Women Deacons: A Brief Exegetical-Theological Case


First things first: the idea that women are inherently excluded from serving in positions of leadership demands that the burden of proof be placed on people who prefer to exclude them. The nature of New Testament theology makes excluding people who are not in sin a very rough paradigm to assert. Sin is a disqualifier, certainly, but gender?

1. Phoebe in Rom 16:1-2

Many English translations water down this text. Phoebe is described as διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς, which is roughly translated to "deacon [perhaps the deacon] of the church in Cenchrea." The fact that is spoken about as a "deacon" at a specific church tells us she is highly involved in that assembly. It also states that Rome is not her local church, as Cenchrea is a fair distance from Rome: so she had the means and resources to make it, without a husband named, from that area to Rome. The word διάκονον is semantically unrelated to the common word for slave, which is δοῦλος. So the idea of rendering this term as "servant" is lexically and linguistically false.

Paul also describes her as a προστάτις is used to describe presidents of an association (O. Tebt. Pad. 67), and likely means that here. Hence, Phoebe was involved in leadership of Cenchrea, and since no other leadership is named, we are on good grounds to take her as "the" deacon of the church. It would have been easy for Paul to say, "Phoebe…who is under the authority of this dude in Cenchrea." But he doesn't. Hence, Phoebe is a deacon/leader in the church and probably, based on the context, was involved in leadership (or as the leader over) the church. In Greco-Roman literature, the word προστάτις referred to "leadership," "benefaction," "protector," "champion" (LSJ). So translating the language as "servant" is simply untenable. Phoebe was an actual deacon and was most likely, based on the context and the words Paul uses to describe her, was a leader of many and even of Paul (ἐμοῦ: "of me" in Rom 16:2b).

2. Women Deacons in 1 Tim 3:8-12

Paul speaks of "deacons in this way being noble" (Διακόνους ὡσαύτως σεμνούς: 1 Tim 3:8) and says virtually the same thing in 3:11 (γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς).

The lack of a personal pronoun identifying γυναῖκας as "wife" (as in, "their wife") is rather decisive: the person in view is a woman, not specifically a wife. A woman is given the same qualification as the "deacon" in 3:8, and are included in the same linguistic sphere. The phrase "one woman man" (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες) refers to monogamy, not the fact that the deacon/elder must be male. Leading complementarians affirm this point that monogamy is in view, not the 'male' only aspect that many prefer to see. The use of the adverb "likewise" (ὡσαύτως) indicates continuity: vv.8-11 are following on the principles argued in 1 Tim 3:1-7, where "anyone" (τις) is encouraged to seek leadership. Hence, women are not excluded from the office of deacon nor are they (I would argue) excluded from ministerial positions at all. Thus, the lack of a definite article or personal pronoun in relation of "women" indicates that women deacons are in view in 3:11 and male deacons are in view in 3:8. Both are treated equally as it relates to virtue and so forth.

3. Baptism

The following points are intended to communicate the egalitarian nature of New Testament theology. Our theology of baptism is affirming of women as equal participants in the community of faith, in participation in Christ (Gal 3:26-29). Baptism is a sign of the new life, and male and female are not shown partiality in this endeavor (1 Cor 12:13).

4. Justification

Justification by faith is an aspect that gets overlooked here. Men and women are justified on the same grounds: faith/allegiance to Christ, which is significant insofar as women are not excluded from participating in what Christ has called them to. Men and women are made right by God together with any notion of hierarchy or that God justifies men and women any differently (Rom 5:18). Faith is the primary relational component of justification and faithfulness is not applied to any specific gender exclusively.

5. Spiritual Gifts

The Holy Spirit sovereignly gives gifts for everyone without regard to gender. This includes "the one who leads" (προϊστάμενος: Rom 12:8, where the context is not gender-specific or exclusive), as well as specific ministerial positions of leadership (ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς, τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους: Eph 4:11). Nowhere in either text is any hint of male-only giftedness to serve in ministerial leadership.

6. Church History

Jamin Hübner has decisively shown that women deacons were part of early church history. It is noteworthy that Pliny the Younger in 112 AD tortured "two maidservants who were called deaconesses [ministrae]" (Epistle X, 96.8). The point is that Pliny identified the women as slaves, but they were called ministrae by the local assembly, which is more accurately translated as "minister" or "deacon."

7. Leadership

People love to use nebulous terms like "roles," but such language is undefined and culturally-bound by the present. Such language was not used until very recently. We know women exercised authority in prophesy (1 Cor 11:2-16, which affirms biological distinctions but not biological hierarchy), leadership (Phil 4:2-3), apostleship (Rom 16:7), and significant work in Christ (Rom 16:3-6, 8ff, where a lot of women are named alongside men without any indication of hierarchy). All of this evidence, among much more that I could mention, tells us that Scripture is clear about what women are called to be in Christ, and that involves every aspect of New Testament theology and the two texts that are relevant.


Did Ishmael abuse Isaac? Exploring Paul's Interpretation of Genesis 21:9 in Galatians 4:29


In light of various sinful patterns and movements (#MeToo, #ChurchToo) that have been illuminated in the church, I felt it might be appropriate to offer a paper I wrote for my Galatians class at Fuller.

