Justification by “Steadfast Reliance”?

In reading Romans 4, I noticed that it explains the kind of faith that is counted for righteousness (that justifies). Romans 4:17b-21 describes the faith of Abraham. The verses that follow then state that this is why Abraham was justified and that we can be justified through the same sort of faith. Verses 17b-21 also tie closely to other NT passages that help us understand faith.

Here is the text of 17b-21 (NASB)

in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your [s]descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

The word “waver” (diakrino) points us to James 1. We are to bring our requests to God in faith without wavering. James describes the one who wavers as like a wave of the sea, and as double minded and unstable. Faithful Abraham, by contrast, was assured that God could perform him promise even though both Abraham and Sarah were dead in terms of reproductive ability. Faith steadfastly relies on God. (Let us be thankful, though, that Jesus can work with faith the size of a grain of mustard seed and can help our unbelief.)

When Paul references God’s ability to give life to the dead and call into being the things that do not exist (4:17). He likely refers not only to Isaac’s conception and birth, but also to the time when Abraham received him back alive from the altar of sacrifice. Hebrews 11 describes the role of faith in both incidents. Sarah received the ability to conceive seed because she considered God to be faithful and relied on his promise. (Note: the beautiful reminder that Sarah’s faith was involved in the promise to Abraham.) God called into being that which did not exist. Abraham offered up Isaac, the son whom God had promised would make him a father of many nations, because he believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Faith steadfastly relies on God.

Romans 4:22 attributes Abraham’s justification to this steadfast reliance on God: “Wherefore (dio) it was counted to him for righteousness.” This is to teach us, Paul says, that all who similarly rely on God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead can be justified, just like Abraham who relied on the fact that God could raise Isaac from the dead.

Discussions of the nature of faith can quickly become contentious. Is faith purely passive? Or is active? How sharply should we distinguish between faith itself and the things that are done by faith? Is that even a helpful distinction? Without wading into a philosophical-psychological-theological morass we can observe a few things based on how the NT handles the story of Abraham. Romans says Abraham was justified by faith in God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations. Hebrews says he offered up his son “by faith” (pistei, dative case). James connects the dots. James says that Abraham’s faith was completed when he put Isaac on the altar and that this fulfilled the earlier statement (before Isaac was born) about Abraham’s faith being counted for righteousness. On this basis, James asserts that a person is justified by works. He does not mean that one can be justified by keeping Torah or by any supposed method of putting God in his debt. He is referring to the actions that complete one’s steadfast reliance on God.

For some practical direction for our own faith, consider the words of Hebrews 10:32-39. This is the preface to the famous “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. Paul calls them to remember the difficult days when they were first enlightened. They are to remember the suffering and hardship, the mockery of others, their fellowship with those who suffered, their willingness to lose their property because of their confidence in better things to come. They are to remember this and not throw away their confidence. They need endurance to continue this path, “that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.” The Lord is coming and the one who righteous from faith (justified by faith) will live. The one who “shrinks back” will not experience the pleasure of the Lord, but rather destruction. The readers are urged to remember their past and continue steadfastly in living out their identity as people of faith.

The choice before us is between shrinking back in fear or laziness and pressing on in faith running the race before us with steadfastness. Let us present our mustard seeds, and let us pray “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Bible Study Guides

Messiah: Head Over All Things

[Notes and Resources for A Sunday School class I Teach]

I pray… that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance among the saints.

Paul, apostle of Messiah Jesus

Unit One: The Gospel and Salvation

Introduction and Ephesians 1

This study guide was developed for youth Sunday School at my home church. The assignment was “Biblical Distinctives: The gospel and salvation, separation from the world, and the head covering.”

I use Ephesians as the primary text since it integrates the themes of gospel, salvation, separation, and headship.

The Gospel and our salvation is based on the victory and kingship of Messiah, who has brought us redemption as the forgiveness of our sins.

  • Christ (Messiah) is now reigning, and we share that reign.
  • The Spirit “seals” us as Messiah’s people and is the first installment (arrabon) of the inheritance.
  • The riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints astound—the Kingdom of God in full.

Believers are set apart as saints in light and do not partner with deeds of darkness.

Christ is head of the church and of everything. Any other application of headship must be understood in that light.

  1. Running course assignment: Read or listen to the entire letter at one time or at least in one day. Do this at least twice over the course of the study in at least two translations.
  2. Read Ephesians 1 and identify as many descriptors of separation, salvation, gospel, and headship as you can.
  3. Paul prays that they may have wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ so that they can grasp what three things? (Ephesians 1: 17-19)

Before God, After God Ephesians 2

Ephesians chapter two divides nicely into parallel situations which powerfully describe life before the gospel, what God did (the gospel), and life after the gospel. In class we will fill out this table. Creating or filling out your own is a powerful way to observe key themes in Galatians.

