Interpreting the Complex and Often Misunderstood Paul

Have you ever put your foot in your mouth? Our words can betray us, and don’t always reflect who we are. Based on his own words, the Apostle Paul, at times, has been labeled a misogynist and an antisemite. Two labels he doesn’t deserve, but also a reminder of how easy it is for us to misunderstand his words. [231]

paul's letters


The Long Reach of the Apostle Paul

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16). 


Peter had his difficult moments with Paul, but in the end, he understood the long shadow cast by this towering figure of first-century Christianity.


Paul is the most important voice in the New Testament after Jesus. His writings have shaped much of western Christianity. Our theology, Christology, and soteriology owe a great debt to Paul.


Paul may have influenced as much as sixty percent of the New Testament content. [232] It should come as no surprise then that limitations on the role of women in the church are almost exclusively based on the writings of Paul. [233]


I will briefly review the place of both Gentile and Jewish women in Hellenistic Macedonia and Asia, where Paul lived and worked. I will then examine the role of women in Paul’s ministry.


Finally, I will examine the four Scripture texts from the Pauline corpus that are most relevant to this debate [234] — the three that are most often interpreted to limit the role of women in the church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-37; and 1 Timothy 2:11-15) and the one that is used to propose no limits on the role of women in the church (Galatians 3:28).


Before we begin, however, I need to clarify the process of interpreting Paul’s letters. I apologize ahead of time, as this will seem off the subject. I considered placing it in the Appendix. However, I believe it is essential to understanding the writings of Paul.


Understanding the Misunderstood Paul

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:4b-7). 


It has long been noted that Paul was a product of three cultures. [235] In this way, he was uniquely prepared for the work God called him to complete. Therefore, Paul should be interpreted through these cultural prisms.


He was born a Jew (Hebrew culture), raised in the Greco-Roman world (Hellenistic culture), and called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ (the emerging Christian culture). It is always Paul the Jew, the Hellenist, and the Christian that must be considered in interpreting his letters.


Paul’s Theological and Missional Lenses

To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).


There are also several theological prisms through which Paul should be interpreted. These are the primary driving factors in his approach to God’s work.


They are (1) an eschatological urgency, (2) pragmatic missiology, and (3) radical universalism.


Paul’s eschatological urgency was based on his experience with the resurrected Jesus and had two primary effects.


First, it produced a narrowing of priorities.


His eschatological urgency caused him to have little concern for tertiary matters. It not only drove him to travel the world like a mad man, preaching Jesus and setting up ad hoc gospel missional outposts, it also clarified his priorities.


The advice he gave in his letters often reflected this narrowed focus. [236]


The other consequence of Paul’s eschatological urgency was functional pragmatism.


If a person genuinely believes that the world could end any day, he or she will suddenly have tremendous clarity on what is most important. Knowing that “the time is short,” causes little patience for anything that diverts the focus from primary objectives (Phil. 3:12-14).


In other words, he or she would be very pragmatic.


This seemed to be the case with Paul. Theologically, Paul was a visionary, but as a missiologist, he was a realist and a pragmatist. [237]


The third prism through which Paul should be interpreted is radical universalism. [238]


Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. He believed that Jesus came from God as Messiah of Israel, but Paul also came to understand that the salvation offered was for every person, from every tribe on earth.


This may seem obvious today. After all, Jesus called his disciples to make disciples of all people groups (Matt. 28:28).


However, at the genesis of the church, this was anything but a foregone conclusion.


Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, and the other leaders wrestled with what to do with Gentiles who were making a commitment to Christ. Were they to be allowed into the church with the same status as the Jewish Christians? What was to be required of them? [239]


As a result, Paul often found himself fighting against those who did not want to see what they viewed as a radical deconstruction of traditional Judaism for the more universal outlook of Paul and his friends.


The problem manifested itself in both the incorporation of and separation from, the new and growing Gentile Christian population.


The traditionalists within the church, centered mostly in Palestinian (Jerusalem) and Syrian (Antioch) Christianity, wanted both a more stringent incorporation policy which included male circumcision, and a separation of the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians, mainly because of strict dietary laws. [240]


It’s not that they didn’t want Gentiles to follow Christ, they simply wanted them either to assimilate into a Jewish lifestyle or separate to form their own communities within Christianity.