Nestled in the center of Paul's retelling of the story of Hagar and Sarah in Gal 4:21-31 lies a lingering question (among many!) with which all commentators continue to grapple: how did Ishmael "persecute" Isaac, and what is the relevance of the differing verbs in Gen 21:9 (παίζοντα: LXX) and Paul's interpolation of ἐδίωκε in 4:29? Perhaps Douglas Moo best represents the persistent speculation amongst commentators when he writes that the LXX rendering of παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ in Gen 21:9 "could be construed as a form of persecution…" and "[this verse] is the basis for Paul's claim about persecution."[1] Other commentators concur with Moo's perspective in some sense,[2] but most modern commentators seem to be in basic agreement that Ishmael did not persecute Isaac in the original Genesis narrative.[3] This paper will pursue three independent strands of argumentation that will be synthesized: first, I will survey the use of the verb παίζω in the LXX and in the relevant Second Temple literature, beginning with a lexical survey. Second, I will investigate how Paul interprets the event by his uses of διώκω within the context of Galatians (1:13, 23; 5:11; 6:12), specifically the text under question (4:29): what is the relationship between both verbs? Third and finally, I will offer a provisional thematic re-reading of Galatians with the intent of showing the consistency of my research. Thus, the language of "persecution" in Galatians is not contextually different from Gen 21:9, but reflects something closer to a "rhetorical tease" and Paul's own application of the verb under question.[4]


Due to the fact that the verb παίζω occurs only once in the New Testament (1 Cor 10:7, which is a citation of Exo 32:6 LXX), great care must be exercised if one is to fully understand the semantic scope of the verb. Various lexicons have offered glosses and there are significant overlapping definitions:

50.8 παίζω engage in an activity for the sake of amusement and/or recreation – "to play." ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν "the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to play" 1 Cor 10.7.[5]

παίζω play, amuse oneself, dance 1 Cor 10:7.[6]

παίζω, Dor. παίσδω: f. παιξοῦμαι and παίξομαι: aor. i ἔπαισα: pf. πέπαικα, later πέπαιχα:—Pass., pf. πέπαισμαι, later πέπαιγμαι: (παῖς):-properly, to play like a child, to sport, play, Od., Hdt., etc.

2. to dance, Od., Pind.:-so in Med., Hes.

3. to play [a game], σφαίρῃ π. to play at ball, Od.; also, π. σφαῖραν Plut.

4. to play (on an instrument), h. Hom.

II. to sport, play, jest, joke, Hdt., Xen., etc.; π. πρός τινα to make sport of one, mock him, Eur.; π. εἴς τι to jest upon a thing, Plat.: the part. παίζων is used absol. in jest, jestingly, Id.:-Pass., ὁ λόγος πέπαισται is jocularly told, Hdt.; ταῦτα πεπαίσθω ὑμῖν enough of jest, Plat.

2. c. acc. to play with, Anth., Luc.[7]

20329 παίζω as giving way to hilarity play, amuse oneself; as idolatrous worship dance, carry on in boisterous revelry (1C 10.7).[8]

A brief review of these resources offers multiple nuances within ancient literature, especially as it relates to the ambiguous context of Gen 21:9 LXX and Paul's own citation of the verse. Does παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ refer to Ishmael simply "playing" with his friend, an innocuous and innocent affair? Is there a sinister subtlety of violence involved, in the sense that Moo has inferred? Is there a more troublesome aspect involving violence, sex or sexual abuse as suggested by the secondary interpretive gloss in Louw & Nida[9] and Paul's sole use of the same verb in 1 Cor 10:7? For instance, Paul's clarifying comments in v.8 explicitly evoke sexual immorality: "neither should we commit sexual immorality (μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν), just as some of them committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν) [my translation]" show that this verb can be used in a context of sexual depravity,[10] although the verb's principal meaning is not concerned with being a euphemism for sexual (mis)conduct: all words are conditioned and defined by their context, as well as by the broader corpus of relevant literature. 


The LXX utilizes the verb about 21 times, and there are several different categories where παίζω is used in the Greek Old Testament. The placement of each instance should not be seen as concretized, but as a potential location as there is some significant overlap with many individual citations.[11] I have deliberately excluded Gen 21:9 from categorization until the end of this section, where I will offer a suggestion about its placement, and a subsequent reading of Galatians with my placement in mind.

1.     Sexual (Mis) Conduct / Idolatry/ Revelry[12]

The Greek text of Gen 26:8b speaks of Isaac "playing" (παίζοντα) with Rebecca. This verse shares the same syntactical structure as Gen 21:9b:[13]

      Gen 26:8b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ρεβεκκας τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ

      Gen 21:9b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς[14]

This near exact linguistic parallel suggests a coordinate meaning for παίζοντα, which contextually in Gen 26:8 likely refers to some sort of sexual intimacy: Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebecca engaged in some sort of activity that reveals to him that they are not merely brother and sister.[15] The text is not as forthright as we might like,[16] but because the text emphasizes her beauty (v.7: ὡραία) and Abimelech's implied desire to "lie with" (v.10, κοιμάω)[17] Rebecca, the most likely explanation is that the participle is used within a subtle sexual context. Similarly in Exo 32:6, the infinitive is used in reference to the people of Israel: ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν: "the people ate and drank and rose up to play." Contextually, the focus is on a "festival" (v.5, ἑορτή) suggests revelry and excessiveness, but not necessarily sexual depravity.[18]