Ephesians 2:1-10Ephesians 2:11-22
But God…

The Spirit and the Inheritance


  • Read Ephesians with an eye to the twin themes of Spirit and inheritance and how the are related.
  • How does the Spirit bring Jesus’s kingship to bear?

Central to the gospel of our salvation is our king, the Christ. He brings marvelous gifts, the Spirit and (now partially) the inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

The Spirit serves as God’s identifying seal, which marks believers. The Spirit also brings Jesus’ kingship to bear among his people. It is the first installment of the kingdom which is to be our inheritance.

Already/Not Yet

Is God’s kingdom already here or is it still in the future? Are we saved now, or will we be saved at the second coming of Christ? The Christian life is pervaded by what scholars call the “Already/Not Yet” or “Inaugurated eschatology.” The final hope, that which is to come in the eschaton, is already partly realized or actual. Another way to say this is that the future has invaded the present.

AlreadyNot Yet
First InstallmentInheritance
SpiritInherit the Kingdom
The Already / Not yet in Ephesians 1
  • Ephesians 1:13-14
  • Ephesians 4:30
  • Ephesians 5:18-19

How does the choosing and predestination in Ephesians 1:4-5 and Ephesians 1:11 relate to the Spirit’s role as seal and down payment of the inheritance?

One theological angle would run roughly as follows: God picked out certain specific persons before creation, and independently of anything he might know about their future choices and chose these people to be his saints. He predestined these specific people to be his adopted children manifesting his glory. The sealing with the Holy Spirit functions as a guarantee that this position of sainthood and sonship cannot ever be undone. (This would correspond to the traditional Calvinist points of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.) The NLT, in questionable paraphrase, embeds this understanding in their rendering of Ephesians 4:30 “Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved.”

Contrary to this Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians, many believers insist that humans (at least those who have heard the gospel) have a genuine option as to whether or not they will be among God’s chosen ones, that all humans have the ability to resist and reject the grace of God, and that (tragically) some saints fail to persevere to the end. These views are supported by common sense readings of the stories, invitations, and warnings of scripture. For example, Ephesians 5:37 tells us bluntly that no immoral, impure, or greedy person will inherit the kingdom of God. It does so in the context of warning us not to participate in sin and not to grieve the Spirit. It seems most natural to see this as a warning, that those who have received the first installment of the kingdom can nonetheless fail to receive the inheritance at the last judgement.

Much wrestling could be done with these questions, but first we should focus our attention on the emphases of this letter. Ephesians 1:13-14 is a good place to start. I quote first the ESV.

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

emphasis mine

The bolded words above are not necessarily inaccurate, but they lend themselves to misunderstanding. It is easy to think that “sealed” means “finalized” and “guarantee” means that there is absolutely no possibility of failing to obtain the inheritance. These are interpretations that could be argued for, but they don’t capture the basic imagery of the passage.

The ancient seal was created by stamping wax with a distinctive mark to produce an imprint reflecting whose seal it was. The NIV captures this imagery nicely “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”

As regards the “guarantee,” the ESV footnote gives more helpful terminology, “down payment.” A down payment is an initial part of the total to be paid. Many interpreters see a special significance here. What we have with the Spirit now is a small piece that is of the same kind and part of the full inheritance to come.

The Spirit then both marks the saints as God’s people and offers them the first fruits of God’s reign.

  • God in his power and purpose will manifest his glorious inheritance in his holy ones. Jesus will fill all things in every way.
  • God has co-enlivened us, co-raised us, and co-seated us with Christ. He has given the Spirit which is his seal set upon us and the initial payment of the kingdom we are to inherit.
  • We are summoned by his grace to walk by faith and so experience and participate in Jesus’ present rule.
  1. Will I devote attention to God’s purpose to bring all things and all people together in Christ, feasting my soul on the magnificence of his reign?
  2. Will I resist discouragement over gospel suffering and pray for God’s glory in the daily life and global scope of the church?
  3. Will I make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit by humbly, gently, patiently bearing with all saints with whom I interact?
  4. Will I allow the Spirits work in me as a “supporting ligament” to build up the body in love and truth toward the unity that comes with maturity?
  5. Will I honor and receive what the Spirit supplies through each “supporting ligament?”
  6. Will I take off the “old human” and put on the “new human?”
  7. Will I grieve God’s Holy Spirit or be an imitator of God?
  8. Will I stand against evil spiritual forces with truth, righteousness, the gospel of Jesus’ peace, faith, deliverance, and what God says?
  9. Will I in God’s Spirit commit all things to God, and persevere on behalf of all saints, especially those who proclaim the gospel?

Filling All Things: The King and His Body

God gave Jesus as head over all things to the assembly, which is Jesus’ body and the fullness of him who fills all things in every way.

Paul, Apostle of Messiah Jesus

We are used to thinking in terms of a good heaven, unspoiled by evil, and an earth in which the struggle takes place. But the book of Revelation gives us an entirely different view. Satan’s abode was in heaven, until he was cast down, not directly by his sin, but by the Lamb’s victory. Therefore heaven no less than earth has been corrupted by evil. …The chief forces of evil are heavenly creatures.

