A Good Example of “Why Context Matters” – Learning from Bonhoeffer on the Psalms

One can talk about “cheap grace” and “costly grace” in relatively abstract terms and get a sense for what Bonhoeffer is getting at. When one reading his Cost of Discipleship in light of his circumstances (in the 1930’s), though, the matter becomes undoubtedly more “real” and “relevant.” Context matters. I teach New Testament, and I try to help students to get this – whether it is the Gospel of John or Colossians. These writings weren’t written by professional textbook writers for “general consumption.” They came from a context and once we engage some of that, it brings the text to life in new (i.e., fresh) and important ways. I will never read The Cost of Discipleship in a text-book-y kind of way now that I know the context in which Bonhoeffer wrote it.

Moreover, we have Bonhoeffer’s tome on the Psalms – Das Gebetbook der Bibel (1940). It is not that unusual for a theologian to write a book based on Scripture. What I did not think about before is that Bonhoeffer dared (!) to write this book on the Old Testament in light of the fact that the Nazis were hotly determined to devalue and destroy anything “Jewish” – “Old Testament” included. The Reich Church had a way of eliminating anything remotely related to the OT from pulpits and “Christian” literature. I learned from Eric Metaxas that Bonhoeffer got into a fight with the “Reich Bpard for the Regulation of Literature” over this book on the Psalms. He kind of played dumb by pretending it was just “scholar” stuff. Metaxas aptly divulges Bonhoeffer’s real thoughts:

He well knew that all true exegeses and scholarship pointed to the truth, which, for the Nazis, was far worse than a hail of bullets (368).

Eventually he was banned altogether from publishing (see Metaxas, p. 378). Even his great work, Ethics, had to finally be completed by his friend Eberhard Bethge.

I think about the apostle Paul and his letters. Some of his latter epistles were written while in prison (not unlike Bonhoeffer!). John Chrysostom points out that this makes the “captivity epistles” a special treasure for the people of God. How could he express such joy and thanksgiving? How dare he call this Jesus kyrios under Caesar’s own nose?

Context helps. It matters. (and, yes, I think Paul wrote Colossians.)


When I saw Alan Padgett’s new book advertised, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission, I was very intrigued and excited. In the end, as I will try and demonstrate, it was a great idea, but not worked out in the book itself in the best way. I think he is on to something, but I was hoping for a more concentrated, thoroughgoing approach. The book, in the end, seemed more like a series of lectures collected together. While I felt a bit disappointed with the book, there were some important insights into the gender-debate that Padgett brings to the table and from which I learned much.

Essentially, and I am boiling it down very basically,  Padgett is frustrated with the “man-centered” approach to gender relationships in the Church and especially the Biblical hermeneutics involved. Rather than relying on a verse here and there (which he accuses many “man-centered” interpreters of doing), he wishes to look at the Bible closely, critically (from an evangelical perspective?), and canonically. When the Bible is looked at in a broader frame of reference, the Christian reader is compelled, so Padgett argues, to sustain a Christ-centered hermeneutic. What does that mean? I am not 100% sure, but at least it means looking at the example of Jesus.

Taking John 13 as a key text (with a marvelous cover image depicting the famous footwashing scene), Padgett points out that Jesus himself took a humble and submissive stance towards his disciples. Padgett is happy to call this “servant leadership,” but he wishes to acknowledge that, while it is not an objective sort of role of submission, it appears to be one subjectively. In that sense, he makes reference to two kinds of “submission” in the Bible.

Type 1: “involuntary obedience to an external authority” (38)

Type 2 (T2): “voluntary submission to another person out of humility, compassion, or love”  (39).

Basically, Padgett argues that  T2, “voluntary self-submission, is a general principle for all Christians, not just women or slaves” (40). While some complementarians may be quick to turn to Household code-texts and argue for a one-sided kind of authority and submission, a strong feather in Padgett’s cap is 1 Cor 7:4 – “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” I had never thought about the importance of this verse in particular for the gender debate. However we conceive of the interpretation of 1 Cor 11 and 14 (or even the PE for that matter), we must reckon with the implications of what Paul writes here.

Going back to mutual self-submission, Padgett notes Gal 5:13 which calls all believers to be slaves to one another (similarly 1 Cor 10:24). Here summarizes his whole argument on p. 48

Mutual self-giving love is another type of submission that all believers are meant to enact toward one another. This role is one that is grounded in the character and moral wisdom of Christ Jesus.

After this general and backgrounding discussion, Padgett goes on to interpret a number of key Pauline passages on women and submission. Nothing in this is really all that new, but I did appreciate his work on 1 Tim 2:2:13-15, because complementarians make such a big deal out of the “creational” models in this verse, esp of Adam being born first. What Padgett wisely points out is that Adam is not privileged merely by being born first, but in particular because “Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, fell into transgression” (2:13-14). If interpreters are to hold the first statement (about creation order) as universally important for woman’s submission, surely it must apply to the next part – the deception of woman. What Padgett notes, though, is important. There was a time when theologians argued for man-centered leadership and authority because women were ontologically inferior. Those days are gone. Now, it is not about the substance of the woman that makes her incapable of being the authority or even co-leader, in the eyes of complementarians. It is simply a matter of “roles.” However, this makes the “role” selection seem arbitrary.

So, how does Padgett understand 1 Tim 2:13-15? The “Adam” of the text is not “man” in general, but the sound doctrine of Paul and Timothy himself (96). Being made first involves, in this text, “a metaphor for having older, sounder doctrine–being more mature in the faith” (98). The point of this passage is that, ” ‘a woman’ should learn in silence and not take up authority over men by teaching in church. Such a woman learner is to be in complete submission to sound doctrine and to the ministry of Timothy, not to men in general” (99). This makes good sense in context.

While this is all well and good, I think Padgett gets more and more side-tracked in his enthusiasm to talk about anything and everything related to the topic of gender and power. He even confesses that one of his chapters (on headcoverings in 1 Cor 11) is a “detour” from his argument. [Editor! Take up thy pen and rebuke!]

The final chapter, supposedly bringing his “canonical” findings to bear, was rather more like a short conclusion. This brings me to my major criticism: the book was so promising, in the introduction and some of the early arguments. I felt that it just kind of lost its way. In the end, there were some serious questions left unanswered:

-What is the difference between service and submission?

-If we talk about a servant leader being submissive (type 2) to his subjects, what is the essential quality of his authority? Put another way, what makes him/her a “leader”?

-What made Jesus, even in John 13, “Lord and Teacher” even while he was making himself slave/subject to them? (John 13:13). How did he maintain a position of both submissions and leadership in his own role?

-Can two people express Type 2 submission to each other and yet one also still be required to offer Type 1 submission?

Having these questions does not make me doubt my egalitarian position. I came to that conclusion a long time ago. Still, as far as Padgett’s model and approach is concerned, I find these lingering questions too problematic for his proposal. Again, it is not that he has wasted his time. He has opened up a way of reconceiving some of the core issues involved in the debate. I wish it were a more technical work, perhaps followed later on by a “popular” distillation.

Do I recommend it? It will not become a standard tool on the egalitarian end, nor a point of serious concern for complementarians. It does bring issues to the surface in a fresh way, but for now perhaps that is all.