2.     Military and War, Judgment and Violence

Multiple uses of παίζω occur in the context of warfare and violent judgment, sometimes from God. In 1 Sam 13:4, the author notes that "all Israel heard" that Saul had "played" (πεπαικεν: perfect active) with an enemy garrison: contextually, this most likely refers to violent destruction (see also 13:3). Likewise, in 2 Kings 9:15 we have the aorist form of ἔπαισαν in a related context of "making war" (v.15, πολεμεῖν), suggesting that ἔπαισαν is being used in a battle context and thus carries violent connotations.[19] Isa 3:15-16 begins with God's response to the "humiliation of the poor" (v.15b, πτωχῶν καταισχύνετε), which sets the stage for the explanatory Ἀνθ (taking it as causal: "because"). V.16 then speaks of God's exacting judgment against an entire city for oppressing the poor, and specific phrase ποσὶν ἅμα παίζουσαι ("[dancing] together [with] their feet") likely refers to a "pompous attitude" (v.16, ὑψηλῷ).[20] As a counter to God's judgment in Jer 14:19 the prophet responds with, "Why have you played with us?" (ἵνα τί ἔπαισας ἡμᾶς). The use of ἔπαισας may denote 'toying with,' but the context seems to be far more violent (see the image of violence [μαχαίρας, "sword;" λιμοῦ "famine"]) and the text reflects God's violent retribution against Jerusalem, his "vehement affliction" of his sinful people. In Jer 30:14, God smites Israel: "For I have played you with a plague[21] of the enemy " (ὅτι πληγὴν ἐχθροῦ ἔπαισά σε). In the context of God's judgment, this verb most likely refers to God not innocently 'rejoicing' with Israel, but harshly judging them.[22]

3.     Being Toyed With/ Mocking

In Judg 16:25 Samson is "ordered" (καλέσατε)[23] before the entire assembly—who are engaged in revelry[24]—and is forced to "perform before [them]" (καὶ παιξάτω ἐνώπιον ἡμῶν). This citation certainly carries connotations of "mockery" and the idea of being "toyed" with (ἐνέπαιζον: "mocked, ridiculed"). 2 Sam 2:14-15 concerns an event where Abner and the others force the "boys to play" (παιξάτωσαν: imperative) before them. The boys are then slain, reflecting both a military conquest and the element of being "toyed with,"[25] as a superior torments a subordinate or God "toys" with a beast.[26] An additional sinister element might be found in Prov 26:19, where in a poetic flourish, the people lying in wait to betray the righteous man is caught and they say, "I acted playfully!" The use of παίζων (active participle) in the context of "betrayal" (φωραθῶσιν) suggests a mocking and deflective response at being caught in the act. Jer 15:17 captures a response of the prophet against God: "I did not sit in their Sanhedrin playing" (οὐκ ἐκάθισα ἐν συνεδρίῳ αὐτῶν παιζόντων): this citation is used sarcastically, in the sense of wasting time—in some sense, the prophet is mocking both himself and God for assuming such things.

4.     Innocent Playing and Dancing/ Worship

This section includes most of the undisputed examples. In 2 Sam 6:5,[27] 6:21 and 1 Chron 13:8[28] and 15:29[29] the verb refers to David (and sometimes the Sons of Israel) "dancing" before the Lord in a context of worship and celebration. In response to God "showing mercy" (ἐλεήσω) in Jer 30:18-19, the people of Israel rejoice and the celebration of singing and playfulness (παιζόντων) will return after the judgment, and this is captured beautifully in Jer 31:4 where God rebuilds Israel whom he has been judging, and the synagogue will be celebrating and "playing" (παιζόντων) as the judgment has ceased and reconciliation has commenced. Finally, in Zech 8:8 God predicts a time of peace for Israel, and an image used is the "playing" (παιζόντων) of boys and girls in the streets, without fear or malice in their hearts: the author puts forth a penultimate and picturesque vision of boys and girls playing together, without contempt or mockery or revelry. Innocence thrives and shalom has been achieved. In Jewish literature outside of the LXX, we have two uses of the verb. In both instances (1 Esdras 5:3; Sirach 32:12) the verb is used in a similar context of worship and merriment, although Sirach 32:12 includes an admonition to "not sin" which may suggest the possibility of revelry and put Sirach in category 1, but this is by no means explicit.

In summation, the evidence of the LXX and Jewish literature is variegated and subtle, often employing multiple ideas within a single text; hence the intentional overlapping of the stated categories. However, it seems reasonable to exclude section 4 from consideration in interpreting Gen 21:9, while including sections 1, 2 and 3 for this reason: Sarah's visceral response in 21:10 does not seem warranted if Ishmael simply "play[ed] or "jest[ed]" with Isaac.[30] Category 3 is possible because of the rabbinic and targumic history of interpretation,[31] but it seems less likely because the verb μυκτηρίζω (c.f. Gal 6:7, "to mock") does not seem to be used in the LXX to refer to disinheritance and the question about "mocking" raises more questions than it answers. However, given Sarah's deeply hostile response to this "playing" in the LXX (which Paul approvingly cites in Gal 4:30), it seems likely that the most historically plausible explanation includes some sort of violent (perhaps sexual) misconduct, as disinheritance for sexual sin is a chief issue for early Judaism and especially for Paul—hence Sarah's hostile response. For instance, "disinheritance" is commonly a result of sexual immorality (c.f. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5-6). However, this is not to suggest that sexual sins are an exclusive category worthy of disinheritance, but that they are involved in the wide range of general sins (c.f. Sirach 9:6 and perhaps Psa 72:27 and Pro 29:3 LXX). Similarly, categories 1 explains the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8[32] to 21:9 and suggests a correspondence with sexual conduct and violence given the preponderance of evidence within category 2; however, the primacy of category 1 and 2 appear to be tentatively and thematically appropriate because of Sarah's response,[33] the Jewish evidence for sexual sin resulting in disinheritance, and the explicit parallel in Gen 26:8. How this impacts Paul's use of the Ishmael and Isaac narrative in Galatians, especially in chapter 4, will be explored below, but only after we explore Paul's interpretation.


