I had the great honor of asking Lynn H. Cohick, a renowned expert on Paul, a few questions about Paul’s letters (namely Philippians and Ephesians). The author of a Philippians commentary as well as a commentary on Ephesians, Dr. Cohick is respected for her rigorous research as well as carefully bringing the text into our present day.
My questions are in bold.
Philippians is held by some to be anti-empirical; that is, when Paul writes about Jesus being “Lord” and “Savior,” he is in fact challenging the authority of Roman leaders. What is your take on this? Is Paul anti-empirical, and what difference does this make for today/what implications does this have for today?
Lynn: I do not think Paul is directly addressing the “sitting” emperor, or a specific governor or imperial figure. Moreover, I think he respects the social order that government brings, as the antidote to chaos that was always so close at hand. Finally, I should note that the imperial cult in Paul’s day included not only the Emperor but other family members. For example, Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia, was also deified. We have an inscription from the port city of Neapolis near Philippi that celebrates Cornelia Asprilla who is a priestess of Livia Augusta’s cult.
The gospel message, nevertheless, makes claims that directly challenge the claims of Rome. The pax Romana was lauded from Octavian’s time, and ancient historians remark about the devastation Rome created as it established its peace. The imperial claims suggested that hope resides in Rome, and the gods are on the side of Rome. The emphasis on the Emperor as a god created a further problem for believers, and for non-believing Jews. Philo describes imperial rule under Gaius Caligula, in his Embassy to Gaius http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book40.html
Here we see the terror that Rome can inflict on monotheists. My point is that Rome’s vision of the world did not line up with the gospel’s declaration at all. Paul uses kingdom language as he describes Christ’s exaltation (2:9-11). His description of Christ’s worthiness for this role is the portrait of a man executed on a cross. Paul is anti-domination; anti-power hungry; anti-this world’s hierarchy of social values.
In Philippians Paul writes to “rejoice always” and also “do not be anxious in anything.” This sounds like Paul wants us to be stoic-like in the face of hardship, indifferent to our circumstances. Or is something else going on?
Lynn: The rejoicing comes from the sure hope we have in Christ. That is why believers can embrace the reality of suffering, and see it in relation to the call to endure until Christ returns and we enjoy the resurrection of the body (Rom 8).
The call to not be anxious is followed by the call to pray in all circumstances. Our anxiety often comes when we forget that God is able to make a way. And there is an interesting phrase “the Lord is near” (4:5). It could refer to a spatial closeness; something like Jesus lives in my heart and is close to me when I pray. Or it could mean that the Lord’s return is close at hand, drawing on 3:20–21. Maybe it is both, and the point is that with Christ close, and God’s great power, there is no need for anxiety. Paul is not indifferent to surroundings, for he feels hunger and enjoys plenty (4:12). To the Corinthians, as he lists his struggles, he admits also some concern or anxiety for their spiritual growth, and we might think of that as a human concern that things go as we hope (2 Cor 11:27–30).
Here is a good example of the contrast – Plutarch commends his wife for her lack of emotion of grief at the death of their dear daughter, Timoxena, who passed at age two (“Consolation to his Wife” Moralia http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Consolatio_ad_uxorem*.html
Paul, on the other hand, says that he was quite concerned at the health of Epaphroditus, and was spared “sorrow upon sorrow” when God healed him (2:27). It is true that Paul said For me to live is Christ and to die is gain, but he did not like death. It was the enemy; it had a sting (1 Cor 15:54–57). Stoics wanted to say that it had no sting, because it was expected.
One area there Paul might sound like the philosophies of the day is in his call to imitate him, (3:17). Throughout Philippians, he encourages believers to right thinking. For the Stoics, right thinking led to control of passions. For believers, right thinking leads to following after Christ, a life of obedience to God and the possibility of suffering for one’s testimony.
Paul’s language comes closest to Stoic thought when he speaks of being self-sufficient or content (4:11 autarkēs ). While a Stoic would say that they have learned to draw inner strength, and thus relegate externals to the periphery, Paul says that his strength comes from the one who gives him strength – most likely here referring to Christ, less likely to God the Father. But in either case, the point is that the strength is not Paul’s own.
The virtues in 4:11–13 are not all shared by the Stoic. Paul speaks of contentment, which can sound like a Stoic, but then he goes on to talk about being humbled or humiliated – this is not a virtue for Stoics. Again, Paul admits to rejoicing and to having plenty – while the Stoic wants neither great joy or great pain. The Stoic wants apathea or detachment from external circumstances. But Paul sees Christ-sufficiency, and with that, service in his Name.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Paul uses the language of “predestined” while in Philippians he exhorts his recipients to “work out” their salvation. Does Paul contradict himself? (They sound like polar opposites.) In your estimation, how does Paul think about the inner workings of salvation?
Lynn: The language of predestined in Ephesians is used in relationship to God’s plan of salvation (1:5, 11). Paul declares in 1:5 that the plan always included adoption through Christ. In 1:11, believers are predetermined to receive their inheritance. Notice the emphasis on adoption and inheritance, both are familial terms. In his letter to the Romans, Paul stresses that those whom God foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (8:29–30). Those who are called, are justified and glorified. In both cases, it seems that the predestined activity is redemption in Christ, through adoption, as the believer is co-heir with Christ, and grows into Christ’s likeness.
