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Paul’s Theology of Power

(Note: This excerpt and the link to the entire chapter come from Transforming Power by Robert Linthicum (IVP, 2003. The book is available for $15 from Partners in Urban Transformation, Phone (909) 982-3676.)

     NEXT TO JESUS CHRIST, the apostle Paul was the most strategic player in the formation of Christianity Paul was profoundly influential in the way Christianity developed, thought and acted as it spread beyond Israel into “the uttermost parts” of the Roman Empire.

Paul was the first Christian leader to realize that as long as Christianity remained a Jewish sect, it would not have much of a future. He led the church into reaching out to the Gentile world, founded churches through­out Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia and Rome (and perhaps Spain), wrote thirteen books of the Bible (and probably other letters that have since been lost), founded at least thirteen churches and won countless people to faith in Jesus Christ. But undeniably Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity was his formation of a theology upon which the church could reach a Gen­tile world.

Paul’s theology was enriched by his knowledge of Jewish law (he was a former Pharisee trained under Israel’s leading theologian), Greek logic (he was raised in Tarsus, a Greek colony where he studied Greek logic) and Ro­man jurisprudence (he was a Roman citizen, highly skilled at using Roman law to benefit the church). He formulated a theology around the Jewish con­cept of the hesed (“steadfast or grace-filled love”) of God that resulted in a theology of divine grace made accessible to all people through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. His theology of the church, built around the model of the synagogue but adapted to Greek and Roman culture, has become the formative model for the nature and mission of the church for more than two thousand years.

However, Paul was not only an outstanding theologian and builder of the Gentile church. He was also very sophisticated in his understanding of and use of power, and that use of power was built upon a highly developed the­ology of public life. In this chapter we will examine Paul’s clearest and most comprehensive statement of the church’s role in public life.


      To better understand Paul’s insights regarding the church’s role in public life, one must understand how Jewish and Gentile people in the first century A.D. perceived the world. To Jew and Gentile alike, the world of the physical and the world of the spiritual were closely intertwined. To ancient humanity, what might happen in the heavenlies would profoundly impact what oc­curred on earth, and what might happen on earth would influence heaven. Thus Jesus would teach his followers to pray to God,

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6:10),

assuming that if God’s will is done in heaven, there is high expectation that it will be done on earth. Or again, Paul teaches that it is inevitable that Christ will someday reign over all the affairs of the earth (Phil 2:10-11). Because Christ already reigns with God the Creator in heaven, it is a foregone con­clusion that he will reign here as well. 
     Because Paul believed there was an open door between the spiritual world and physical, he held that the governance of both worlds was also irretrievably linked. Thus Paul would build his theology of 'the principalities and powers' on the premise that what happens in the spirit would has its counterpart on earth. Therefore the principalities and powers are not solely spiritual forces of heaven and of hell at war with each other. Nor are the principalities and powers simply the political, economic and religious systems of human society. The principalities and powers are both spiritual and earthly, with the heav
enly or “hellish” dimension of that power providing the spiritual power that would drive the performance and provide the power to any earthly system. (1)

     Because spiritual life is replicated on earth, the conflict between systems and between people and their systems is a duplication of that same conflict in the spiritual world. This is what is meant by “spiritual warfare,” as graph­ically described in the book of Revelation. The battles depicted there be­tween heaven and the underworld have their counterpart in the struggles of the seven churches in Asia Minor as they strived to remain true to the gospel and not be conquered by the seductive forces of their Greco-Roman cultures (Rev 2—3).

A sign of this duplication of the warfare between heavenly systems and the forces of good and evil in the cities and nations of the Roman Empire is the language Paul chose to describe the principalities and pow­ers: “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Col 1: 15-16).

First, note in this statement by Paul that he directly says that the “rulers and powers” have their abode both “in heaven and on earth,” and are both “visible” (that is, they are human systems with values—structures like the Sanhedrin and the Roman Senate—and are operated by specific flesh-and-blood human beings) and “invisible” (that is, they are spiritual systems operating in “heaven”).

