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What did Paul think about his subordinates?

Posted by on Aug 21, 2012 in discipleship, office | 29 comments

What did Paul think about his subordinates?

A couple of weeks ago, a new blogging friend (Donald) and I had a good discussion on an old post called “The Phabulous Phoebe.” In those comments, Donald mentioned Paul’s relationship with Timothy, and how Paul referred to it as a father/son relationship. (See 1 Timothy 1:1-2 and 2 Timothy 1:1-2 as examples.)

These comments triggered a question in my mind: How did Paul think those who traveled with him and worked with him? Did he think of himself as being a superior with them being subordinates? Did he think of them all as equals?

Of course, we can’t ask Paul that question. And, he does not write a letter to tell anyone what he thinks about these various people. All we can do is consider how Paul referred to the people who traveled with him and how he referred to the people he worked with in the various cities where he spent time.

Why is this important? Not long after the apostle died, some of the Christians who came along after them began exhorting the church to form into a hierarchical system with the bishop at the top, elders under them, deacons under them, and everyone else under the official clergy. (Ignatius is one example of an early writer who proposed this type of hierarchy, although I don’t think his ideas caught on until many years after he died.)

Now, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, then you know that I disagree with this line of thinking. I do not believe that Jesus or any of his immediate followers – including Paul – desired to see the church develop into some type of hierarchical organization.

Studying the way that Paul referred to the people who traveled with him and with whom he worked in various cities can help us understand a little more about the presence or absence of a hierarchy at that time. Obviously, this short study will not prove the presence or absence of a hierarchy among the church while Paul was writing as letters, but it is another point in the argument one way or another.

So, over the next few days, I’m planning to publish posts that examine the way that Paul referred to other people. Today, most of these people would be considered Paul’s “subordinates” – thus, the use of the term “subordinates” in the title of this post.

What do you think? Do you believe that Paul saw himself as being in a position of superiority while others were his subordinates?


Series: Does Paul refer to other Christians as superiors/subordinates?

  1. What did Paul think about his subordinates?
  2. Defining the terms
  3. The ways that Paul most often refers to other believers
  4. When Paul refers to other believers using father/child language
  5. Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language
  6. Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?
  7. When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-21-2012

    It’s an interesting question indeed. I’m not sure I have an exact answer just yet. In fact, I’m going to add a question. How does this father/son relationship fit with Jesus’ instruction?

    “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9, NASB)

  2. 8-21-2012

    In 1 Cor. 4 Paul talks about being a spiritual father. 1 John talks about fathers, young men, and children.
    I do not see myself as superior to my son. I do however carry a lot more responsibility.
    We have to be careful not to turn this into some hierarchy system. The filter I use is this: when it quits looking like family, I’ve probably stepped over into religion.

  3. 8-21-2012


    Then Paul violated The Word, didn’t he, by saying he was as a spiritual father to Timothy and to others. Obviously there is more to this than meets the eye.

    The way the father/son dynamic fits is that Jesus is the Son and God is the Father and we are to be exactly like Jesus was/is, hence, as sons. This is also modeled naturally, within The Body. Indeed, ours has always been about the relationship between a father and his son.

    Anyone can say that God is God, for surely even demons do this. But only sons can say that God is Father. I have a spiritual father myself, and his name is Jim McNally. He is Paul to my Timothy. Someday I will be as Paul to a Timothy, as well, and so on and so on. The father/son dynamic goes beyond the normal “Yes, I’m a Christian and I believe in Jesus” by putting flesh on the spiritual truth of His Fatherhood and His Sonship and our call to follow in it.

  4. 8-21-2012

    I don’t know if Paul saw others as being “subordinate” to him, especially in the sense of being lesser. He did recognize his responsibility because of what God had called him to do, and that calling did carry a certain position and authority. Paul did call the ones who worked with him his fellow workers, and I suspect he would have seen his authority coming from his example as he followed Jesus rather than from a position or title.

  5. 8-21-2012


    Jesus didn’t see God His Father as being superior to Him, but yet submitted to His will, and did nothing without His Father’s consent or direction.

    My spiritual father is not superior to me, (nor is he Jesus), but I voluntarily submit to him in matters of faith and sonship, as Timothy did with Paul. We are walking covenantally, as well.

    It’s not a hierarchy, but a Godly arrangement, and one that has borne tremendous fruit. Indeed, no man is an island unto themself, and any time I meet a brother who refuses to be submitted to someone else, it makes me wonder. I do it as the father/son example set by Christ, and further shown by Paul and Timothy. It seems appropriate and right.

  6. 8-21-2012

    We are in agreement.

  7. 8-21-2012


    I think that statement in Matthew 23:9 is often overblown. Jesus also said in that passage not to call anyone teacher. But, I think several NT writers call people teachers. So, perhaps Jesus is saying something different. What do you think?


    In many families, the father/son relationship is a hierarchy, and giving more authority to one does set up a hierarchy. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the father/son relationship without hierarchy.