González and González, Vision at Patmos, 108–9

The New Testament depicts Satan basically as an adversary or slanderer. This means more than personal temptation. Simply put, he is called the “evil one”1. Granted, he is a personal being, a deceiver and tempter who appeals to our conscience. But more importantly, he opposes God’s kingdom in heaven and on earth (Rev 12:4; cf. Dan. 8:10), exercises his rule on earth through earthly rulers (Rev. 13:2-4, Thess. 2:3-4, 9-10), and erects heavenly structures of his own which parody those established by the Father in the opening chapters of Genesis and carried forward to Revelation.  
The point is that in the biblical worldview, in addition to being personal, Satan’s domain has a spiritual or heavenly structure. Biblical writers take up shorthand words like rulers, principalities, powers, authorities, thrones, lordships, and dominions to name and describe these beings and the heavenly relations among them. But by heavenly, I do not mean unearthly. Heavenly structures are discernable as they find corresponding form on earth. World rulers, local authorities, bad managers, and the occasional minister, participating in the structures erected by Satan, themselves become demonic. But they are not the source of the demonic. 

Kyle Stoltzfus on Anabaptist Perspectives Essay Interview

Compare this piece from John Piper (text and audio)

  1. Read the following sections of Ephesians: 1:15-23, 2:18-20, 3:8-11, 4:6-16, 6:10-12, 6:18-20.
  2. What is the Kingdom of God? “Heaven” where we go when we die? A millennium between the church age and the final judgement? Whenever people do what God wants them to do?
  3. How do we participate in filling all things?

God’s kingship in (at least) 8 stages:

  • Creation
  • Exodus
  • David
  • Jesus’ Ministry
  • Jesus Death and Resurrection
  • Pentecost
  • The Church in mission and maturity
  • The Inheritance

The Gospel of Peace: Jesus creates one new humanity

One New Humanity

What practical implications do the following scriptures have for living out the church? Choose the best (or least bad) answer.

 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, ...For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,[d] but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, ... the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:14-21)

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians  3:11)

Does the universal church consist of a set of culturally homogeneous groups that exist separately side by side until they finally get to rub shoulders in front of God’s throne at the end of time, or are those cultural boundaries supposed to be transcended on earth at the most local level? 

Anika Fast in Reclaiming Mission

The unity of the Christian fellowship is not a mere matter of theory. It is a reality which must be realized within the brotherhood on the local as well as on the inter-community level. The welcoming hand of the church must reach across all social barriers with the call of the Gospel to include all who repent into the fellowship of the church.

Guy Hershberger, “The Way of the Cross in Human Relations” ch. 22. Quoted in Rebekah Mui “Racism and the Way of the Cross”
What priority do we put on churches reflecting a cross section of the population rather than different churches for different ethnicities?

What was the deep problem with not being part of Israel? Were all non-Israelites damned?

How does God create a new People?

What is the difference between the Law, which had to be  set aside to bridge the cultural divide, and the prohibition of  porneia (sexual immorality) which Gentiles had to embrace as part of the new humanity? How do we distinguish attempts to impose mere culture on others from upholding the culture of the Kingdom that comes from being clothed with Christ?

Eleven o-clock Sunday morning has been famously said to be the most segregated hour in American life. (1950’s and 1960’s) Is that phenomenon of serious concern?

Living as the “Co-enlivened” and “Sealed”

Read and reflect on Ephesians 4:17-32

Reading Questions (look for answers directly in this passage)

  1. Christians are taught in Jesus to do what three things? (Verses 21-24)
  2. What causes the Gentiles to walk the way they do? (6 or so  reasons  in verses 17-19)
  3. Which verse or verses in this section echo Ephesians 1:13-14?

Reflection Questions

  1. How do God’s actions and human actions in this passage relate? How do we cooperate with God? What is cooperating with God like for you?
  2. What specifically, or practically does it mean to “put on the new human?

“What Must I Do to be Saved?”

The Gospel is about what God has done and is doing, and the fact that Jesus is King. It calls for a response from us. We want to be his children, not his enemies. When it comes to the initial entrance to God’s kingdom four words stand out to me in the New Testament.