Second, note what he chose to call these heavenly/earthly systems. Here is Paul’s standard formula for describing this reality: “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers.” But what are thrones, dominions, rulers and powers?

     The throne is the symbolic institution of power in a state, city, or economic or religious    institution. In its most literal sense, a throne is a “seat” (as we refer to the 'seat of
      government') on which the principality sits.

    The dominion is the sphere of influence or territory ruled by the throne. Thus the dominion of the Roman Empire was the territory of the empire.

    The ruler is the specific person who currently occupies the throne. The ruler can change; the throne continues in its rule over that dominion. Thus, when a monarch of Great Britain dies, the people cry, “The king [that specific “prince”] is dead; long live the king [the throne or institu­tion of monarchy].”

    The powers (also sometimes translated “authorities”) are the sanctions or rules that legitimize the current occupant of the throne as the ruler over that dominion, thus granting to that person the privileges, obligations and limitations accorded those occupying the throne.

Through his theology of the rulers and powers, Paul presented a unique and highly creative analysis of the struggle of the first-century church with the political, economic and religious systems of Rome and of the Jewish state. The book that most clearly presents this struggle—and therefore the necessity for the church to engage in public life—is the book of Ephesians.

The occasion for the writing of Ephesians was the approaching martyr­dom of Paul.2 The apostle was in prison, awaiting his inevitable execution. He knew his execution was only the beginning of what would become an empire-wide persecution of the church by Rome, which now saw the church as posing the greatest threat of any institution to its continued dominance of the world. How could the apostle best prepare his beloved Christians and their churches for the holocaust to come?

 One would expect Paul to advise the church to go underground, to make itself invisible, to hunker down for the persecution that would be coming. But that is not what Paul recommends in Ephesians. Rather, he advises the church to assertively move out into and witness to the world. The theology of Ephesians centers on the church as God’s redeemed peo­ple living in a world of spiritual darkness dominated by an evil empire and its Caesar; God’s call to that church is to work toward the transformation of that world into the kingdom of God. And that would occur, Paul con­tends, only if the church is willing to move aggressively into the public life of Rome and be heard.


    The book of Ephesians has two parts. Chapters one through three deal with the theology of the church’s engagement in public life. Chapters four through six outline the practice of that theology through the everyday life and work of the church. Both present Paul’s clearest message on the Chris­tian use of power to work for the transformation of society with the gospel.

God’s call to the church. Why do we, as Christians, exist? As the church, what are we called by God to be and do? Paul begins Ephesians by remind­ing us that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3), and then proceeds to recount those blessings.

    God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4).

    God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5).

    God redeemed us “through [Christ’s] blood” and forgave us “our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8).

    God has “made known to us the mystery of his will”—that is, what we are called to do as God’s adopted and redeemed children (Eph 1:9).

    God has “marked [us] with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13).

At the very beginning of this most formative book, Paul reminds his churches of who they are. They are the people whom God chose, adopted, redeemed, forgave—to whom God revealed his will and gave the Holy Spirit. But why did God do all this for us? We Christians have been thus en­countered by God so we can participate in God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10).

The phrase “things in heaven and things on earth” is not a rhetorical statement to Paul. This is the term he coined and then used throughout many of his letters to refer to the political, economic and religious institu­tions of Rome (“things on earth”) and their matching principalities and pow­ers in the spiritual realm (“things in heaven”).

What Paul presents here is the challenge that the essential mission of the church is to work for the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom. In essence he is saying, “The universe is at war—a war between God and the powers of darkness symbolized by Satan. As emissaries of God, the angels are to wage that war against Satan in the heavenlies. And likewise the church is to be engaged in the same warfare with the political, economic and reli­gious systems of Rome. To wage that war is why God chose you, called you, adopted, redeemed and forgave you, and that is why you have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This is Paul’s theological rationale for the church not to “hunker down” under persecution but to engage fearlessly in public life. We are to be about winning people to Christ, confronting political systems, transforming eco­nomic systems and converting religious (or values-creating) systems. Paul is not suggesting that our involvement in public life is optional or tangential to the purpose, work and life of the church. He is declaring that involvement in public life is what the church is to be about. The church is to be involved in public life as its essential mission. It exists for the world! And to settle for anything less is to be unfaithful.