    I think I’m tracking with you, but I’d love to hear how you would answer the same question that I asked Matt. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the father/son relationship without hierarchy.


    Is it possible for someone to have “a certain position and authority” (which others do not have) without their being a hierarchy?


  8. 8-21-2012

    I’m rather looking forward to this series, Alan! When I get into discussion with Christian friends about these questions of hierarchy and so on, they often point out that Paul exercised authority and expected people (congregations and apostles / missionaries) to obey him. It’ll be interesting to see what you have to say about the precise nature of Paul’s relationships with his co-workers.

  9. 8-21-2012

    I agree, Alan. I’m not claiming there is a contradiction. I’m just not sure what exactly Jesus did mean there.

  10. 8-21-2012


    Perhaps our Father was saying, “Don’t look at anyone on earth as being Me, or The Father. There’s only Me, I am The Father, and no one else.” So it wasn’t not to call our natural fathers as father, since they are our fathers, but to not create false gods and call them as Father.

    Did that make sense? I’m throwing this out as a possible explanation, and I am not saying this is an absolute. Maybe one of the other readers would jump in?

  11. 8-21-2012

    Good thoughts. I don’t have any new burst of wisdom to add to the conversations, but as it regards the discussion of Father/Son relationships and terminology, I might ask first, what did the epithet “Father” denote in the first century? After all, Jesus was a bit of an anomaly historically by calling God, Father. Not totally unique, but it was rare. So perhaps, there was a sense in which Father, capital F, implied provider, protector, ultimate source of life; a title not deserved by another.

    Also, I might ask if there was a Rabbinical/Pharisaical/Priestly overtone to “teacher.” Could Jesus have been guarding against that possible abuse? Obviously these aren’t questions with rapid response answers, but it might shed light on the alleged contradiction that shows up when Jesus’ disciples immediately start using terms he said not to use. Just thinkin’ out loud.

  12. 8-21-2012


    This series won’t cover every aspect of the presence or absence of authority. But, hopefully it will be helpful.


    Does the context of that passage help explain what Jesus meant?


    Like I asked Chuck, do you think the context of Jesus’ statement help us understand what he meant?


  13. 8-21-2012


    Thanks for the comment. In the Greek text, it’s impossible to tell if Jesus (or Matthew in recording it) referred to a lower-case “f” or an upper-case “F” when he said “father.” I think the context in Matthew 23 can help us understand what Jesus is talking about.


  14. 8-22-2012

    Hi Alan,
    I think Paul himself gave already the answer, I just think of 2 Corinthians 12, especially 2 Cor 12:7, but the whole paragraph is interesting. Generally he wanted people to know that he was chosen to teach them, but they shouldn’t see him as superior to others.
    Luckily there seem to be quite a lot churches that already broke the wrong hierarchy, the 7th-day-adventists for instance. Although they still have some kind of hierarchy, it’s very similar to a “flat” hierarchy which I see in the Bible. The only thing I would like to see is allowing to _officially_ baptize others without the need to have a special “function” in church.

  15. 8-22-2012

    My Tuesday night fellowship group is going through 1 Corinthians right now. Last night we hit on 1 Corinthians 4:15, which led into comparing it with Matthew 23:9, and we did get a chance to flesh out the context a bit.

    Indeed, knowing the context helps quite a bit there. Jesus was specifically rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, who were abusing their positions. It was they who desired to be called rabbi, teacher, father, and leader. They wanted these titles as positions of authority. On the other hand, Paul used the term to mean more of a mentor.

  16. 8-22-2012


    “On the other hand, Paul used the term to mean more of a mentor.”

    This seems to go against 1 Corinthians 4:15.

    Paul was brought up as a Jew among Jews, so he understood the importance of education in Torah and the relationships he would have had with his teachers. I believe, however, that Paul saw flaws in such a way of relationship, and saw that the father/son relationship that is shown blatantly in The New Covenant is better all the way around.

    He says that there is no lack of mentors/tutors, but a severe lack of spiritual fathers. Paul was not showing approval of tutors/mentors. I do not believe he was using the term for father to be interchangeable with tutor or mentor. That would be simply employing the same old, same old of Judaism and even the Greek teaching method of mathetes/didaskolos. Paul was promoting fatherhood through our God.

    Unless I missed something here…

  17. 8-22-2012


    I don’t know much about the SDA groups. If only some are allowed to baptize, then there is some type of hierarchy there. It sounds like the same kind of hierarchy that existed among the SBC groups among whom I grew up.


    I think you’re right about the context of Matthew 23.


    For me, the earlier description of apostles (specifically Paul and Apollos) as servants/slaves, and Paul’s exhortation to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16) affects how we interpret the “father/child” language. What do you think?

    (Interestingly, I have a note here that says the term translated “guides/mentors/tutors” in 1 Corinthians 4:15 is often used of a repressive figure.)


  18. 8-22-2012

    Donald, you seem to be equating the term “tutor” with “mentor,” but they are quite distinct. A tutor teaches primarily through instruction. A mentor (like a father) teaches primarily through example, though instruction may be involved as well. Paul says in the next verses not to follow as much from instruction as through imitation.