The Old Testament was Paul's Bible.[34] Regarding the coherence of the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek text, J. Ross Wagner astutely notes the following: "the Septuagint, as a whole, renders the Hebrew in a fairly conservative manner."[35] Thus, any modern attempt to grapple with the significance of Paul's citation of Gen 21:10 must account for his interpretative use of ἐδίωκε ("persecute") in Gal 4:29. This has lead many commentators to express puzzlement over Paul's seemingly arbitrary use of the Ishmael/Isaac event. Philip Esler concurs with most commentators when he writes, "in relation to Gal. 4:29, however, one looks in vain in the Old Testament for any indication that Ishmael persecuted Isaac…"[36] Brigitte Kahl puts the dilemma forth as "the term persecute in Gal 4:29 differs from Gen 21:9 where Ishmael "plays" with Isaac."[37] Is there a coordinate meaning between ἐδίωκε and παίζοντα? Semantically and lexically, this cannot be, so the question must be answered thematically, even theologically. However, as has been shown above, there are good indications that cast doubt on the first part of Ensler's largely representative comments. For instance, given the close proximity of the verb and Paul's citation (a mere nine words apart in the LXX text) as well as the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8 and the preponderance of LXX evidence suggesting some sort of inchoate violence, the logical connection seems quite strong: παίζοντα thus most probably forms the basis for Paul's use of ἐδίωκε, and "playing" most probably carries a negative and even violent connotation in the original context of Genesis and Paul's exploits this in his argument in 4:21-31. Thus, while Moo was correct to draw attention to the verb in Gen 21:9 (see above), his generic application does not help explain the visceral reaction of both Sarah and Paul, and he misses the potential identification of Paul with Sarah and Isaac.

Therefore, as Paul re-imagines and interprets the actions of Ishmael,[38] one can see several lines of theological reasoning being teased out. If Ishmael was (sexually?) abusing Isaac in Gen 21:9, then Paul intentionally sided with the victim in this historical circumstance, and in the new apocalyptic landscape, he also sides with the "persecuted" in Galatia. Additionally, Paul's ethical alignment with Sarah and Isaac and against Hagar and Ishmael takes on a different moral dimension: any sort of oppression (whether sexual or not) is immediately labeled as "persecution," and the rhetorical power of this line of argumentation being applied to the "teachers" is something they would surely find rhetorically offensive—hence, perhaps his point in using it.[39] This may also suggest that Paul is running counter to the dominant interpretation of Ishmael in his typological use, or is at least zeroing in on a specific neglected aspect. Therefore, Paul's seemingly harsh citation of Gen 21:10 places him as a type of rhetorical punctiliar mother figure,[40] casting away an oppressive force with her authority.[41] Read in this hypothetical light, Paul can be seen as taking the side of the abused in his epistle to the Galatians, siding with the gentiles over and against the 'teachers.' This may also indicate a moral alignment with gentiles in Gal 3:26-29 as "sons" and "heirs of God; their inclusion means no person, regardless of a presupposed social hierarchy, is excluded from God's invitation to 'sonship' and the "altered" status of being 'one in Christ'[42] (perhaps specifically also with slaves and women in Gal 3:28)[43] and especially table fellowship with Gentiles in 2:11-14. Paul re-casts the Genesis narrative in terms of violent/sexual dynamics that even his Jewish interlocutors would have found disquieting, especially since he equates them with being among the abusive, troubled, disinherited sons of Hagar and Ishmael, specifically as analogical punctiliar types.[44] As Asano has astutely noted, "the application of [Gal 4:29] is denouncement and exclusion of the circumcisors as unauthentic descendents,"[45] or as people acting in a coordinate matter with the historical abusive Ishmael.


While certainly not explicitly violent or sexual in his own context, Paul's interpretive use of ἐδίωκε in 4:29 helps elucidate what he thinks παίζοντα means in Gen 21:9. This "playing" takes on a negative connotation, which Paul asserts as "persecution." This is to be compared to Paul's own "persecution" of the church in 1:13 and 1:23 in terms of "destructive power" (πορθέω),[46] of a person exacting violence over others (4 Macc 11:4). Specifically, the reference of "destroying" used in 4 Macc 11:4 suggests a correlation with Paul's violent authoritarianism against the fledgling Jesus movement/s in Acts, a history he clearly repudiates in Gal 1:13 and 1:23 (see also Phil 3:6), and the subsequent "persecution" he receives via oppressive forces (2 Cor 4:9; 12:10). The additional language of "persecution" in Galatians refers to Paul being "persecuted" in some ambiguous sense (5:11, διώκομαι), and to the 'teachers' "not wanting to be persecuted" (6:12, μὴ διώκωνται). To be fair, Paul never directly says that the Galatians are being "persecuted" by the 'teachers,' only "compelled" (Gal 2:3, ἠναγκάσθη) and "disturbed" (Gal 1:7; 5:10)—thus the Genesis citation suggests oppressive compulsion and abuse that can, in turn, be interpreted as "persecution," drawing a direct literary link between them. This may also suggest that the 'teachers' were on the ecclesiological inside, according to Paul—rather than being cast out from the church, the mere fact of their association as potentially being persecuted for their faith is an aspect that Paul assumes—perhaps grudgingly. In other words, Paul's insinuation of the 'teachers' saying "I do not want to be persecuted" assumes that one is already involved within a specific organization, although they may not remain in the organization due to the encroaching oppression.