This, of course, is an overwhelming task. The church of the first century was so little—and Rome was so large. In that light, Paul bursts into prayer for his beloved Christians throughout the Roman Empire, that they may know the hope to which God has called them and the “immeasurable greatness of his power” (Eph 1:17-19). Paul’s prayer is the prayer of a father who is facing his own death—a prayer for his children who without him must now face the powers of Rome, the dangers of betrayal and the undertaking of an appar­ently impossible task. So he prays that they will be filled with God’s power for the awesome task ahead of them—a power that will give them spiritual discernment, the capacity never to lose the awareness of what God has al­ready done for them in Christ, the determination that they must never “take their eyes off the prize” of an empire won to Christ and the conviction that they are a people of power because they belong to the Lord of all power.

Jesus is Caesar. Emboldened by his prayer, Paul then moves into the most astounding statement of this letter—a proclamation that would guar­antee that the church would win the enmity of Rome.

"God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and au­thority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." (Eph 1:20-23)

Having reminded the church in his prayer that we Christians are people of God’s power, Paul elaborates on the power of God that the church can access as it engages Rome. The power of God is such, Paul states, that God raised Jesus from the dead and has crowned him the monarch of heaven and earth, ruling over every government, head of state, constituting pow­ers of that state and all its territories. Of course Paul is clearly referring to the Roman Empire.

To Christians living in the first century this was clearly and unequivocally an extreme political statement. Ephesians 1:20-23 would have been read by any Christian—and any Roman—from the standpoint of the cosmology that an action in heaven would make inevitable its eventual occurrence on earth. Therefore they would immediately see that the following is what Paul was actually declaring:

God has crowned Jesus as the emperor of heaven. God has already seated Jesus upon the throne and has already placed him over all nations and em­pires (“thrones” or “rule”), all rulers (“principalities” or “authorities”), all gov­ernments (“powers”), and all their territories (“dominions”), both in heaven and on earth, both now (“this age”) and as God’s will is inevitably worked out through all the governments that are to come (“the age to come”).

What Paul so boldly proclaimed is that Christ has already been crowned king over all nations, economic orders and civilizations that do now or will eventually exist. Or, in other words, Paul is here declaring that Jesus is the true Caesar of the entire world—including Rome. The man in Rome who pres­ently calls himself “Caesar” is an imposter!

Now do you see why the Christians were persecuted? The real offense that the Christians were to Rome was not that they were of another religion, but that they declared that their Lord was the true and authentic ruler (or “Caesar”) of the world. They recognized Jesus as their Caesar, rather than Nero. And that made them a threat to the future of the Roman Empire.

But Paul is not done. He continues, “[God] has made [Jesus] the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-23). Here Paul is declaring that the means by which Jesus will become the ruler over all the Romes of the world (“the head over all things”) is through God’s use of the church. The church will be the means God will use to win the world to allegiance to Jesus. Therefore the church is to work to bring to reality in society what has been preordained because it has already been accomplished in heaven. If the church is faithful in fulfill­ing this assignment, the world will experience “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Paul declares that the church—this little band of apparently helpless ‘nobodies”—has been chosen to be God’s means for bringing about the submission of Rome to Christ. Such submission will not happen by the church aping the dominating use of power that the Roman systems use to tyrannize the world. Rather it will happen as the church seeks to influence those systems through its practice of justice with love as it engages the sys­tems through its use of relational power. We are called by God to be change agents in the world. But we will be so used by God only to the de­gree the church actively involves itself in working for justice and transfor­mation in the public arena.

The church as God’s ambassadors. Paul then continues his argument in Ephesians 2:1-10. He reminds Christians that we were once corrupted and even controlled by the systems and the values of Rome, Israel and any other nation, belief system or cause. We were ruled by our desires and passions, exploited and used by the systems. Thus we were “by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Eph 2:3). Thus Paul reminds us that we have not been chosen by God to be transformers of the world’s systems because we are more holy or righteous or intelligent or such strong leaders. Rather, we were as corrupt and as seduced as is everyone else.