This was a constant source of frustration for Paul.


Daniel Boyarin views Paul as a radical Jew based on his radical universalism. [241] Boyarin makes a convincing case for the uniqueness of Paul as a first-century Rabbi. [242]


In fact, the problem that most traditional Jewish Christians had with Paul was his radical understanding of the absolute equality of every person in Christ. This radical equality and universalism was most explicitly expressed in Galatians 3:28-31, where Paul wrote,

“So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, 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.”


It’s not surprising that Paul’s clearest statement of radical universalism was delivered as he was most vehemently fighting a strand of Jewish Christianity that was seeking to narrow the entre privileges of Christianity.


I will deal with Galatians 3:28-31 in detail later. I only mention it here to emphasize that Paul’s radical universalism meant that those who came into the family of God were viewed to be equal in Christ.


Gentiles, slaves, servants, patrons, royalty, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, former Jewish priests, former Pharisees, children, or women – for Paul, a person’s station, status, gender, or background, simply didn’t matter. They were all equal in God’s sight.


Obviously, not everyone in the early Christian church felt that way.


Paul’s Theological Pillars

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).


In addition to these three prisms for interpreting Paul, there are four theological pillars that should always be kept in mind. They form the foundation for the way Paul viewed the world. They are: (1) the resurrected Jesus, (2) the power of the Holy Spirit, (3) the divine inspiration of the Jewish Scriptures, and (4) his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles.


Paul did not reveal much about the life and ministry of Jesus. Paul never knew the earthly Jesus.


If we had only Paul’s writings in the New Testament, we would know almost nothing about the life of Jesus, except that he was crucified and rose again. Some scholars question how much Paul even knew about the earthly Jesus. [243]


Paul, however, claimed to have direct access to the resurrected Jesus, who came to him in visions and dreams (Acts 9:4-5; 16:9; 18:9; 22:17-21; 2 Cor. 12:1-7; Gal. 1:11-12).


It was this resurrected Jesus that was the centerpiece for Paul’s theology and preaching. Therefore, the resurrection was the essential event for Paul’s soteriology (Rom. 4:24; 6:4; 10:9).


Paul also emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit and the unique gifts of the Spirit. Primarily, it was the Spirit that enabled all Christians to connect to God and serve him (Rom. 8:6, 14, 26; 15:19; 1 Cor. 2:4).


Paul used the Hebrew Scriptures as a basis for his belief in Jesus as Messiah. The Old Testament was the primary witness to the life and work of Jesus.


Finally, Paul was driven by his call to be a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 13:47; 18:6; 22:21; Gal. 2:7, 9; Eph. 3:1; 2 Tim. 4:7). It was his call to preach to the Gentiles that determined the focus of his life.


Interpreting the Letters

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write” (2 Thess. 3:17).


In addition, there are some basic considerations for interpreting the literary genre that Paul used (the epistle, or letter):

  1. There is a very specific historical and cultural setting to each letter.
  2. There is usually an existing relationship between Paul and the recipients of his letters. [244]
  3. In the letter, we are “listening” to only one side of an ongoing conversation between Paul and the recipients.
  4. Paul’s letters are causal, and therefore, polemical to one degree or another. [245]


All these factors should be kept in mind when interpreting the letters of Paul.


Now — with that behind us — we are ready to dive into the life, ministry, and teaching of one of the most influential and misunderstood persons in human history.






231. See Pamela Eisenbaum, “Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?” CrossCurrents, vol. 50, no. 4, 2000, pp. 506–524, for a great article by a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament Studies. See also Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity,” University of California Press, 1994, p. 136-157 for another great essay by one of the foremost modern-day Talmudic scholars.

232. Not only did Paul write most of the letters found in the New Testament, but he also had a tremendous influence over two of the gospel writers (Luke and Mark) as well as the writing of the book of Acts (Luke). The mind of Paul, therefore, impacted more than half of the New Testament writings. In addition, Paul’s are the earliest of the New Testament writings, predating the Gospels by at least two decades, and are therefore closest to the life and times of Jesus.

