Editor's Note: This is one of our six honorable mentions from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest. Enjoy!
Jesus' fulfillment of the Law is the climax of Israel’s messianic Scriptures. In fulfilling that Law, he declared that his humble example of service would constitute a “new command” for the people of God (John 13:14, 34). The old Law was made obsolete (Gal. 3:24-25) and Jesus’ example of relinquishing power would be the new moral foundation, the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
Jesus explicitly prohibited his disciples from imitating the world’s system of power: “You know that the 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 your slave” (Matt. 20:25-27 et al.).
Jesus’ rejection of hierarchical power was the foundation of Christian ethics. To declare allegiance to Jesus as Lord meant to pledge equal loyalty to what he did with his lordship. The apostles accepted this practiced obedience to Christ’s teachings as givens (Matt. 7:26, James 2:14-24, 1 John 2:6, et al).
Jesus was the rightful Lord of the cosmos and yet he laid down even his right to life to become a servant of all, and only then did God exalt him to the highest place. This is how we too are to live (Phil. 2:5-11). The logic is simple: If the true Lord chose to relinquish all rights to lord over others, then no Christian can assert lordship over another (Matt. 23:8-12).
Tragically, Bible-readers throughout most of church history have struggled to see this call to give up power as essential to or even included in Christian faith. Nowhere has that omission been more costly than in the treatment of gender.
Ironically, the apostle Paul has been interpreted to support patriarchal gender hierarchy, urging men to exercise their “God-given” authority over women. This interpretation is only possible when we strip Paul’s teachings and the broader New Testament witness from its consistent ethical teaching—that following Christ means to refuse to exercise authority over another and to instead take on the role of a low-status servant. Paul would scarcely recognize the complementarian theology that many see as inevitable “biblical Christianity” today as even Christian.
Paul wrote to Philemon, demanding that the slave-master practice basic Christian ethics by disavowing any claim to lordship over Onesimus, treating him instead as an equal-status brother (Phil. 15-17). Should he refuse, Paul implied boldly that Philemon would be ineffective in the faith (v6).
Similarly, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, telling them they were worldly infants who didn’t understand even the basics of Christian faith (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Why? The Corinthians hadn’t been schooled in Jesus’ Way of Power.
They competed for clout over celebrity pastors (1 Cor. 1:12-31, 3:5-23), sued one another (6:1-9), flouted their “rights” (8:1-13), prohibited low-status women the honor of veiling (11:1-16), excluded the poor from the sacramental meal (11:17-34), and vied for superiority based on spiritual gifts (12-14). Their religion, like that of the Pharisees before them, was another means of acquiring status. This, to Paul, was the epitome of missing the point.
The apostle urged them to follow Jesus’ example of relinquishing power, rights, and privilege. Apostles like Paul were to be treated as fellow servants (4:1) who offered their lives as models of relinquishing power (2:3, 4:10, 9:22) in order to empower others (2 Cor. 13:9). While the Corinthians vied for power, Paul relished in giving it away (2 Cor. 11:30, 12:5). Paul saw weakness as the social location of true greatness in Christ’s kingdom (2 Cor. 12:8-10) and he taught believers to likewise lay down their rights and authority (1 Cor. 6:7-8, 12, 9:4-18). Paul even quoted Jesus’ fundamental teaching, saying, “I have made myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor. 9:18).
In his letters to the power-hungry Corinthians and the slave-master Philemon, Paul applied the basics of Christian ethics to those who’d failed to understand Christianity as a call to lay down power. In Paul’s mind, the inversion of social hierarchy in Jesus’ kingdom was Christianity 101. Rather than climb to the top, Christians are those who race to the bottom, because it’s the humble in this life who will be vindicated and exalted in the next (Prov. 3:34, Matt. 23:12, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5, et al). This reversal was the gospel according to Mary (Luke 1:52).
Elsewhere, Paul addresses three unequal social relationships: master/slave, Jew/Gentile, and man/woman. These were the primary social relationships in which an unchristian power differential existed. Paul declared that inequality nullified in Christ (Gal. 3:28; also Rom. 10:12, 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 3:11).
