. deacon) of all” (Mk. 9:35, Mt. 18:14, Lk. 22:26). Additionally, Jesus explicitly prohibited his followers from conforming to the way the world construed status, hierarchy and social power: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42-45, Mt. 20:25-28; see also Lk. 22:24-30). In addition, Christ’s disciples are to take on the lowly status of young people and children (Mt. 18:3, 19:13-15, Mk. 10:15, Lk. 22:26). According to Matthew, Jesus even went so far as to prohibit hierarchical religious roles amongst the church and instructed his followers to construe themselves as equal siblings with Christ alone is our teacher and instructor and God alone is our father figure (Matt. 23:8-10).

Jesus clearly and overtly commanded that the church be a radically equal and egalitarian community free from the hierarchy and power structures of the world. He put his own life forward as the ultimate example both to validate this ethic and to add severe moral weight to its adherence. If even the Son of Man came to serve, then so ought his followers: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mt. 10:38, 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lk. 9:23, 14:27; see also Jn. 12:25-26). This consistent, central, and explicit teaching of Christ constituted a fundamental Christian ethic of relinquishing power over others. Living according to this ethic was at the very heart of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ, and it was heeded and applied by Paul and the apostles.

Peter made direct reference to multiple facets of these teachings on power when he wrote to high status older people in the community and told them to be, “eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1-3). This is based not only on Christ’s example and teaching but also the predominant Old Testament theme that, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (v5; Prov. 3:34 and also 1 Sam. 2:7-8, 2 Sam. 22:28, Ps. 18:27, 147:6, 149:4, Is. 2:9-17, Matt. 23:12, Lk. 1:48-52, 14:11, 18:14, Jas. 4:6-10). In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter is simply applying Christ’s teachings regarding the reversal of status and nullification of power differential in God’s kingdom to one of the very relationships Christ explicitly mentioned: Old people and young people. The resulting ethical application is that the old people in power are to relinquish their culturally-assigned status and authority and act instead like lowly shepherds and caretakers, while the lower status young people are to follow Christ’s humility by choosing to continue their culturally-assigned submission. 

This is precisely what Paul does throughout his epistles. He heeds Jesus’ teachings, puts himself forward as one who is following Christ’s example and commands, instructs the church to imitate him as he imitates Christ in this way (1 Cor. 11:1), and then carefully applies this Christian ethic to the various relational power differentials in the church. 

In doing so, Paul too makes explicit textual reference to Christ’s teachings summarized above. In 1 Cor. 9:19 Paul quotes Jesus directly, saying, “I have made myself a slave to everyone”. Elsewhere he tells the churches to do likewise (Gal. 5:13). In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he is explicit on Philemon’s ethical responsibility as a Christian: To give up his mastery over Onesimus and see him anew, “no longer as a slave but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (v16). Careful attention to Paul’s use of the word energes(effective) in verse 6 reveals a warning that for Philemon to refuse to relinquish power in this way would prove him ineffective in his Christian faith

This is entirely consistent with Paul’s Christian theology of relinquishing power. In the world, variegated status is designated to the parties of various social relationships. The person designated with status is granted power, and the person in the inferior position is expected to practice submission. The hierarchy itself and the behavior assigned to each member of the social ladder were based intrinsically on ontological superiority. All have been deemed equal and granted equal status in Christ, however. Therefore, the differences in authority that came from such differences in status have been nullified: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29; see also 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 3:11, Rom. 10:12).

Slaves, children, gentiles and women

Paul sets the Jew/Gentile, slave/free and male/female relationships in analogy intentionally. They represent the most pressing forms of socially assigned power differential that Paul must subvert with the gospel. Paul is explicitly signaling in these nullification passages that the issue at hand is power and that there are multiple parallel situations in which Christ’s ethics must be practically applied. 