Paul's use of ἀνάθεμα in Gal 1:8-9 in relation to his "gospel" may be a rhetorical hyperbolic condemnation, but it may also suggest that Paul may be of two minds on the ecclesiological nature of the 'teachers.' It also may function as a rhetorical wake-up call for a Jewish-Christian mind, as the Old Testament image of being "accursed" is often used in a context of violent destruction of Gentiles from YHWH (c.f. Num 21:3 LXX). In other words, these "teachers" are included within the sphere of the church, which suggests—perhaps—that Paul's language is intended for their instruction, not their destruction.

Before his own experience of the Christ-event Paul was, in essence, functioning as a type of Ishmael, "persecuting" and "destroying" the powerless.[47] Thus, Paul's confrontation of Peter in 2:11-14 explicitly reveals a shift in power and the dissolution of force and "coercion to live like a Jew [i.e. another ethnic person]" (2:14, ἀναγκάζεις Ἰουδαΐζειν) with the subsequent inclusion of both Jew and Gentile are "sons" (υἱοί: 2:20, 3:7, 26; 4:6-7) under the familial promise made to Abraham. Therefore, Jesus is the penultimate "son" who was "born from a woman" (Gal 4:4) and is the One who liberates people from "the present wicked age" (1:4, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος πονηροῦ), an age now dominated by Christological mutuality and "bearing one another's burdens" (Gal 5:13, 6:2). Violence has no currency in Christ's kingdom. Thus, we now participate in a new life as a liberated family under the Spirit. Hence, for Paul, we are children of the oppressed (Isaac and Sarah), not the oppressor (Hagar and Ishmael).[48]


Interpreting Paul's own interpretation of παίζοντα reveals a great subtlety: it helps the reader clarify the seemingly harsh responses of both Sarah and Paul toward both Ishmael and the 'teachers,' especially in light of Second Temple Jewish views of sexual ethics and inheritance rights. While tentative, we have seen that while there are significant linguistic nuances to the verb παίζω in the LXX, Paul's own understanding likely refers to violence and/or sexual misconduct –i.e. abuse (c.f. 1 Cor 10:7-8), strongly suggesting a repudiation of violence, especially as it relates to the church. We have also seen that this verb performs a dual function in his discourse: Paul's interpretation of the ancient Ishmae/Isaac event is proleptic,[49] impacting his own application of the citation of Sarah's disinheritance of Ishmael and Hagar, and consequentially of the 'teachers.'[50] The context of Paul's citation is thus consistent with his application because his use is both true then and immediately related to a situation in Paul's present, even if it lacks the same specific context. Paul's imagination of the Ishmael narrative brims with dynamic possibilities.[51] Thus, the interpretive ground is fertile for a potential reframing of the totality of Galatians in light of this stated hypothesis, especially with the abused and oppressed at the interpretive forefront of the narrative discourse as those most in need of the liberating freedom found in Christ according to the power of the Spirit.



[1] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 310.

[2] Moo cites James D.G. Dunn, 1993a, 256 as agreeing with him, as well as "most commentators." Moo, Galatians, 310.

[3] C.f. Martinus C. de Boers, Galatians: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 306-307, 306. He states the issue very succinctly: "The Genesis account does not indicate that Ishmael persecuted Isaac." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 444 passim. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 223-224. Philip F. Ensler, Galatians: New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1998), 214. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word: Dallas, 1990), 217. Longenecker also includes various targumic and rabbinic literature for post-Pauline interpretations of the Ishmael/Isaac story.

[4] The phrase bears repeating that I am offering this as a "provisional" reading, and only as such.

[5] Johannes E. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols. 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies), 1989. BibleWorks, v.10. Louw-Nida offers the following clarifying gloss: "the specific reference of παίζω in 1 Cor 10.7 is probably to dancing, but some scholars interpret παίζω in this context as a euphemism for sex."

[6] Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). BibleWorks. v.10.  

[7] Henry George Liddel, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon: With a Revised Supplement. Edited by Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie. 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). BibleWorks, v.10.  

[8] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), BibleWorks, v.10.

[9] See n.5.

[10] The citation of Exo 32:6 LXX passim is intriguing, as the sin does not seem to be explicitly about sexual sinfulness. YHWH speaks of Moses' people being involved in "lawlessness" (ἠνόμησεν) in v.7 and "commit[ing] transgressions" (παρέβησαν) in v.8. Certainly, "lawlessness" and "transgressions" does not exclude sexual sin (see perhaps Isa 57:3 LXX), but the context is concerned principally with idolatry.

[11] To categorize these citations according to 'negative' or 'positive' uses appears overly narrow, and does not account for narrative or genre nuances. A word may be negative, but to whom exactly? The perspectival nature of Greek is a force to be considered here, hence my caution.

[12] Due to idolatry and sexual immorality often being corresponding phenomena in the Biblical literature, it seems appropriate to place them together in this singular category, albeit with the noted caveat that they can be distinguished from another.

[13] They also share the same root (εἴδω—21:9, ἰδοῦσα; 26:8, εἶδεν) for a person "seeing" or "witnessing" the actions of another.

[14] Specifically: active participle + preposition + genitive singular proper noun + definite article + genitive singular common noun + personal pronoun. The differing genders of the singular common nouns, definite articles, and personal pronouns are the only divergent grammatical aspects, which suggests literary overlap.