  1. Faith, believing, trusting, entrusting etc. (pistis and related words). This is the summary of our response to God. This is putting our confidence in Jesus to make everything right, not least our sinful selves. This “putting our confidence in” works out in a variety of forms. It is not us accomplishing something. Nor is it some mere spectator confidence that says “yes Jesus will win”. Faith can be greater or lesser, stronger or weaker. But, Ultimately we will be either faithful or faithless.
  2.  Confess. We often think of confessing our sins, a very necessary thing to do. But we must not forget the fundamental meaning of confession: to say something together, to affirm out loud and in the hearing of others the great truth that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is king. Publicly affirming confidence in Jesus is not to be neglected. Jesus says the one who confesses him before people he will confess  before the Father. The one who denies him before people, he will deny before the Father.
  3. Baptism Saints have wrestled much with how best to think about and practice Christian baptism, but its importance cannot be disputed. Accepting baptism  is a non-negotiable human response to the gospel. It needs emphasized that baptism is received, not something we do ourselves. We can request it, We can accept an invitation to baptism, but we receive it, ultimately from God, mediately through another human. Baptism gives us identity with Christ, his death,  and his body.
  4. Repentance. We think of repentance as turning away from sin. More fundamentally it is a change of mindset. And a change of mindset in biblical thinking is not a mere speculation or spectatorship or mental assent, rather it is a change in what beliefs we life out of. John responded to certain snakes who came requesting baptism that they should bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.

We get our starts in the Christian life in different ways. These four words might look different for different people. Sometimes they are almost instantaneous, other times they happen over a period of years.

  1. How do we encourage someone toward faith and repentance? How do we encourage them to make public confession and to accept baptism?
  2. Do these four words ever stop being important for the Christian life?

Unit Two: Separation from the World

No Partnership with Darkness: Separation from the world in Ephesians

But sexual immorality and all impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints. Ephesians 5:3

This verse gives us New Testament separation from the world in a nutshell.

Read and reflect on Ephesians 5:1-13

Reading Questions (look for answers directly in this passage)

  1. We should not engage in sexual immorality, greed, or impurity because we are what two things? (verse 3, 8, and maybe a third in verse 1)
  2. What do we do instead of foolish talk, etc? (verse 4)
  3. What is the fruit that results from walking in light? (verse 9)
  4. Why should we not be partners with sexually immoral, impure, or greedy people? (verse 5, 6)
  5. Instead of sharing in the unfruitful works of darkness we should do what? (Verse 11, 13)

Reflection Questions

  1. What do we do when we find in ourselves the sins listed in this passage?
  2. How do we expose (reprove, convict) sins without speaking of them? What is this exposing? What kind of speaking of them do we do or not do?
  3. Does “do not be partners with them” mean that we do not have relationships with sexually immoral, impure, or greedy people?
  4. Can someone enlivened and enthroned by God and sealed with the Spirit as a pledge of the inheritance still revert to being a sexually immoral, impure, or greedy person who will not inherit the kingdom of God?

Money Modesty and Body Modesty

The Four S’s of Separation

  • Special to God
    • Set Apart, Holy, Chosen, Saints, household of God, no idols.
  • Symbols and Signs
    • Old Testament: Sabbath, Circumcision, Blue Fringes, Purification, Dietary Laws, Cleanness, Priestly Consecration
    • New Testament: ??, baptism?, communion?
  • Social
    • Old Testament: Send home pagan wives. Keep foreigners out of the sanctuary for generations.
    • New Testament: Marry in the Lord, Don’t choose fools as your best buddies. Avoid schismatic teachers. Don’t associate with those who claim Christianity but walk in sexual immorality, greed, or slander
  • Sin Avoidance
    • No partnership with sexual immorality, greed, slander, or any other sin

The Concept of Holiness

What is the difference between holiness and righteousness? What kinds of things can be holy but can not be righteous? Pots, pans, and clothing are a few examples. It makes sense to speak of holy garments, but not of righteous garments. The Sabbath day was holy, and to be treated as holy; but the sabbath was not righteous. Righteousness can describe the character, actions, and relationships of persons, divine or human. Holiness can describe persons, but also physical items, offerings, and holidays (holy days).

The core idea of holiness is that something is set apart for a special purpose. It is not “common” but holy and so must be treated with utmost respect. Think of the fence around Mt. Sinai before God spoke, or think of the requirement to wash clothes and abstain from sexual relations in the leadup to the giving of the ten commandments. Think of the “Holy of Holies” in the tabernacle which could only be entered by the high priest once a year. Think of the death penalty for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

The prophets thunder, however, that such external holiness as this, without righteousness is a vile mockery.  God says, in the words of Isaiah, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” “Bring no more vain offerings.” (Chapter 1) Treating the things of the temple carefully and following the protocols for the Lord’s offering is of no avail when righteousness is lacking, when we rob, steal, extort, oppress etc.

“Saint” and “holy” are the same word (Greek hagios). Most English Bibles render it as holy when used as an adjective (You must be holy), but as saints when it is used to as a plural substantive to name a group of people (the inheritance of the saints).

As with holiness more generally the idea is of being set apart or consecrated for God. The designation saints is not just a statement about the morality or righteousness of believers (though it is that), but a statement of God’s choosing and valuing them as a special group.

Righteousness is moral correctness but it has strong relational dimensions, rightly related to others, and in some cases, especially in the Psalms, comes close to the meaning of loyalty. Justification is often described primarily as right standing with God and that is definitely part of the meaning of justification.