But God has acted to free us from the spiritual, psychological and physi­cal control that the political, economic and religious systems have exercised over us in the past. It is God who freed us, not we ourselves. If it had been up to us, we would still be victims—oppressed, exploited or seduced into cooperation by the economic and political powers of our city and nation, controlled in our thinking, our behavior, and our beliefs by those systems that shape the values of our society We would be just like all the other peo­ple, serving our business and government, and mindlessly parroting the convictions taught us that keep the systems in power.

But God freed us from an unthinking acceptance of servitude to our na­tion’s systems in order to follow his call to work for the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom. And God did this through Jesus Christ, who could not be seduced by the systems of Israel because he could see through them. So it is that it is through “grace you have been saved through faith [that is, through placing your trust in a king other than Caesar], and this not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).

God has done this so that we might be “what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be o way of life” (Eph 2:10). The church is to be an ambassador of another Caesar, of a different kingdom, of a profoundly different way of life. We, t church, are to work for our new king to bring about the changes that need to occur in our political, economic and religious systems so that they might increasingly become the systems God created them to be. This is be “our way of life,” prepared before our conversion (or even our birth) f us to do.

The church as sharing in reconciliation. Part of the work Christ has do in and between us is to keep on breaking down the walls of hostility that vide people, nations, racial and ethnic groups, religions, and economic systems (Eph 2:11-14). By bringing us all into the kingdom of God from act every race, ethnicity, nation, religion, economic system and people group, Christ has made us into one new humanity This he has done by abolishing the power of the systems that will always seek to divide us. Christ has created “in himself one new humanity in place of the two [whatever two mi divide us—Jew versus Arab, white versus black, socialist versus capitalist Irish Catholic versus Irish Protestant], thus making peace, [that he] mi reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting death that hostility through it” (Eph 2:15-16).

In other words, all divisions in the human race are false dichotomy They are mostly divisions built on events in the distant past over which have no control, and they have built one upon the other—offense upon offense—until those differences have loomed so large they destroy any potential for reconciliation.

My wife and I are friends with a Muslim Palestinian couple whom have known for many years. Recently we were together and the conversation came around to the division between Palestinians and Israelis. They sp hotly on the topic because their family had personally experienced the 1st us taking their land and home away from them. “It is tragic,” I said, “that Holy Land has been torn with strife between Arab and Israeli for thousands of years.”

“No, you do not understand,” the husband replied, “We Palestinians have never done anything wrong—never, in all those thousands of years! It is al­ways the Israelis who have taken from us. They are 100 percent in the wrong. All of our killing of them is justified and is always in the right.”

Incredulous, I responded, “No Palestinian has ever done anything wrong in this conflict?”

“That is right,” he said. “Israel is always wrong and is evil. We are always right and everything we do is justified. Therefore we can never be reconciled to them. The only right thing we can do is to drive them totally from outland.”

It is in the self-interest of the political, economic and values-sustaining systems and institutions of a nation to maintain that kind of hatred, be­cause such maintenance necessitates that the systems and their leaders stay in power and even increase their authority The systems will always divide the world into “us” and “them” because that helps keep the systems in power. But when people come to Christ and adopt his kingdom as their own, their allegiance to their nation, ethnic group or “people” should lessen because they have now embraced a kingdom that knows no ethnic or national boundaries: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20). Therefore, because they have become the only truly liberated people in the world, the church is to work for the reconciliation of the systems into the one body of people standing under the cross. Thus Paul declares this must be an essential part of the public agenda of the church.

It is important to see what Paul is not saying here. He is not suggesting that there is no place for human diversity Our cultural distinctives are important because they capture the unique nuances of our ethnic, racial and national identities. Those differences are worthy of celebration—not only by that people whose distinctives they are but also by all peoples. Otherwise why visit any other culture, enjoy ethnic food or share in na­tional celebrations?

