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When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates

Posted by on Aug 31, 2012 in discipleship, office | 5 comments

When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates

In this short series, I’m looking at the ways that Paul referred to people who traveled with him and people he worked with in various cities in order to answer these questions: 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 (i.e., a hierarchy)? Did he think of them all as equals?

A few days ago, I introduced the series by asking, “What did Paul think of his subordinates?” Next, I defined some of the terms that I will use: superior, subordinate, and hierarchy. Then, I covered the terms that Paul used most often to refer to other believers: brother/sister and fellow-worker/soldier/servant. Next, I listed all the passages in which Paul used father/child (or mother/child) language and summarized how Paul used father/child language according to those passages. Finally, I asked if Paul used the term “apostle” to denote a superior/subordinate hierarchy.

In this post, I want to examine a passage in which Paul does employ language indicating a relationship of superiors to subordinates (i.e., a hierarchy).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Paul often uses “co-” language to refer to people he worked with: co-workers, co-servants, etc. But, in his second letter to the Corinthians believers (sent after his second visit and before his third visit to Corinth), he used different language to refer to others.

Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. (2 Corinthians 11:5 ESV)

I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. (2 Corinthians 12:11 ESV)

The two words translated “super-apostles” in both of those passages is a combination of the word for “apostle” along with a superlative indicating “very chief,” “most eminent,” “most prominent,” etc. Thus, in a hierarchy, Paul is placing these “super-apostles” at the top of the pyramid (at least among apostles).

However, we also know that Paul says that he is being “foolish” using this kind of language to refer to these people, whom he also refers to as false apostles.

Throughout the two chapters (2 Corinthians 11-12), Paul points out several problems associated with these “super-apostles.” Some of those problems relate to the fact that these people DID attempt to place themselves over the Corinthians and others in a superior to subordinate (hierarchical) relationship.

Notice, though, that while Paul says that he is not inferior to these so-called “super-apostles,” he also does not place himself above anyone else. In fact, he says, “I am nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:11 ESV) Instead of placing himself above the Corinthians or anyone else, Paul continually points to his own weaknesses, lack of abilities, and “foolishness.” He refuses to elevate himself above anyone else, though he also says that he is not inferior (even to these super-apostles).

So, when Paul DOES use the language of superior to subordinate, the calls it “foolishness.” Even when he compares himself to the false apostles and says he is “better,” Paul admits that he is “talking like a madman” (2 Corinthians 11:23 ESV). Paul does not have a positive view of the kind of language that indicates a superior to subordinate relationship (i.e., a hierarchy).

So, if I’m correct in the way that I’ve translated all of these passages (throughout this short series), then Paul never refers to other Christians in language that indicates a superior/subordinate (hierarchical) relationship. At least, he never uses this kind of language in a positive manner.


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. 8-31-2012

    Great point here, Alan. I’ve not been commenting much on this series, but just wanted to let you know I have been enjoying it.

  2. 8-31-2012

    I deeply appreciate this series and your ongoing input to the Body of Christ. Thanks!

  3. 8-31-2012

    Count my thanks along with Chuck and Jim. On so many topics, you address common practices in a gentle way and bring us back to scripture with comprehensive simplicity.

  4. 8-31-2012

    I also have been silently reading and wish to thank you for this series. Keep writing, my friend, and gently challenging us like you do.

  5. 8-31-2012

    Thank you, everyone, for reading along. I truly do appreciate it!