Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

8.2.3 Application/Discussion

Walking on a Tight-Rope with Paul in Three Situations

In ethical matters, the apostle Paul manages a tightrope walk that requires sure-footedness in ethical judgements and has not always been readily understood by others, leading to a fall from one side or the other of his tightly spun rope. The following concrete situations are especially notable: The Role of Women in the Church Christians and Governmental Authority Slavery



Solve a current conflict in your own church with Paul’s approach to them. A fine side-effect will be that theological swaggering on both sides will come to naught! 

For example: a catholic visitor to your church is upset by your handling of the communion bread and the wine after your church service. Solve this with an eye on favoring the “weakest. The Role of Women in Church

In this debate, Paul maintains two chains of argument that are not congruent and stand in tension with each other: 

The highest goal of his ethic, the well-being of the church as the body of Christ, demands that:

  1. Women submit themselves to men (Ephesians 5:22) because
    1. Chaotic circumstances loomed or had already infiltrated the church
    2. This is the normal order of the existing society of his time
    3. Because the church, if it is to be persecuted, should be persecuted because of the Gospel  and not because of revolutionary social ideas. 


To these, for his time normal assertions, Paul added restrictions that the men of his time would have probably perceived to be dreadful impositions. Namely that:

  1. Men must submit to Christ and love their wives (Eph 5:25 – )
    1. Because Christ is their head. In opposition to the status quo of their time, men suddenly found themselves with restrictions with regard to their position in relation to women. 

Preceding these verses, which undoubtedly speak of submission, Paul places a “heading” of sorts – a statement of equality with a decidedly different chain of argumentation. 

  • Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:21)

The weight of this statement as a heading to the statements that follow it is substantial. To this line of argumentation other Pauline statements such as “here is neither man nor woman” (Gal 3:28). However, the implementation of submission is far more extensively practiced. 

Forming an Ethical Judgment:

While these statements today are read as being an imposition upon women, in the time in which they were written, they would have been understood as an imposition towards men. 

If the weight of the first line of argument is to be assessed by the number of times it is mentioned in the Apostle’s letters (e.g. Col. 3:18 -) then this argument would clearly be given primacy. 

However, if you consider the heading in Ephesians 5:21 to be the key to the whole approach, then the second line of argumentation becomes weightier and one must profess that both sexes stand at an eye-level. What also speaks for this is the hermeneutical principle which states that in a text written for a particular society, whatever in the text deviates from the norms of that society is the message intended for the original audience. The wellbeing of Christ’s church today also does not necessarily need the same things today that the church needed in Paul’s time. If one decides this way then it does not mean demeaning the scriptures but rather taking them seriously: “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life!” (2 Cor. 3:6) Christians and Governmental Authority: Romans 13 and Acts 13

Foundation: Christians are dual citizens because they are citizens of two worlds: our home is in heaven and our domicile on Earth. 

Jesus: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21) and “my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

Dual citizenship can be exciting but always comes with problems. Some of these problems can only be solved with unsatisfactory compromises

Romans 13 played a fatal role throughout church history as a justification for oppression and subjugation. However it directly follows Rom 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” This is not pious naivete either: Paul knows what’s awaiting him in Rome. It is a not entirely risk free tightrope walk. Paul represents a “mixture of order ethics and morality of gentleness” (Berger). He can be understood from two main thoughts:

First, the only important thing is the impending Kingdom of God (Romans 13:12 “the day is almost here”). Everything else is secondary, incidental, conditional: we have as if we do not: 1 Cor 7:29 and following. Here again, his message lies very close to Jesus’ message: “but seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). If they persecute you, then make sure it is because of the Gospel and not because of your criticism of the admittedly poor governance in Rom. Don’t get bogged down in the realm of the “second to last.” (Bonhoeffer drew a distinction between the last and the second-to-last, however then came to the opposite conclusion in the resistance against the Nazis).

Second, morally good does not necessarily equal ethical ideals (e.g. Plato’s idea of the good). Morally good, rather, is what is beneficial to the church as the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 10:23). Criticizing the system in Rome, especially because of its obvious legitimacy, would have been deadly for the early church. 

Finally, authority, even if it is bad authority, has a God-given function in maintaining order, and is preferable to chaos. Every authority checks at least some evil, ultimately by God’s mandate. It is a part of God’s creation order. Even revolution eats its young, so to speak. If there is any doubt, it is preferable to just bear it – the renunciation of violence instead of violent overthrow. 

Revelation 13: The Bible also offers a very different assessment of the authorities in Rome: Rev 13 calls it the incarnation of Satan. The state has been equipped by Satan almost like a counter-church. It must be borne by Christians but: they may not worship the incarnation of evil! They must accept suffering as sent by God (Acts 13:9 and following, consistent with Jer. 15:2). 

While both texts offer very different views on the state, both texts have the following in common: authority, even bad authority, is God given. And finally, both perspectives meet again: “this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people” (Rev 13:10).

Martin Luther strongly emphasized the necessity of authority and maintained that no violence is against it is allowable, though even he admitted realistically that most lords were more bad than good. He saw an important exception however: in spiritual matters, resistance against authority is permitted. Slavery

With regards to slavery, what was stated above about Romans 13 also applies: Paul’s position on slavery had very ugly, terrible consequences since it was taken as a Christian legitimization of the institution. As above, in this argument, there are also two “chains” of thought: 

  1. Political order: serve your earthly master as you do your heavenly Master (Col 3:22)
  2. The freedom established in Christ: “here is neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28)


Here again, one must consider:

  1. The highest criterion in Paul’s decision making is love, concretized in the wellbeing of the church as the body of Christ. Had he, as we often wish, decided differently, Christ would have become Spartacus and Christians would have mutated into Spartans. 
  2. In Paul’s time, Christians must have seemed revolutionary when one keeps in mind the approach to slaves in that time: 

“towards the unliving, there is no friendship and no justice; not for the horse, the cow, or the slave, in so far as he is a slave. There is simply no common ground: the love is an ensouled tool and tools are soulless slaves.” (Aristotle, Nicomanchean Ethics, Book 8. Chp 13)

  1. Brave and beautiful is Paul’s balancing act in the letter to Philemon. 


Digression: in Col 3:22 and the following verses there is a novel Christian Professional Ethic! 

Luther picked this up with the creation of the word “vocation.” According to Luther, a maid sweeping the courtyard is service to God. The job of the nun and the cleaner of her bathrooms are both service to God (Siebald).

For example: three mason working on a cathedral are asked what they do for a living and they give three very different answers 

  • I work with stone
  • I make money
  • I’m building the cathedral