Paul is not suggesting the creation of a society that has no cultural diversity He is not saying that the task of the church is to work for the reconcil­iation of the systems into the same body of people (how boring that would be!). He is saying that the church is to work for the reconciliation of the sys­tems into the one body—culturally and ethnically distinct but not seeking to dominate the world with one nation’s or culture’s political or economic agenda. Paul is saying that all people and nations and cultures recognize their common humanity under Christ and thus discover who they are by dis­covering whose they are.

The church as harbingers of a new social reality. Paul now moves to a description of his unique call and the insights that call can bring to the church about its work in the (Roman) world. By looking at his call, Paul is able to present the clearest statement in Ephesians—and in anything he wrote—about the essential function of the church in the real world.

He moves into this topic by reminding his readers of “the mystery of Christ” that he was privileged to have been given before any other believers. That mystery has come to define his ministry and has now come to be largely accepted by the church, Paul declares. But it is that mystery that also makes clear to us the true and primary mission of the church.

The mystery is that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members o~ the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gos­pel” (Eph 3:6). That is the reason the church is called to be ambassadors of the gospel and is to work for reconciliation. It is to so work because there should be no division between Gentile and Jew or between any other humanly made or systems-encouraged division that leads to an allegiance to a nation, an economy, a values-system, a Caesar greater than our alle­giance to God. Paul is therefore seeking to enable the church to embrace a profoundly expanded life and ministry beyond what anyone can believe or even imagine. And Paul expresses that expansive work of the church in this way:

"I want] to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and con­fidence through faith in him." (Eph 3:9-12, emphasis mine)

      If all Paul was concerned about was seeing individual Gentiles and Jews come to Jesus Christ, he would have written, “through the church the wis­dom of God might now be made known to people.” But that is not what he wrote. He is saying that the wisdom of God, which humanity has refused to see, is that there is no need in human society for the existence of political, economic, religious, racial or ethnic dichotomies that divide humanity. God never intended us to be divided into “us” and “them.” But the political, eco­nomic and religious systems of every society, every nation and every city need such divisions in order to maintain their domination. So they foster such divisions.

Therefore the primary work of the church is to proclaim to the world’s systems a new vision of the world—a world with all its systems living in a shalom community and thus creating together, through the grace of God, the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” Such a kingdom is not a bland kingdom of sameness, but rather is God’s reconciled world “in its rich van­ety”—the creation of a kaleidoscope of cultures and peoples, all united by a common allegiance to the same Lord, the same “Caesar,” Jesus Christ.

In other words, Paul is saying the work of the church goes far beyond preaching the gospel, winning souls to Christ, building up or planting con­gregations, working for social justice, or even hunkering down in order to preserve the church and to stay alive. Paul is declaring that the work of the church is to hold up to the Roman Empire and to any other system an en­tirely different vision for their society—a vision of all of life lived in shalom under the authority of Christ and manifested in that society’s pursuit of a politics of justice, an economics of equitable distribution of wealth, the elim­ination of poverty and a people in relationship with God. And that “mystery’ can only be realized if the church will move beyond itself to be engaged in every possible way in public life.

In light of such a stupendous task, Paul prays that they may have the strength to undertake that task, that they will be able to get their heads around such a vision, that they may be centered in Christ when under­taking such an assignment and that Christ’s love will empower them for the task (Eph 3:14-19). He then closes the theological section of this pro­found book with a benediction, dedicating the church to public life (Eph 3:20-21).


    If the primary work of the church is to call the Roman Empire (and any sub­sequent political, economic or religious systems) to embrace the “Cae­sarship” of Christ and to give themselves to his kingdom of justice, equitable distribution of wealth and relationship with God and each other, how does the church actually go about accomplishing this? How should the church work in order to move society toward the shalom community?

In the second half of Ephesians, Paul answers that question. But he an­swers it in a highly nuanced way that has confused biblical interpreters ever since. He doesn’t provide broad principles that can be applied to any society and in any century After all, that wasn’t to whom he was writing. He was writing to the church in the Roman Empire, and therefore he makes sugges­tions to the church about their engagement in public life that are relevant for life under the Roman Empire. What we need to do is not to follow his in­structions literally but to perceive the essential principles lying behind each instruction and let those principles guide us as to how to move out into pub­lic life as today’s church.