233. In a single chapter, entitled, “Women in the Life and Teachings of Jesus,” written by James A. Borland, RBMW editors Piper and Grudem devote only ten pages to the role of women in the ministry of Jesus. Even then, Borland devotes eight pages of the chapter demonstrating how Jesus placed a high value on women (echoing the case of the egalitarian), and less than two pages making a case for the way Jesus recognized role distinctions for men and women. In contrast, the remainder of RBMW devotes hundreds of pages to arguing the hiearchist’s case from the writings of Paul.

234. These are the four Scripture texts that speak directly to the role of women in the life of the church. I will deal separately with the male-female relationship within the narrow context of marriage. However, the roles of men and women in the intimate covenant of marriage should have no bearing on their roles in the larger context of society and the church.

235. Bruce Witherington, III, “The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus,” Intervarsity Press, 1998, p. 53.

236. For instance, when confronted with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols in the city of Corinth, Paul sets aside the traditional Jewish stance (not to eat) and the potential theological ambiguities associated with eating meat sacrificed to idols and advises each Christian to do what they think best. “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8). Paul’s only concern was for the people he was trying to reach (i.e., the mission). His argument runs something like this – “If eating food sacrificed to idols is a problem for you, then don’t eat it. If it’s not a problem for you, then eat all you want, but be careful that eating doesn’t make a potential disciple stumble and fall.” It was a non-issue for Paul because he was more concerned with the mission. Two other examples are the Corinthian Church debate over who conducted baptisms (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and the debate over the head covering for women (1 cor. 11). For Paul, these were tertiary issues that derailed the urgent mission of the church, and therefore, were unnecessary distractions.

237. For instance, in his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul argued vehemently against those who were requiring circumcision for new Christians. Paul was emotional and heated with respect to this issue to the point where he writes that those who allow themselves to be circumcised “have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). His frustration reaches a boiling point when he writes that he wishes that the instigators of the circumcision group would go ahead and cut the whole thing off! (Gal. 5:12). His concluding remarks on the issue were that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Yet, when Timothy (who was from Galatia) expressed an interest in joining Paul’s missionary team, Paul had him circumcised (Acts 16:3). This is a case of Paul’s missiological pragmatism trumping his theological stance. The issue was not circumcision itself, but rather the reason for circumcising. The circumcision group was claiming that circumcision was necessary for entrance into the church. In other words, their reasons were theological. Paul insisted on circumcising Timothy for missiological reasons. In every town, Paul would start his missionary work in the synagogue. Timothy would not be able to follow him in this important work if he was not circumcised. Paul’s theology was Christological. His missiology was pragmatic.

238. I use the term “universalist,” not in a soteriological sense, but rather in a missiological sense. Paul was first and foremost an apostle (sent one) and a missionary. His universalism was not an issue of whether or not everyone would be saved (soteriological), but rather whether or not the gospel was for everyone (missiological). It is in that sense — the universal nature of the gospel message — that I call Paul a universalist.

239. The question of how Gentiles became Christians and entered into the life of the church was not settled until after the First Jewish War (66-70 AD). The book of Acts records the convening of several leadership councils at Jerusalem to deal with this persistent problem. See the council’s first ruling in Acts 15:1-35.

240. See Paul vs. Peter and the Circumcision group at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-21, where the initiating event was the fellowship meal.

241. Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity,” University of California Press, 1994, p. 7.

242. Ibid., p. 23.

243. Gunter Bornkamm, “Paul,” Fortress Press, 1995, p. 110. Paul focuses almost exclusively on the last week of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion and resurrection form the foundation of his theological and missiological framework.

244. Paul was closer to some of the letter recipients than others. For instance, he had an intimate knowledge of the work in Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus. In other cases, he was not as familiar. There is no record of his ever visiting Colossae and he had not yet made it to Rome when he wrote his letter to them. However, in every case, he had friends and co-workers in those churches. See Romans 16 and Colossians 4:7-16.

245. For a great resource on interpreting the letters of Paul see “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth,” by Fee and Stuart, 3rd Edition, Zondervan Press, 2003. Another, more in-depth work is “Biblical Hermeneutics,” by Corley, Lovejoy, and Lemke, B&H Academic, 2nd Edition, 2002.








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