  19. 8-22-2012

    I don’t know of any translation that renders instructor/tutor in verse 15 as “mentor.” I’d say that’s a pretty poor translation if there is one.

  20. 8-22-2012

    Alan, I’m not sure if there can be positions without hierarchy. I guess that’s one of the many things I don’t know. 🙂

  21. 8-22-2012

    Thanks, Alan. Actually, when I said capital F, I just meant the word “father” as it refers to God. 🙂 I wasn’t very clear.

    Matthew 23 is definitely the key. I also thought that possibly, there *might be* some OT overtones that are hearkening to such passages as Jeremiah 31:31-34 when God speaks of a time when “no longer shall they teach their neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…”, i.e. there will be no need for mediatorial teachers. Each man will have access to the knowledge of God. In no way negating the need for a “teacher” in a simple sense of the word, just not a mediator. This may in turn bring us back to the issue of the abuse from the Scribes and Priests lording this knowledge over them…

  22. 8-22-2012


    Then Strong’s Greek is a poor translation:

    Unless you have a different English translation of the Greek word “paidagógos”, that is.

    Notwithstanding, Paul says there is no lack of mentors, then, but a lack of fathers. He then says he has become a spiritual father to the Corinthians. This speaks volumes to me in that it has always been on God’s heart to see His relationship as Father to Jesus, His Son, replicated by us. It is no rumor that our world is suffering from a lack of fathers although we have a high abundance of ‘sperm donors’ and ‘rogue dads’, like an epidemic. Since God Himself chose the Name of Father to describe Himself, it stands to reason that the position of father is important and relevant. Teachers, mentors, tutors come and go. This is not me disparaging them, as I have sat under some amazing teachers in Christ! I value to this day their input. But a father, either natural or spiritual through Christ, is permanent. Surely, Paul says that from His Fatherhood does a family derive its name.

    So I will admire a tutor/teacher/mentor. But they are not fathers.

  23. 8-22-2012


    You said:
    (Interestingly, I have a note here that says the term translated “guides/mentors/tutors” in 1 Corinthians 4:15 is often used of a repressive figure.)

    Exactly. I do not look at 1 Corinthians 4:15 as Paul being glad there are so many guardians, guides, tutors, mentors available but so few fathers. I look at that Scripture as though he were kinda peeved about it, since those other titles and positions would hearken back to Judaism, and Paul knew that Jesus brought a better way.

  24. 8-23-2012

    I think the “father” part of our discussion has to be kept in the context of what Jesus was talking about, which was not just hypocrisy but also included self exaltation.
    Jesus also said to not let others call us by these titles as well, yet as has been discussed we seem to see the early apostles disobeying this.
    I’m not going to go all greek here (plenty of warning in the scripture about striving over words) but could He have meant “call on”? In other words, don’t call on any man as father. God may use someone to be a father to you but you should never put your dependency on him. Be not called on as rabbi or teacher? Or was he saying don’t “put yourself” in a position of having people depend on your? We should always point people’s need to be dependent toward The Father.
    I think it’s quite obvious that God uses men to be these things but the problems manifest when we exalt ourselves into these positions or we misuse what God is doing to take advantage of people’s needs.
    I truly believe the context of Matthew 23 supports what I am saying here.

  25. 8-23-2012

    Thanks for continuing this discussion everyone. I’ve enjoyed reading through all the comments.


  26. 8-25-2012


    You had asked that you’d like to see the father/son relationship without hierarchy. Have you considered God the Father and God the Son?

    Now then, can we, as redeemed humanity, have that same relationship from spiritual fathers to spiritual sons? Yes. It takes the same amount of submission that Jesus the Son had with God the Father to make it happen.

    But lest you hear what I am not saying, I am NOT saying that I look at my spiritual father as being God. Not at all. But I submit to him nonetheless. Is there huge opportunity for wickedness and manipulation to step in and take over our relationship? Of course there is. This is why my spiritual father is in turn submitted to his spiritual father and so on. If my spiritual father ever gets controlling or loopy, I have a place of appeal in that I can go to my spiritual father’s spiritual father. All bases covered.


  27. 8-27-2012


    I think the relationships between God/Jesus can help us in our relationships with others. I also think there is a difference in their relationship. While I think we’re close to the same track on the father/child language in Scripture (as used by Paul), the idea of needing “a place of appeal” seems strange to me. 🙂


  28. 11-8-2012

    Good questions, & good thoughts. One problem I think is mistaking anointing for position. A friend of mine has a very strong anointing in a “five fold ” gift. Those who know him recognize his calling, and he has walked & operated in it for years. Some even assign him the “office “gift yet he will tell you it’s a job description not a title, that his title is servant of the Host High King.

    If we were humble enough to all walk in that & secure enough to allow others to walk in this & not place them in that hierarchical position we would not have these issues.

  29. 11-8-2012


    Yes, reading anything in the New Testament as positional leads to problems, from my perspective.