Unity and the division of labor~ Paul begins by reminding his readers of the dominant theme in the first section: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). But then Paul moves on to propose a way of being church that is designed to equip and empower the church to effectively undertake its primary responsibility of engagement in public life.

"The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the mea­sure of the full stature of Christ. ... Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love." (Eph4:11-13, 15-16)

The traditional way Ephesians 4:12 has been translated results in a dis­tortion of Paul’s intent.3 Verse 12 has normally been translated “to equip the saints, to do the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” That translation makes Paul seem to say that those occupying the offices of “apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher” have three primary responsibilities: to equip Christians, to undertake the work of ministry an to build up the church. But that is not what the Greek says at all. A more accurate translation is given in the New Revised Standard Version: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” I other words, Paul taught the Christians of his day that the primary task o the church’s apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to equip Christians so that those Christians can undertake the church’s work of ministry, and this shared labor will build up the body of Christ. Only by translating this verse this way can sense be made of the subsequent verses of this section (Eph 4: 13-16).

What Paul is stating, in light of the total message of Ephesians, is that the task of the ordained clergy is to prepare Christians for public life. Through worship, prayer, study of Scripture, instruction, training and pastoral sup port, these leaders were to equip Christians to be engaged in Roman society But the church would only be a transforming influence in Roman society i each Christian was willing to be involved in public life and was engaged i whatever areas of the political, economic and values-formation life of the empire to which he or she had access. The clergy couldn’t do it alone. T change the Roman Empire, it would take every Christian living out their Christianity every day in practical and concrete ways.

Living a new 1!fe. Paul taught that the first level of involvement in public life would be in the nature of our lifestyle. If people did not see transformation in the ways we engaged others and conducted our own lives, we would no have credibility in our engagement in the political, economic or values-setting arenas. Paul laid out the characteristics of a transformed public life in Ephesians 4:17—5:20. Here are some examples from the long lists he created:

    “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (Eph 4:2 5).

    “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly wit their hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Eph 4:28).

    “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need” (Eph 4:29).

    “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).

   “Fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be men­tioned among you” (Eph 5:3).

One may wonder, “What do lists of ethical behavior have to do with pub­lic life?” But we must remember that most of the Christians who were won to faith under Paul’s ministry had no idea how a Christian should act either in public or in private. They had come from a rather ruthless society that seemed to operate with the code “Do unto others before they do to you.” Thus the place to begin training people in public conduct was to present them with a different ethical and moral model.

Marriage, family and work. Paul next presents three arenas of public life in which Christians should be particularly involved, whether they are of high or of low estate: building strong and committed marriages, creating se­cure and loving families, and conducting just employment practices (Eph 5:21-33; 6:1-4, 5-9). He develops the Christian response in these three in­stitutions by teaching mutual submission—a mutual yielding to each other as opposed to the domination of the powerful (husbands, parents, employ­ers) over the powerless (wives, children, slaves).

Personal lifestyle, marriage, parenting and employment are not often thought of as arenas of public life. But in the Roman Empire these were in fact the primary arenas in which public life could be practiced. Neither the ordinary Roman citizen nor the free peasant was permitted to engage in the political arena; that was reserved exclusively for nobility Nor could a citizen or free peasant be engaged in the setting of economic policy for the empire or even its free dries; that was reserved for large landowners and people of means (who were most often nobility). Engagement in public life was in the everyday activ­ities at the marketplace, the shop, the public bath, the sports arena, the schools and the homes. But Paul recognized that even given the limitations of involve­ment in public life in the first-century Roman Empire, if the church was not engaged in the struggles, the insistence on rights, and the defense of the poor and the powerless (even women, children, slaves and workers), its faith would make no difference in the world in which the vast majority of people lived.