Philippians 2:12 speaks of working out one’s salvation, which can sound confusing when we think that it is by grace that we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:5, 8). But the context in Philippians is what happens after one accepts the free gift of salvation. We could think about salvation as a marriage: the wedding day is like the moment when you accept the gift of salvation in Christ, and the marriage that begins requires believers to recommit each day to that love which was pledged.
The working out is really about being alert to what God has put in our paths, and what God requires for our obedience. In Phil 2:13, Paul makes it clear that God has already created the way for believers to live a holy life that also blesses others. And in 2:14, Paul commands us to not grumble. This command highlights the emphasis on community that is so essential for the Philippian church. It reminds us today that our salvation is not only a personal forgiveness of sins, but also it joins us to others in the church. Our attitude and actions matter as we imitate God and love as Christ loves (Eph 5:1–2).
In Ephesians in particular, the household codes (Ephesians 5-6) have proven quite controversial. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to their masters. How are we approach and interpret this difficult passage?
Lynn: The passage is very difficult, for sure. It might help to know that these categories were developed by Aristotle, so it is not Paul who creates them. Instead, he engages in his culture’s discussion, challenging some of the assumptions. While it is true that Paul asks wives to submit, the verb “submit” is not found in 5:22. It is carried over from 5:21, which asks that each believer submit to other believers out of reference/fear of Christ. (this verb is a participle, not an imperative; although participles can carry imperatival force). So the submission is not unique to wives. Moreover, husbands are commanded to love their wives as they love themselves, and as Christ loved, which is self-denying love for the sake of the other. That command was counter-cultural. The wife was to give herself for her husband, not the other way round. Paul introduces the idea of reciprocity here – that the husband sees his wife as his own body (5:28). This implies that the wife sees her husband as her own body. This mutuality is spelled out in 1 Cor 7:4 when Paul says that the wife has authority over her husband, specifically in matters of the bedroom, even as the husband has authority of his wife.
The slave is to obey her/his master. We might have a male slave obeying his female owner. First, Paul indicates that the slave’s work will gain a reward from the Lord. Second, and more importantly, Paul warns the owner that God shows no favoritism (6:9). The whole system of slavery was based on favoritism and the power to dominate. But Paul took that away. It is sad stain on the church’s reputation that believers did not live into this reality for centuries.
When Paul writes, “your citizenship is in heaven,” what are some implications? Are we to avoid earthly attachments?
Lynn: This line in Philippians has a special poignancy for them, because the city itself was considered as though it was on Italian soil. It was a Roman colony that felt a strong allegiance to Rome. Also, a key battle had taken place on the plain of Philippi, where Octavian and Marc Antony beat Brutus and Cassius. With this victory, the republic was defeated, and Rome entered its imperial era.
In 1:27, Paul uses a parallel verb to the noun “citizen.” The verb is found only here in the NT, and it can be translated as “live as a citizen,” or “conduct yourselves” (NIV 2011). The idea behind the verb is that a person should live as is fitting for their group, especially if your group is a minority in an urban setting.
Therefore, when Paul speaks of citizenship, he is talking about primary allegiances. He wants the Philippians to care for each other, and he praises them for caring about other believers, such as those in Judea (see 2 Cor 8:1–5). What he wants the Philippians to avoid is a mindset that focuses on this world. About ten times in the epistle, he talks about “thinking” a certain way. He wants them to have the mind of Christ, to be of one mind, to think as Christ does.
So in a certain sense, yes, we want to avoid earthly attachments. That is what Paul means when he says that all the good he had – the religious training, the heritage as part of Israel – all that good was not comparable to the good he has in Christ (3:4–7). Earthly honor, prestige, status, wealth, these are all good in a certain way. We want to honor those who do good, and we hope that those blessed with wealth will use it to aid others. But when the pursuit of honor or wealth overpowers the desire for service and suffering for Christ, then Paul would say that we need to remember our ultimate allegiance is our citizenship in heaven.
Both Ephesians and Philippians stress the importance of Christian unity. Throughout your experience, do churches and Christian institutions get Paul right when it comes to unity? What is unity not?
Lynn: I think the temptation is to understand unity as sameness. When Paul says that he wants believers to have the same mind (Phil 2:2), he means that they think as Christ did, with love towards others and selfless service to all. But not all need to agree on whether to rest of Sabbath, or eat meat that had previously been sacrificed at a temple (Rom 14:19–21; 1 Cor 10:23–11:1).
The power of Christian unity is that it is achieved only as we give up our rights, and consider others as important as ourselves. I think churches are always in an ebb and flow when it comes to unity, as are Christian small groups or ministries. Unity is the evidence that believers are loving each other as the Father and the Son love, as Jesus prayed.
To those who have tried to understand Paul but find his letters dry (or find him to be quite stern), what advice would you give? How should one approach Pauline literature?
Lynn: If you think his letters are dry, try reading books that give the historical picture of the day. I highly recommend Holly Beers’ new book from IVP, A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman, which is set in Ephesus.
Or Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People. Sarah is a classicist who brings to light the cultural realities that Paul faced. I don’t think people will imagine Paul as harsh after they read her book.
Thank you for your time!
Joining Denver Seminary in 2018 as provost/dean and professor of New Testament, Dr. Cohick taught at Wheaton College since 2000, where she was a professor of New Testament. She is the author of Women in the World of the Earliest Christians as well as Christian Women in the Patristic World.