This then is precisely what we see happening in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1. Paul looks at the household of Christ and points to three sets of common status-laden relationship structures that all need equivalent restructuring in the church: Husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and slaves. As Cynthia Long Westfall asserts, “In the pairs of relationships addressed, the wives, children, and slaves are to maintain behavior that is acceptable within the culture, while directions to the husbands, parents, and masters are revolutionary. Paul places the responsibility and obligation for sociological transformation in the Christian community upon those who have power, while he reverses the culture’s negative evaluation of those without power, which is consistent with Jesus’ teachings.”[1]

Many complementarians like Tom Schreiner assume that because Paul here and elsewhere tells women, slaves and children to submit to their socially assigned “masters”, then Paul is implying that those masters ought to maintain authority. In other words, if wives are ethically obligated by Paul to submit to their husbands, then husbands are obligated to keep and use patriarchal authority over their wives. Paul never commands such a thing, however, and instead firmly suggests that every person in a position of status over another is to follow Christ by racing to the bottom of the social ladder. To Paul, every Christian has a moral and religious responsibility to “deny themselves” and imitate Jesus by becoming servants. This is what it means to be great in the kingdom. For those in positions of cultural clout, this requires an intentional and self-sacrificial descent as one willfully relinquishes this power.

As Westfall says, the responsibility and obligation is on those who have power. Just as Christ had the full status of equality with God but chose to relinquish it, so to must socially empowered Christians “become nothing” by taking on the role and identity of a servant (Php. 2:5-9). For those like women and slaves who already inhabited the dregs of the social hierarchy, however, they are right where they would otherwise want to be as Christians! They’re already at the bottom, in relationships of self-sacrificial submission. To such people in positions of low status, Paul exhorts neither that they buck the shackles and seize power for themselves nor that they continue submitting as inferior subjects. Rather, he encourages them to submit and serve “as unto the Lord,” “as slaves of Christ” (Eph. 5:22, 6:5, Col. 3:18, 20, 22). In other words, Paul subverts the Greco-Roman assertion that women or slaves are inferior beings and instead bestows them with dignity and honor as co-heirs (Rom. 8:17), fellow servants (Col. 1:7, 4:7) and equal siblings (Rom. 1:13 and more). 

The end goal is that every Christian arrive at the location of low-status servant so that all serves all in an egalitarian community of Christ-like servants (Gal. 5:13, 2 Cor. 4:5). This is the explicit overarching point of the Ephesians 5:21-6:9 passage: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). It takes different and even opposing actions for those on opposite ends of a power differential to arrive at this same destination of mutual submission. Those with power must relinquish it and descend, while those without power are elevated to equal honor and status but continue in their previous way of submission, only now unto Christ. All must follow the same Christian ethic of sacrificing power to take on the role of servant, but each must apply it to their unique station in society. 

That this leveling and nullification within the churches is Paul’s aim is evidenced by the peculiar alternation between parents and fathers in both Ephesians and Colossians. Paul tells the low status children to obey and honor their parents (Eph. 6:1-3, Col. 3:20), but then he turns to address not the parents but the fathers in particular (Eph. 6:4, Col. 3:21). Why? Paul’s focus here is power, and in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day it was fathers who unilaterally maintained power over their children and household. It was the fathers in particular, apart from their wives, who were likely to use this power to exasperate and embitter their children. This is clear proof, attested in two of Paul’s general epistles, that he did not address husbands and wives in order to institutionalize gender roles or gender hierarchy in the church any more than to affirm slavery as a “God-ordained” order of human relationships. Rather, Paul circled the predominant societal relationships marked by domination and subjugation and he applied his Christian ethic of relinquishing power as a balm. 

In the complementarian defense of gender hierarchy, it is often asserted that differences in authority do not equate to differences in equality. Women are fully equal to men, it is suggested, but they are to express their equal nature in willful submission to “the headship and priority of men”.[2]The fact that Paul places the male-female relationship in analogy to the Jew-Gentile and slave-free relationships, however, reveals that Paul could not have agreed. The book of Acts and the entire canon of New Testament epistles attests to the slow, hard-fought liberation of gentile believers to full status in the early church. It is absolutely essential to note that this full status included the unprejudiced acceptance of non-Jewish Christians into any and every position of leadership in the church. The same goes for slaves and women. The nullification of their lowly status in Christ has not been fully enacted, according to Paul’s radical ecclesiology, until they are granted every bit of equal authority. Indeed, to Paul, equal authority is the essence of equality. This is attested by the fact that the status-nullification passages occur in the contexts of who gets to rule and who must remain a slave (Gal. 3:28-4:31, division over status regarding spiritual gifts and ministry (1 Cor. 11-14), and mutual submission (Col. 3:1-4:1). Therefore, it is only logical and coherent to expect that Paul’s default approach to gender would follow his approach to power everywhere else: That those with power in Christ would relinquish it so that all might be servants, submitting unanimously to one another (Eph. 5:21, Gal. 5:13). 