The church of God goes forth to ward Ephesians ends with the striking metaphor of the church as a Roman soldier clad in defensive armament (bell1 of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel of peace, shield faith, helmet of salvation) and with weapons of offense (sword of the Spirit) ready to do battle in the public arena. “For our struggle is not against ene­mies of blood and flesh,” Paul states, “but against the rulers, against the au­thorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

Returning to the theme with which he began the book, Paul reminds the reader that when the Christians engage in public life, they are in “spir­itual warfare,” for they must battle the manifestations of spiritual princi­palities and powers that possess the political, economic and values­sustaining systems of Rome, Israel and all other societies. It is a struggle to the death, and the church has not carried out its calling from God if all it seeks to do is to win souls, plant congregations and build up a body of support and love. Paul believed that the very future of the church de­pended on whether or not it would assume a corporate public life. His whole desire—both in his teaching of the church through his book of Ephe­sians and in his own personal engagement in public life as recorded in Acts and his letters to the Corinthians—was that the church would embrace public life and become assertively proactive in seeking to turn the Roman Empire upside down.


     In one of his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Cor 4:20). In Ephesians we see Paul systematically presenting what that single sentence alludes to in 1 Corinthians. The church is not to be about “talk,” he argued. It is not about the task of maintaining a privatized faith, simply building up interiorized congregations and only sallying forth into the world to win converts to Christ. Paul knew that such insulation would lead to the marginalization, and eventually the disintegration, of the church.

    Instead, what Paul did in his own ministry and what he urged on his con­gregations to do was to build the kingdom of God on power. He called them to move out into public life, living a compassionate and caring lifestyle different from the rest of society and working for the transformation of that society’s systems into at least an approximation of the kingdom of God. I obedience to the vision Paul cast, that is in fact what the church did. An the result was the transformation of the Roman Empire into an increasingly Christianized society It took the church nearly three hundred years to bun about that transformation. But that is exactly what they did. And it was al because Paul had given the church both a theology of public life and the courage to live out that public life in the Roman world.

1‘The New Testament theologian who has made the most exhaustive study of this subject and is most influential in present New Testament studies on the first-century understanding of principalities and powers is scholar Walter Wink. Notable is The Powers, his exhaustive three-volume study of first-century Christian, Jewish, Greek and Roman understandings of the links between the spiritual and earthly dimensions of life and of the systems. The three books are Engaging the Powers (Fortress, 1992), Naming the Powers (1984) and Unmasking the Powers (1986). See also his synopsis of the study The Powers That Be (Doubleday, 1998).

2There has been considerable debate among biblical scholars since the nineteenth century as to whether Paul is the author of Ephesians or not, with weighty evidence on both sides of the argument. Most notable among the arguments against Pauline authorship is the profoundly different style of writing than that of his unquestionably authentic letters. The strongest argu­ment in favor of Pauline authorship is the tradition of the church for that authorship that stretches back to the century after its initial publication. I hold to the Pauline authorship of the epistle, both on theological grounds and because I don’t believe the evidence against such authorship is sufficient to require me to change my position. Consequently, throughout this chapter, I will refer to Paul as the author of Ephesians.

3The distorted translation first appeared in the original King James Version of the Bible and was passed down into both subsequent KJV editions and into other translations. The Greek lan­guage has two words that are normally translated “to”—one that means “in order to” and the other that means “so to” or “so that.” The way those two Greek words are used by Paul in Ephe­sians 4:12 requires the translation to read “to equip the saints in order to do their work of min­istry, so that the body of Christ can be built up.” It is important to keep in mind that when the KJV was first translated, the church was very concerned about securing the office and the ex­clusive work of the clergy in light of the uncertainty the Reformation in England had brought that office. By translating this passage so it would appear that there was a threefold responsi­bility for the clergy (that is, to teach [equip[, to do pastoral care [the work of ministry[ and to strengthen the church), this would—and did—strengthen the office of the clergy in English society. But the Greek text will not support such a translation, no matter the motives of the translator. The accurate translation of Ephesians 4:12 is given in the NRSV, the NIV,, the NLT and the Jerusalem Bible and is corrected in the NKJV.




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