[15] Jewish literature roundly condemned incest: c.f. Psalms of Solomon 8:7-10, Pseudo-Phocylides 182 and Jubilees 33:10-20. See also Lev 18:6-18. Paul's own worldview seems to fit with the broader Jewish perspective on incest (1 Cor 5:1-5) and other perceived sexual sins (Rom 1:26-27).

[16] To be fair, there are other options: perhaps they were indeed 'playing' or 'dancing' and Abimelech simply deduced that they were more than brothers and sister. However, it seems more likely that Isaac and Rebecca were engaging in 'married activity' that is common to married couples. 

[17] While this verb is most often used to refer to literally "lying down" (Gen 19:4) it seems like it can also be used as a euphemism for sexual activity (c.f. Gen 19:32-34; 30:16); if this is the case, then my argument may be strengthened by the similar use of παίζοντα in Gen 26:8.

[18] The idiomatic use of "eat and drink" throughout the LXX normally refers to that: the consumption of food and drink. It does not appear to include revelry except for this context. Paul's own interpretation of Exo 32:6 clearly includes sexual immorality, but the Exodus text itself is unclear.

[19] To press in further, the immediate context of Gen 21:9 does not have any contextual markers indicating that this was a generic 'violent' event as if an instance of sexual misconduct would not perhaps be violent.

[20] This citation may also have some overlapping characteristics with section 1: perhaps revelry is additionally involved as the following verses speak of specific (festive?) jewelry and attire.

[21] The semantic nuances of the singular noun πληγή seem elusive: I rendered it as 'plague' via the lexicons, but I am not at all confident in my understanding of the noun here.

[22] This citation may also belong in section 3 below, for while the context is about judgment and violence, the notion of being "toyed with" is also possible.

[23] Samson is not beckoned or merely 'called;' the imperative form of καλέω is used so "ordered" seems contextually appropriate, especially to a captive humiliated judge of Israel.

[24] V.15a: "and when their hearts had become merry." (καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἠγαθύνθη ἡ καρδία αὐτῶν), which may suggest revelry and debauchery.

[25] The "boys" are called παιδάρια, suggesting that they are younger than Abner and Joab; the context most probably includes a power dynamic, but it is unlikely that rape or sexual misconduct is in view. Bruce notes that Jewish reception history of this verse likely denotes "bloodshed." Galatians, 224.

[26] Job 41:5 speaks of God "toying" (παίξῃ) with Leviathan, displaying God's sovereign power over a mythic beast.

[27] David and the Sons of Israel "were playing before the Lord" (παίζοντες ἐνώπιον κυρίου). The author uses the same participial form as Gen 21:9.

[28] Here the author, instead of saying David was playing "before" the Lord, has ἐναντίον, which may add a subtle hint of perspectival hostility from God's perspective.

[29] Perspectivally, Michal is the one who sees David "dancing" and playing" (ὀρχούμενον, παίζοντα), and this fills her wholeheartedly with contempt (ἐξουδένωσεν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτῆς). I suspect this is in reference to the display of the King before all people, and the reception of his "playing" is seen as negative by her; the author is less forthcoming about his or her own perspective.

[30] Per Martyn's designation, which seems fairly unlikely given the evidence of the LXX. See Galatians, 444.

[31] C.f. Martyn, Galatians, 444 n.155.

[32] See n.13. However, the marital relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is not equivalent to two same-sex youths, so this parallel is not as thematically precise as I would hope. Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Gen 26:8 provides some basis for my tentative proposal because of the precise parallelism.

[33] The LXX uses ἐκβάλλω for Sarah's command, a verb that has strong connotations (c.f. Gen 3:24), especially as it relates as a consequence to violence (c.f. Gen 4:14).

[34] C.f. Moisés Silva, "Old Testament in Paul" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 630-642. For a specific and imaginative reference, see Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul and Interpreter of Israel's Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[35] J. Ross Wagner, "The Septuagint and the 'Search for the Christian Bible,'" in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 5-28, 21.

[36] Ensler, Galatians, 214. See also John Calvin who writes, "Moses says that…Ishmael ridiculed his brother Isaac" and this is affirmed by the use of the participle. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Translated by T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 89.

[37] Brigitte Kahl, "Hagar's Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagining of Galatians 4:21-31," Interpretation 68.3 (2014), 257-269, 269 n.40. Kahl's interpretation is fascinating and deserves far more interaction than I can offer.

[38] This would not be a reinterpretation, as Paul likely viewed the original historical event in a violent and/or sexual manner. This would also most likely not be an allegory but perhaps an analogy. Contra Michael B. Cover, "Now and Above; Then and Now: Platonizing and Apocalyptic Polarities in Paul's Eschatology" in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, The Gospel, and Ethics in Paul's Letter (ed. Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 220-238, 224 who views Paul's use as an allegory; this seems to be too broad a category—Paul seems to be drawing a contemporary comparison, hence 'analogy' seems like a more appropriate fit, one that fits well with 'typology.'

[39] This may also be a cause for division between the "teachers" and the general assembly, where the "teachers" are caught in the rhetorical cross hairs, and the assembly is viewed as "free."

[40] As Beverley Gaventa and Susan Eastman have persuasively noted, this is not uncommon for Paul. C.f. Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and Susan G. Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). See also the incisive work by Margaret Aymer on this point: "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Mother Paul Revisited" in Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and Their Children (ed. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 187-198.

[41] Paul's imaginative interpretation, if I am correct, leaves a multitude of questions lingering about the status of Hagar, who was able to give Abraham a son when Sarah was unable to do so. Status symbols and cultural markers are far more deeply embedded in the narrative, and perhaps Paul saw something we have missed.