“Women should have authority”  

 Considering Jesus’ clarity and emphasis in his rebuke of worldly status and power and Paul’s overt pastoral application of this very ethic to every concerning social relationship, we can see that Christ’s life and teachings ought to have been our interpretive grid relating to gender. They were Paul’s. “Not so with you” and “do not lord over” are fundamental to the Christian community. Indeed, every time Paul pointed to Christ as Lord[3]he implied that no one else can possibly justify their own lordship. If even the true Lord (kyrios) of the cosmos refused to lord over (katakyrieuousin) anyone, then no Christian man can defend his right to lord over a woman, slave, outsider or otherwise. Indeed Christ placed “lording over” (katakyrieuousin) in parallel with exercising authority/power” (katexousiazousin) and prohibited both. He also did away with hierarchical roles in the church (Mt. 23:8-12). Therefore, from the onset it is no great overstatement to say that the entire complementarian position establishing male-only leadership roles in the church (and sometimes home and culture as well) is on shaky ground in light of Christ’s teaching. The fact that Paul is so obviously reverent to this teaching and seeking to enact it in the church communities further undermines the complementarian view. In light of a decent reading of Paul on power, in other words, the onus is on complementarians to give evidence for the traditional interpretations of the debated Pauline passages on gender.

One such passage is 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, where Paul discusses the practice of women wearing veils during worship. While space here is insufficient to discuss all the major considerations for interpretation, Westfall and others have argued convincingly that one or more women in the Corinthian church likely wanted to veil while some of the men in the church wouldn’t allow it.[4]While we often assume women wanted to be liberated from veiling and Paul uses his authority to command that they do so anyway, the passage makes far more sense when considering the role of veiling in Greco-Roman culture, and even in veiling cultures today. 

Roman law explicitly forbade female slaves and prostitutes from wearing veils, because veils symbolized that a woman was sexually off-the-market. Married women wore veils symbolizing that they were the property of their husbands, and such women were illegal to sexually assault. Unveiled lower-class women, however, were legal to rape and considered the sexual property of male society at large. It is almost guaranteed that the Corinthian church included female slaves and prostitutes, as the early church was most popular amongst women and the lower class. 

Therefore, when Paul gives the direction that women should veil, he is honoring the wishes of the most vulnerable members of the church and allowing them the radical and even illegal honor of marking themselves off as equal-status members of the community. This is explained by the rampantly mistranslated line that states clearly, “It is for this reason a woman ought to have authority over her own head” (v10). In other words, rather than using his own male and apostolic authority to lay down a law reinforcing male dominance and female subjugation in the Corinthian church, Paul takes power from the men and grants it to the disempowered, vulnerable women. It is the women in the community, rather than the men, who are to have authority over their bodies. In verse 16, Paul is most likely anticipating male resistance to this bold move, saying, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.” In radical opposition to Greco-Roman gender norms, women are not to be treated as patriarchal subjects of men either in Corinth or in any other church. 

At this point, therefore, we have considered Paul’s theology of power derived directly from Jesus and his correlated ecclesiology of status nullification. We have also looked at three of the primary Pauline passages typically used to support complementarian gender hierarchy. Every piece of evidence thus far supports the idea that Paul wanted women to be given every bit of freedom and authority granted to men in the church. 

One additional passage is 1 Corinthians 14:34-39, where Paul says that women should be quiet in church. Much more can be said, but here I will simply say that this passage must be read in context and the context is the universal distribution of ministry by the sole metric of the Holy Spirit’s choosing and Paul’s exhortation to every Christian, male and female, to prophecy in the church. Common sense hermeneutics, therefore, demand that the plain passages clarify the more ambiguous passages, such that Paul cannot be barring women from church ministry or public speech here. Many scholars have suggested that the best explanation is that uneducated women who were busy cooking and cleaning for the house church gathering were talking during the gathering, interrupting the Spirit-enabled edification that all of 1 Corinthians 11-14 addresses. 