Texts: Exodus 19 and 20 Isaiah 1:1-23

In the Old Testament there is a lot of emphasis on Holiness as cultural distinction, and proper ritual and symbolism However, the Old Testament is also clear such “outward” holiness apart from justice in relationships with others is not acceptable holiness before God.

The New Testament shifts the emphasis even further toward holiness as practicing justice with others before God and greatly reduces the ceremonial aspects of holiness. However, even in the New Testament holiness cannot be reduced to simply practicing justice or morality.

The Blue Fringe Principle or the Doctrine of Affected Dissimilarity

I am not anabaptist but I attend a Mennonite church for the past 6 weeks. The draw I have is the outward look the brethren have is a witness to their faith. The women are obvious. The men can hide it if they want to but the gentlemen in this church don’t. It has been a draw for me and helped me with my concept of a world view versus a biblical view.

Karl Stine commenting on YouTube

What in the World Are We Separate From?

There are two terms in the Greek NT sometimes rendered “world” in our English bibles. One is kosmos “world”, and the other is aionos “age.” In Ephesians 2:3 both terms are piled together “the age of this world”

2 Timothy 4:10 Demas, having loved this present age, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.

Ephesians 2:3 You walked according to the age of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.

1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

John 7:7 The world hates me because I bear witness that its works are evil.

Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may approve what is the good and well-pleasing and perfect will of God.

1 Corinthians 2:6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but wisdom not of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing,

Teaching about separation from the world often assumes that the audience shares the speaker’s assumptions about what fits into the category of “worldly.” In various contexts this might be alcoholic beverages, blue jeans, cowboy boots, instrumental music, working on Sunday, sporty vehicles, movies, dancing, tv, living in town, driving cars, bowling alleys, theatres, ice rinks, off-roading, atv’s, drinking coffee, celebrating Christmas or any number of other things. This background understanding is convenient for the preacher. He need not make a case against blue jeans or bowling alleys, he can simply talk about separating ourselves from worldly things and trust his audience to fill in the blanks. Of course, this doesn’t work so well when the audience has a quite different impression of what counts as worldly. The approach of this study is not to rely on background assumptions about what counts as worldly, but to work out the idea of separation from Biblical texts.

For a helpful discussion of the abuse of the term “worldly” listen to this episode from In part two, they follow up with their take on what exactly wordliness is.


"Wordliness" has had many definitions in Christian circles. Based on your perception of your church growing up, which of the following were considered worldly?

Min votes count should be 1

Unit Three: Understanding Covered and Uncovered Heads

What is Headship?

Headship and Glory are key themes in Pauls argument concerning covered and uncovered heads in 1 Corinthians 11. So before talking about covered and uncovered heads, we will talk about the relationship between heads and their glory/body.

{discussion of New Testament heads}

Headship versus authority

  1. Does being “head” over someone always entail having authority over them?

  1. Many relations of authority do not involve headship in the robust sense it is used in Ephesians and 1 Corinithians. A mother has authority over her children but she is not their head. Elders in the church have authority over others but they are not the head of the church or of individuals in the church. Christ is the head not just of mankind in general but of every man. Describe what headship involves in addition to having some level of authority

The Main Line of Argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The sister’s veiling is a historic Christian practice which is elaborated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11:1-14. However, few American churches practice it, and the result is that churches that do practice it have generally had to put a lot of emphasis on demonstrating that the scripture indeed teaches it. Bible scholars who do not wish to insist on its practice have come up with various explanations that, they claim, show that Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 was only giving specific advice for a specific situation.

The primary goal of this unit is to push you to wrestle through the details of the passage to reach an understanding of the purpose and meaning of this Christian practice.

The central rationale for covering and uncovering rests on two principles.

  1. Of every man the head is Christ and the head of a woman is the man (=her husband?)
  2. (A) man is the image and glory of God while (a) woman is the glory of man being made from man and on account of man.  (with the clarification that neither is independent of the other in the Lord)

While there is much that is puzzling about this passage it is clear that the physical observance of covering and uncovering is based on those two fundamental realities.


1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-25; 5:1-3

1 Timothy 2:8-15

Puzzling Questions

  • Headship head or anatomical head?
    • Verse three lays out three headship relations. We then learn that we should do(or avoid doing) certain things with our anatomical heads because of these headship relations. Label each occurrence of the word “head” after verse three either as “anatomical” or with the appropriate headship head. I.e. there are four possibilities for filling out verse 4 (some of them are obviously incorrect)
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with Christ uncovered dishonors Christ
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with his anatomical head uncovered dishonors Christ
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with Christ uncovered dishonors his anatomical head
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with his anatomical head uncovered dishonors his anatomical head
  • General relationship between men and women versus specific relationship between a husband  and a wife. Which is in focus in this passage? Do single women have a human head?
  • What does it mean to have “authority on ones head”.
    • Most translations take authority here as a reference to covering “a symbol of authority on her head”. What is the authority symbolized here?
      • Her authority (authorization, right) to pray and prophesy?
      • The authority her head has over her?
    • Who are the “angels” ?
      • Human messengers from other churches
      • Godly angels
      • Fallen angels
    • What do the angels have to do with covering?