This revolutionary leveling is, ironically, exactly what is happening in many of the disputed passages on gender. In Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 (as in 1 Peter 3) Paul tells husbands and wives to submit mutually to one another in imitation of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 11, as briefly noted, Paul establishes that the women, not the men, are to have authority over their bodies. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul prohibits the Ephesian women, likely involved in a kind of sexual rebellion related to avoiding the risks of childbirth, from exercising tyrannical power of the men.
Why don’t we see this, though? Why do these descriptions sound backward, like “twisting Scripture,” to a majority of Christians? Most assume the exhortations for women to practice submission imply a “complementary” exhortation for men to exercise authority, even when the texts explicitly call for both parties to submit (Eph. 5:21, Col. 3:19, 1 Peter 3:7). Why do we read Paul’s prohibition against female domineering in 1 Timothy 2 as a de facto endorsement of male dominance and authority? We fail to see what’s right in front of us and instead see what isn’t there.
Nowhere in the entire New Testament is a man told to exercise authority over a woman. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is any Christ-follower told to exercise authority, period. Jesus’ followers are called—no, commanded—to lay down their status and authority on behalf of others. Every Christian is to practice submission and to refrain from seeking power, whether slaves or masters, men or women.
The complementarian idea that women are to submit while men are to exercise authority is counter to the center of New Testament theology. It’s a kind of social ideology that simply doesn’t fit any more than gentile exclusion or slavery.
As we see in Acts, it took the church awhile to come to terms with the full acceptance, liberation, and inclusion of Gentiles. It took most of church history before the Western church unilaterally agreed that slavery was anti-Christian. Yet here we are well into the twenty-first century waiting for the church to accept the liberation of women as fully empowered members of the church and society.
This travesty is only possible, let alone popular, because Christ’s revolutionary treatment of power has been unjustly erased from Christian theology. How and why this happened is a long story, but as we see in the above examples of Philemon and the Corinthians, Jesus’ Way of Power has always been a narrow road that few choose to tread (Matt. 7:13-14).
In Jesus’ day, the poor and oppressed flocked to Jesus’ vision but many of the rich and powerful rejected it. The church blossomed and spread among the poor and marginalized, especially among women.
But in the fourth century, the church jumped at the opportunity to partner with Constantine’s imperial power, and Augustine began to work out a theology of the empire, a Christianity of power. Since then, Western Christianity has struggled with the contradiction in this Christianity of power, a religious invention built on ideals, assumptions, and demographics opposite the revolutionary Kingdom of God.
This has produced an obvious distortion in discipleship, seen for example in the moral contradictions of today’s white evangelicalism. It’s also left a gaping hermeneutic hole in our ability to interpret the Bible itself. We’ve been taught to filter the very essence of Christ’s teachings as dangerous “Marxism,” “progressivism,” “the social justice gospel,” and the list goes on. The result is a religion of the status quo that supports social hierarchy and privilege rather than subverts it.
Again, complementarian theology is one of the most grievous consequences as it continues to deny women the full socio-political outworking of the gospel. The unfettered Christian call to give up hierarchical power would’ve easily and naturally led the church to be a champion of women’s equality rather than a defender of patriarchy. However, robbed of a truly Christian view of power, Western Christians have been handed a gospel with a glaring hole in it.
Of course, we might fault Paul for writing letters that are too easily misunderstood, but when people read the New Testament with an eye liberated and trained by Jesus’ treatment of power, the validity of egalitarian interpretations becomes blindingly obvious. Complementarian ideology begins to stand out like a sore thumb, unbefitting of Jesus’ church.
Sadly, the endorsement of gender hierarchy may not even be the most devastating result of this missing link. A Christianity of power allows for the unjust perpetuation of male dominance and that perpetuation further validates the false Christianity of power. In other words, it hurts women the most, but it distorts Christianity for everyone.
A religion that tells you to act as the spiritual head of your wife is antithetical to the faith that tells you to seek the lowest seat at the table. We must choose, and most have chosen the impostor religion, leaving the real Christianity behind.
And, if we believe Jesus’ promise that the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt. 20:16 et al), then it’s actually authoritarian men who stand to lose most from complementarian religion. Like Philemon, they risk being ineffective in their faith because they refuse to lay down privilege to elevate others. They are positioned like Lazarus’ rich neighbor to hear not, “Good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21 et al), but rather, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25).