This leads us to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the most important New Testament passage on gender. Our first point must be once again that we have a clear body of evidence from Jesus’ example, his teachings, and Paul’s pastoral application of both throughout all of his general epistles in such a way that would seemingly disavow any possibility of gender hierarchy in Pauline churches. The letters to Timothy, as one half of private correspondence between Paul and Timothy pertaining to a specific issue of false teachings in Ephesus, constitute perhaps the most context-specific texts in all of the New Testament. 1 Timothy 2 is also one of the most debated New Testament passages. Basic hermeneutical principles demand that we prioritize the other more broad and clear passages over this one. However, complementarians like Schreiner explicitly admit to using 1 Timothy 2 as an interpretive grid through which they interpret the rest of Paul, and perhaps even Jesus.[5]This is precisely backward. 

Therefore, hermeneutics alone suggests that Paul cannot be prescribing a God-ordained rule that women should not teach or have authority in churches. However, a litany of other interpretive considerations point to a different interpretation anyway. The word “to exercise authority over” in v12 is authenteinin Greek, a word used nowhere else in the Bible. However, it is used several times in the Patristic writings and always connotes an evil exercise of authority equivalent to tyrannizing, domineering, or overpowering. In other words, the idea that Paul is barring women from what only men can do is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying. Rather, Paul is saying that women shouldn’t be domineering men in the same way that no Christian of any gender should be domineer another person. This is, yet again, plainly consistent with the rest of Paul’s theology in a way the complementarian interpretation simply is not. The meaning of Paul’s directions likely derives from the nature of the false teachings, which had something to do with stories told by old women (1 Tim. 4:7) and false teachers who sought to take advantage of “gullible women” (2 Tim. 3:6).

Additionally, nowhere does the passage state that Adam’s creation prior to Eve implied any sort of authority or superiority. Elsewhere Paul refers to the order of creation in a larger discussion on feminine sexuality and sexual risk (1 Cor. 11:2-16). Also, Paul’s other reference to Eve’s having been deceived had nothing to do with women specifically but served as a figural and literary use of the Old Testament to warn the church, male and female, about the risks and consequences of being deceived (2 Cor. 11:2-4). Therefore, the entire notion that Paul is rooting male authority and female subordination in creation is artificially projected onto the text. 


After all our considerations of Paul’s theology of power and gender, it is evident how strained the complementarian interpretation of Paul really is. Indeed, what complementaraians traditionally assert as God’s divine design for men and women sounds a lot more like a description of the curse placed on Eve after that fall than anything in Paul. Being a woman is difficult because, in large part, they maintain desire for male relationships and yet men constantly rule over them (Gen. 3:16). This makes motherhood and sexual reproductive relationships especially painful (3:15).[6]In other words, male domination is put forth as one of the primary problems with the world that God has been seeking to resolve ever since, not a part of some divine hierarchical scheme.

Paul believed that God had indeed begun to renew all of creation, men and women included, in and through Christ. The new creation had begin to break into the old (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15), and Paul believed that the church was meant to be an outpost of the new creation manifesting renewal to the rest of the world. Out in the world, people lord over one another, but not so in Christ. In the fallen world, men dominate and abuse their wives and children and make other people their slaves, but in Christ, such men are to become slaves themselves so that women and slaves can be lifted up as co-heirs in Christ. In other words, I believe gender hierarchy was an idea known to Paul, but one he attributed to the world ruled by the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12). Therefore, Paul viewed the male domination of traditional complementarianism as an evil residue attributed to the fall that God was seeking to do away with in Christ, and therefore, it had no place in the church. 






[1]Westfall, Cynthia Long, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, (Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, 2016) p102

[2]Schreiner, Tom. Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, (IVP: Downers Grove, 2001) p403

[3]54 times in his epistles

[4]Westfall, Cynthia Long, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, (Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, 2016) p25-43

[5]Schreiner, Tom. Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, (IVP: Downers Grove, 2001) p401

[6]Whether the term here refers to the act of childbirth (ie delivering a baby) or the process of child rearing (ie motherhood) is debated by scholars. Both could make sense in this context. 


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