Common but not particularly compelling objections.

This passage does not teach any covering other than full length hair. What Paul is arguing for is either simply that women continue a cultural practice so as not to offend the sensibilities of those around them or else it is simply a culturally specific way of expressing the more general principle he is really concerned with.

Practical Questions about Covering and Uncovering

[1] Consider this quote from Finny Kuruvilla: “The age at which a woman would begin [to cover her head] would sensibly correspond to the age at which she properly begins to be able to make spiritual exercises such as prayer and prophecy. Parents may choose an earlier age for their daughters for the sake of modesty.” King Jesus Claims His Church. Anchor-Cross Publishing, 2013. p196.


New Testament “Slavery Texts” and the Gospel

{This article was originally published on the Kingdom Outpost }

Why does the New Testament tell slaves to submit to their masters? Numerous passages give advice to slaves. Some give advice to Christian slave masters. How can this fit with the gospel of the Kingdom and the proclamation of God’s righteousness?

If we hear these “slavery texts” rightly, they can offer us fresh insight regarding the upside-down kingdom of Christ and what it means to take up our own cross and experience his life. If we hear these texts rightly we will not minimize the badness of slavery; neither will we see these texts as mere accommodations to the moral blindness of the time in which they were written. We may still wonder why the New Testament church approached slavery in exactly the way they did, but it does become clear that their approach was rooted squarely in the gospel.

While it has often been distorted, the New Testament approach to dealing with slavery is simply one manifestation of how Jesus would have us approach relationships, institutions, and structures. The beautiful thing about the kingdom is that we can approach good and bad situations out of the same basic orientation of mind and heart. For example, we don’t apply hatred to enemies and love to friends; instead we extend love toward both friends and enemies. More generally, when we face evil, we overcome it with good (Romans 12:21).

Following are three dimensions of our posture toward human relationships and institutions.

  1. We identify first and foremost as God’s child and God’s slave. All other service, whether to friends or enemies must find its proper place as part of our service to him.
  2. We operate with love. This includes both proactively doing good for others and accepting the various sufferings that result from others doing evil.
  3. We trust God’s vindication, reward, and overflowing blessing both within and beyond our present life.

I believe these three points, and more, are embraced in the call to take up our cross and live a cruciform (cross-shaped) life. The New Testament approach to slavery puts a good deal of flesh on this bare outline.

The deep problem with slavery is that masters claim what only belongs to God.

Slavery is bad. Though the New Testament gives advice for dealing with slavery, it does not call it good. Slavery is often brutal; sometimes more so, sometimes less so. The material conditions of slaves vary; some are better provided for than others. But there is one constant about slavery: the slave’s labors and living arrangements are under the control of the master.  Another person holds the (legal) right to say where one goes and what one does. This level of control should not be held by another human.

To be sure, a Christian in the situation of slavery can serve God triumphantly, but the arrangement does not befit their status as a slave (servant) of God. Paul does reassure slaves that they can serve God as “a freedman of the Lord.” But he quickly adds “Do not become slaves of men.” Jesus bought us with a price. Choosing to be a slave shows a failure to appreciate that Christ is our master. Even when Paul counsels slaves not to “be concerned about” their condition, he adds a qualifier: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).[1]

Servants of the Lord guard their freedom to serve him without restriction.  Israel was not to allow their fellow Israelites to be sold as slaves because they were God’s servants, whom he rescued from slavery in Egypt (Leviticus 25:39-55).[2] In the letter to the Galatians, Paul enjoins us to stand firm in freedom as sons of God (rather than living as slaves or minors under the guardianship of Torah). This freedom, though, results in serving each other through love.  Peter emphasizes freedom as well, even when he is urging believers to be subject to human institutions.

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a coverup for evil, but living as slaves of God. (1 Peter 2:16)

The Master in Heaven Relativizes “masters according to the flesh.”

The New Testament proclaims that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28). Yet, various texts mention or imply that there were Christian slaveholders. Does the fact that slavery remained in the church represent a failure to live up to the teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free? Perhaps in a sense it does.[3] As we have seen, slavery is definitely not to be accepted as a good, or even neutral, thing. Slaves should avail themselves of opportunities to be free. The letter to Philemon is often seen as indirectly requesting that Onesimus be set free. However, the proclamation that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus also finds its application even when the legal institution of slavery remains in place.

In a certain sense, Christianity declares slavery irrelevant. The gospel declares that any useful work, whether done by enslaved or free Christians, will be rewarded by God. All Christians, even slave masters, have a master in heaven to whom they will give account. All, slaves included, are to be treated with justice and fairness. No one has a license to employ threats to manage other people. All should be willing to serve and provide benefits to other people. The Christian assembly and the Lord’s Supper are to embody social equality.