[42] "What is altered," according to John Barclay, "…is the evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015), 396-397, 397.

[43] For instance, Paul consistently advocates for women (1 Cor 11:5; Rom 16:1-16; Phil 4:2-3) and slaves (The Epistle to Philemon; perhaps 1 Cor 7:21) elsewhere, so this adds some support for my contention. C.f. both John Jefferson Davis, "Some Reflections on Galatians 3:28, Sexual Roles, and Biblical Hermeneutics," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19.3 (1976): 201-208 and Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 166-172 for this crucial issue of women's equality in the church via Gal 3:28. See also Barclay's applicable comment in n.43.

[44] Contra Ben Witherington III, who sees Gen 21:8-14 as being "at most" about "Ishmael playing with Isaac." While Witherington does mention the "metaphorical" nature of the verb in question, he seems to mistakenly downplay the context of Genesis 21. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 337-338.

[45] Atsuhiro Asano, Community-Identity Constructiojn in Galatians: Exegetical, Social-Anthropological and Socio-Historical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 177.

[46] Sexual depravity can, of course, take on a corrupting influence: c.f the imagery in Col 3:5 and Eph 5:5.

[47] C.f. Acts 8:1-3. The word διωγμός can be used in a violent context (2 Macc 12:23).

[48] This is where Brigitte Kahl's incisive article can begin to shed additional light. See n.37.

[49] Martyn, Galatians, 436 states that Paul's typology is not "timeless." It might be more helpful to say that Paul's use of the Ishmael/Isaac event is timely and in this way timeless. Typology and analogy are not separate interpretive spheres, as Martyn seems to suggest.

[50] This may also help reframe the perspective of the 'teachers' without downplaying their potentially abusive tactics or removing Paul's deep concern over their enforced Torah observance on Gentiles.

[51] For a work that explores this, see Bruce W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

Rethinking Hell Debate 2018: Nick's Opening Statement


Welp. I finally did my first debate. Chris and I will probably be doing a podcast episode or two on the Rethinking Hell Podcast to talk about our impressions of the debate, but here is my scripted opening from that debate (finished on time too), including the LINK to the three hour debate on youtube.



Alright, thank you Chris Ray for hosting, and the other Chris, Damon and Elce for this chance to discuss what Scripture says.

The question we are discussing today is, "does the Bible teach eternal conscious torment?" (hereafter ECT) I will be arguing that Scripture does not teach this perspective. I will demonstrate this via two central pillars.

·      Pillar One: Paul's language of destruction makes ECT an untenable exegetical conclusion.

·      Pillar two: the New Testament vision of the destruction of Satan and the Powers similarly makes ECT indefensible hermeneutically and exegetically.

1.    Paul and the Lexemes of Destruction

First, we consider Paul's use of the verb καταργέω: Louw-Nida, a New Testament lexicon, notes this verb means 'to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing' (13.100). When applied to human agents or secular powers, this is the standard meaning of the verb.

·      Paul writes in Rom 6:6: "knowing this, that our old self was crucified along with him for the purpose of destroying the body of Sin (καταργηθῇ), so that we would no longer be enslaved to Sin."

We are not bound by Sin anymore because Sin is utterly undone. Paul also uses this verb to refer to the final eradication of the "things that are" (1 Cor 1:28), which includes the "rulers of this age which will be destroyed" (2:6), and this culminates in 15:24-26 where Christ destroys all of the sovereignties and powers, including Death in 2 Tim 1:10.

·      Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8 we have Paul saying that "the lawless One will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill[1] by the breath of his mouth and annihilate him (καταργήσει) by the appearance of his coming."

So this word group is decisive in showing that Paul has in mind the final destruction of the rulers and powers, not their external conscious existence.

We also have the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group. Louw-Nida (20.31) offers this definition: "to destroy or to cause the destruction of persons, objects, or institutions.'

1 Cor 1:18 contrasts the word with "deliverance": "for the message of the cross is indeed folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being delivered it is the power of God." This parallel language occurs in 2 Cor 2:15 and 4:3 and Phil 1:28.[2] To say people "perish" or are "destroyed" is not the language one might consider when contending for ECT. Paul goes further in invoking the Exodus narrative when he writes in 1 Cor 10:9-10:

"Neither should we put the Messiah to the test, just as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλλυντο) by the serpent, nor grumble as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλοντο) by the Destroyer."

The recipients of divine wrath are not "ruined" or "tormented" forever. Rather, they were killed, and this serves as a typology for how we should understand Paul's vision of divine judgment.

Similarly, Paul speaks about "the ones being destroyed" in 2 Thess 2:10 "because they did not welcome the truth so as to be saved."[3] Paul's strongest use of this word group occurs in Phil 3:19 where the "enemies of the cross of Christ" have their "end in destruction" (ἀπώλεια). Here, Paul's use of "end" (τέλος) refers to a final termination of one's life, which ends in shameful destruction. Paul, when applying the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group to human agents or secular political powers (or both) uses it in the sense of eschatological annihilation.  

Paul's use of the word "corrupt" or "destroy" (Φθορά and the verbal cognate) refers to an aspect of destruction: Louw-Nida defines this noun as a "state of ruin or destruction, with the implication of disintegration," and the definition of the verb is even more stark: "ruin or destroy something, with the implication of causing something to be corrupt and thus to cease to exist."

For instance, in 1 Cor 3:17, "if anyone destroys (φθείρει) God's temple [that is, the human body], God will destroy that person." This same language is used in Gal 6:8: "for the one who sows to their own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." The pervasive contrast between "death/destruction/ corruption" and "eternal life" denotes the cessation of life and the gift of eternal life with God.

Paul's use of ὄλεθρος (defined by Louw-Nida as a 'state of utter ruin or destruction - 'ruin, destruction') is used to refer to "sudden destruction" in 1 Thess 5:3 and also in 1 Tim 6:9 where the words strongly suggest utter annihilation. Paul's final use of ὄλεθρος in 2 Thess 1:9 requires some unpacking. Here is v.9:

These will pay the price of eternal destruction (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον) from (ἀπὸ) the presence of the Lord and from (ἀπὸ) the glory of his strength."

Two things need to be noted. First, any English translation that inserts phrases like "away from" like the ESV is simply incorrect. The preposition ἀπὸ simply means "from." This is "eternal destruction" that comes "from" the presence of the Lord like in Isaiah 2:10-21 LXX, where the immanence of the coming God is inescapable. Almost every instance of ὄλεθρος in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament—Paul's Bible) refers to the destruction of a nation or a person, with no hint of torment. This word when used in the LXX text of, for example, 1 Kings 13:34 refers to the utter destruction of the "house of Jereboam," even "vanishing from the face of the land." The cessation is stark and intentionally so. Hence, to say that the word here—like all the other words Paul uses—means torment would make it the first time any of these words actually mean that. The use of the adjective "eternal" here strongly suggests that "destruction" is an eternal result or consequence, from which there is no final resurrection, glory, honor or immortality.

In summation of my first pillar, Paul's language is focused not on the "torment" or "pain" of people or evil empires. Lexically and contextually, especially if we take the LXX into account, this does not favor the doctrine of ECT. Paul gives us no reason to affirm ECT and every reason to reject it.

2. As Chaos Falls: The Annihilation of Satan and the Powers

In speaking about the final destruction of Satan and the Powers, Paul could not have been clearer: "the God of peace will utterly crush (συντρίψει) Satan under your feet in swiftness" in Romans 16:20. This word in Second Temple Jewish literature is used in the context of warfare[4] and death is usually something that happens in war—so I'm told. Paul also speaks of God's final victory through Christ in 1 Cor 15:24-26, when the "end" occurs: where the Son hands over the kingdom to God the Father, "when he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power," and finally "the last enemy to be annihilated is Death." We also perhaps have an allusion to the destruction of Satan or at least some spiritual being in 2 Thess 2:8 as "the lawless one." Whatever the case, you cannot have dueling sovereignties in new creation. Similarly, the author of Hebrews (2:14) writes Jesus "might destroy the one holding the power of Death, that is, the Devil." The final fate of Death, the Powers and Satan are bound together in Paul's theology, and all of them will be removed entirely from God's creation. There is no hint of them surviving God's final apocalyptic assault. When all of this is taken together, ECT becomes an unsustainable option.

With all this in mind, we come to the sole ECT prooftext: Rev 20:10:

"And the devil who had deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet lie, and they will be tormented day and night into the ages of the ages."

So we can see we have a problem here: on the one hand, our friends who affirm ECT can go at least two interpretive routes. They can say Rev 20:10 is clearer than what the rest of the New Testament has consistently said, or they can say Rev 20:10 somehow has hermeneutical priority over the rest of the New Testament. I trust neither option is satisfying. Allow me to offer my own reading that makes best sense of both dueling images of destruction and "so-called" torment.

No one disputes what John the Seer sees in Rev 20:10ff: he sees three beings in torment. The question is, what does this mean? John the Seer sees a universal resurrection in v.13, and Death and Hades are cast into the Lake of Fire, and the other's follow in v.15. However, John the Seer immediately explains what this "torment" language means in v.14: this is all described as the "second death." To interpret the symbolic nature of the "torment" in Rev 20:10 as literal is the exact opposite of how we read Revelation and Apocalyptic literature. We know this because in Revelation a highly symbolic phrase is almost immediately clarified in plain language: for example, in Rev 1:20 we read that "the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven assemblies, and the seven lampstands are the seven assemblies."

Add to this the blatant literary echo of Isaiah 34:10 where the smoke from a destroyed city ascends "forever and ever" (see also Rev 17:7-11ff where the city of Babylon falls into destruction and her destruction is characterized with "smoke [that] ascends forever and ever" in 19:3) and the ECT reading of Rev 20:10 becomes quite untenable when we read Revelation with the tools given to us by the author: when John writes in symbolic language and then tells you what that symbolic language means, we are on good ground to discern what that author intended to communicate: hence, the "torment" of the Unholy Trinity plus Death and Hades and the rest of humanity who has willfully aligned with them in Rev 20 are handed into the "second death," which is their cataclysmic cessation of existence and life. This does not require us to posit contradictory images within Scripture. When all of this taken together, the New Testament points to the utter termination of all evil things, not to their immortalization. In the tradition view, New Creation looks an awful lot like Old Creation. In my view, New Creation reigns and Old Creation falls entirely.

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, the reasons I offered above—among many others—are why I and Chris and many others do not believe the Bible teaches the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Thank you.


[1] ἀνελεῖ:[1] another word group that means death or destruction

[2] In Rom 9:22 we have "vessels of wrath made fit/ who have made themselves fit for destruction (ἀπώλειαν)." Note the contrast between salvation and destruction/ perishing.

[3] 2 Thess 2:8 cites Isa 11:4 LXX.

[4]  C.f. 1 Macc 3:22 and 4:10; Sirach 35:22.