The term lord or master (Greek kurios) is worth digging into in this connection. Kurios was a common term for God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.[4] Itwas a title claimed by Roman emperors. Kurios was also the word used to describe a master who had slaves.[5] Referring to Jesus as Lord thus conveys multiple resonances. Translating Kurios as “Lord” brings interesting nuances to the slavery texts. Human masters are “Lords according to the flesh” while the slaves are really “slaves of Christ.”  And ‘lords’ have a Lord in heaven who will show them no preference over those they hold as slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9). While Christian slaves should obey their earthly lords, they are really serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:22-24).  In this way the whole question of slaves and masters is reframed in light of the true Master in heaven.

The institution of slavery must not be allowed to negate brotherhood or the human value of loving service. This is why Paul can say such things as, “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” (1 Timothy 6:2) Slavery is bad, but it does not change the fundamental reality that work is good. It is a way of serving the Lord and serving other people. Work is not first and foremost about getting paid but about getting something worthwhile done. Of course, the worker deserves a share of the benefit deriving from their work, but whether we are well or poorly compensated on earth, “whether slave or free,” we work for the love of God and for an eternal reward. I explore what slavery passages teach us about the goodness of work and how we should think about its value in “What We learn from New Testament Advice to Slaves.”

The Dinner of the Master in Heaven, or the Lord’s supper, speaks to the social status of slaves. Slaves shared with their masters not only the loaf and cup of remembrance, but the full love feast.[6] This contrasts sharply with the standard custom of slaves serving their masters food first, and only getting to eat afterward.[7] 1 Corinthians 11 severely rebukes abuses of the Lord’s supper and makes clear that the love feast is a shared meal of rich and poor. It is to be eaten together and shared among all or else the Lord’s dinner will degenerate into a bunch of private meals and make a mockery of the body of Christ.

The Way of the Cross Grows from Trust in Divine Vindication and Reward

Nowhere is the NT response to slavery more closely tied to the way of the cross than in 1 Peter. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter puts all relationships in the context of Jesus’s example. Jesus’s way is love and honor for all people even when they are unjust and evil. For the Lord’s sake we are submit to human institutions of government and empire. We honor all people. Slaves honor and submit to even harsh and violent masters without revenge or reviling just as Jesus suffered and did not seek revenge or return reviling with reviling. Jesus rather committed himself to the Father who judges justly, our Shepherd and Overseer. Peter then applies this concept to wives, especially those with unbelieving husbands. Their practice of honor and submission might even draw their husbands to “obey the word.” Husbands are to apply the principle by living with their wives in honor and understanding. Peter wraps up by describing how this mindset applies to all relationships:

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless… (1 Peter 3:8-9)

This reminds us that Christian exhortations to slaves are simply specific ways of working out the Christian approach to all of life and relations, the way of Jesus that honors all people and bears the cross without resorting to slander, violence, or threats. Slavery, as other forms of ill-treatment is a chance to identify with the cross of Christ and his suffering love.

This cross-bearing is sustained out of confidence in God. We imitate Christ who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).  We too “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (4:19). We are “guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). And, God “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us (5:10).

Do the Epistles Reflect a Social Conservatism that Waters Down Jesus’ Prophetic Teachings?

Do slavery passages in the letters of Peter and Paul domesticate Jesus’s message and the fiery words of James and the Revelation? Paul counsels slaves to be good slaves and masters to be good masters. Doesn’t this leave the underlying unjust structures in place? Everybody is supposed to play nice, but the fundamental problem seems left in place: some people are regarded as the property of others, their function in life—this temporal life anyhow—is to make things better for their masters. Where is the message of liberation, justice, and a new society?

On the face of it, Paul’s letters seem to mark a step backward from the Torah. The Old Testament forbade outright slavery (for fellow Israelites), limited debt service to seven years, and imposed a land regime that, if followed, ensured widely distributed land ownership and prevented the rise of permanent, generational, landed and landless classes. If indeed the gospel calls for more radical righteousness than Torah, why don’t we see explicit calls for a wider distribution of capital and the elimination of slavery for all people, not just Israelites? Why don’t we at least get a blunt command: “Slave owners repent and free your slaves!” (The closest we see to that is the letter to Philemon where Paul’s indirectly worded non-command command seems to be that Philemon should free Onesimus, but the letter still acknowledges Philemon’s claims on Onesimus.)

I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer to that question. I think the slavery texts in the Epistles clearly portray a response that is thoroughly rooted in the Gospel. At the same time, it seems like blunt statements that slaveholding is, in and of itself, sinful would also fit with the Gospel. Perhaps part of the answer is that demanding immediate emancipation could do more harm than good, if master’s simply threw their slaves out to fend for themselves.  The New Testament emphasis rather places responsibility for the wellbeing and respectful treatment of slaves onto their masters. It seems to me that if masters really take responsibility for their slaves and learn to treat them with justice and fairness as brothers (eventual) emancipation is the only logical outcome.

Masters (“lords according to the flesh”) are reminded that are reminded that they too are under a Lord. He shows no partiality. The significance of this can hardly be overstated. Double standards are the norm of fallen human society. Let a master attack a slave out of rage or mess around with a slave woman and, while frowned upon, it will be generally accepted without serious consequences. Let a slave lash out physically or fool with a free woman in the house and the indignation and consequences will be severe. God makes no such distinction. Paul is keen to remind the rich of this:

Masters are to avoid threatening and to treat their slaves with justice and fairness. What does the apostle have in mind by justness and fairness? Avoiding threats and violence is surely part of what he means. So too is adequate material provision. Everyone deserves the fruit of their labor. Paul stressed this eloquently in 1 Corinthians 9. Even draft animals get to eat. Those tending cattle share the milk. Those plowing fields share the resulting crop. Workers are to enjoy the benefit, and even if Paul does not demand emancipation of slaves, he surely calls for them to enjoy the fruit of their work. The words justice and fairness call for respect toward slaves as fellow human beings and brothers in Christ. Humane treatment is not enough. Respect is required. In practice this respect should lead to clarity about what is and is not the slave’s responsibility, time off for rest and for participation in the life of the assembly, respect for slave marriages and families, and in general respect for human dignity. I believe the logical outcome is transitioning away from slavery altogether toward other arrangements for work and social and economic structure.

Some Implication Questions

How should free people respond to slavery around us or in other parts of our world? Should we, nonviolently but actively, help others escape? Should we negotiate with slaveholders to bargain for freedom? What difference does it make if slavery is illegal or legally sanctioned? I don’t have experience in working with these situations, but the question was driven home to me as I helped children in church prepare a skit based on the American underground railroad. In those stories we encounter slaves who purchased their freedom from their masters, slaves who ran away, and other people who helped them escape to safer jurisdictions. This forces a question, does Christianity commend the option to escape from slavery when such an opportunity exists? Certainly, if one has a chance to purchase his own freedom, that chance should be taken. If that is not feasible or desirable, should one run away? Should those not enslaved facilitate an (often illegal) escape? It seems we should at a minimum live up to the Old Testament standard for treating escapees. “Do not return a slave to his master if he has taken refuge with you. Let him live among you wherever he chooses, in the town of his pleasing. Do not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

Do modern free persons face situations that are analogous to slavery and call for an analogous response? Sometimes people attempt to apply advice to slaves directly to employees. “Employees be subject to your employer!”  Of course employment is (should be) quite different than slavery in that it is both better compensated and voluntary. Employment is also specific rather than all encompassing. An employee devotes himself to the employers purposes for specific hours, whereas a slavemaster lays claim to direct the slaves entire life.

One takeaway for employees is the simple point that God values and rewards all legitimate work. Another take away for employees, and all of us, is how we respond to situations where someone else gets the better end of the deal. Sometimes these are situations where we have limited options and the other party (perhaps an employer) holds all the leverage. If we have opportunity to escape from those situations to situations where we are treated with justice and fairness, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity. If we don’t have the opportunity we should still do our work out of love and service for other people and ultimately for God himself.

[1] Scripture cited  from the ESV but may be slightly adapted: for example reading “slave” where the ESV used the softer term “servant” or technical term “bondservant.”

[2] Why does Leviticus 25 allow buying non-Israelite slaves and treating them as property? I see the OT Law as the civil law of a nation, which does make concessions to human nature and prevailing mores. Torah left the institution of slavery intact but limited it by proclaiming every Israelite to belong to God.  The New Testament build on and advances the ethics of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not give a civil law for a people group but calls forth the church whose members reside within every nation.

[3] Galatians says there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. As regards the first pair, scripture enjoins that Jews and Greeks live in full fellowship without demanding that Greeks become Jews (or Jews become Greeks). With regard to the second pair, male and female obviously remains a significant difference, though the exact nature and extent of that difference is greatly disputed. Clearly slave and free can be equally Christian, but it seems like slave and free is a difference that should utterly disappear, unlike the difference between male and female.

[4] The Septuagint used it not only for the Hebrew word meaning Lord, but also as a euphemism for the divine name YHWH (Jehovah or Yahweh). This practice was indicated in the Hebrew manuscripts was well, and continues in many English Bibles with the use of LORD (all caps) for YHWH in the Old Testament.

[5] Additionally kurios could be used as a term of respect like our “sir.”

[6] I am glad that those potlucks which we call “Fellowship Meals” remain among Anabaptist churches. We need to recover and reemphasize the theological meaning of such meals and recover the deep connection between the love feast and the remembrance.

[7] Jesus references this practice in the parable of the unworthy servants. “Will any of you how has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (Luke 17:7-8)