“The Church” v. “The Churches” in Early Christianity

“The Church” v. “The Churches” in Early Christianity December 12, 2019

You know what? I came upon a tweet lately that got me thinking about the discrepancy between these two New Testament passages:

Galatians 3:28—There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 5:22-24—Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

These don’t seem to line up. Is there no distinction, and all are one in Jesus, or are women to be subject to their husbands as they are to Jesus? The first passage suggests radical social egalitarianism. The second passage does the exact opposite, repeating itself for emphasis. And, strangely, these books are both written by the same exact person—Paul. Or are they?

Actually, most scholars do not believe Paul wrote Ephesians. There are a lot of seeming discrepancies among the ostensibly Pauline epistles that resolve themselves when you accept the scholarly consensus about who did—and did not—actually write these letters.

Paul probably did write Galatians. He probably did not write Ephesians. How do scholars determine that? Well, for one thing, the writing style in Ephesians is substantially different from that in the books scholars are fairly sure Paul wrote. His word choice also varies far more widely than it does between the other books. And—well—there are theological inconsistencies between Ephesians and the other letters.

And no, I’m not talking just about the above discrepancy over gender relations. I’m talking about other issues entirely. For instance:

[T]he eschatology of Ephesians is much more realized than that of authentic Paul. The expectation of the coming of Jesus has faded into the background and the church is more concerned with growing up or becoming mature. Paul’s thought is dominated by eschatology; Ephesians is not. Paul very rarely speaks of the universal church, but the universal church is a major (possibly the major) theme of the letter.

Wait what now? The universal church?

I just took to an online concordance and … while Ephesians includes reference after terence to “the church,” the other books written in Paul’s name do not (with the exception of Colossians, which scholars also do not think Paul wrote). The difference is so stark it almost surprises me that I didn’t notice it before.

In the books scholars believe are authentic, Paul writes about “the church in this place” and “the church in that place.” Or, extremely commonly, the churches. 

2 Corinthians 12:13—How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!

Galatians 1:2—and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia.

1 Thessalonians 2:14—For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus.

And then there is Ephesians:

Ephesians 5:24—Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

The church?

As the church submits to Christ?

That isn’t Paul. Instead, it’s reflective of a later authorship, coming from a period when the church had become more settled—had begun to think of itself as the church rather than as a collection of churches.

Scholars believe Paul wrote his letters between 50-60 AD. He died in 64 AD. Scholars believe Ephesians was probably written around 80-90 AD, and that the pastoral epistles—which advise women to be submissive and obedient keepers of the home—were written still later, around 100 AD.

About the pastoral epistles, recall that those books also include the requirement that a bishop be the husband of one wife, which stands in contrast to not only Paul’s own singleness but also his suggestion that singleness was the ideal state, and that people should marry only if they can’t keep it in their pants. Recall, too, that the pastoral epistles’ discussion of how the church should be set up—the church—came from a very different place from Paul’s insistence elsewhere that Christ’s return was immanent.

Suddenly, Ephesians 5:22-24 makes more sense, as does the sharp contrast between it and Galatians 3:28, which emphasizes a radical egalitarian ethos. Not only were the two epistles written by two different men, each with their won set of beliefs, but Ephesians was also written decades later, during a time when some Christian leaders were trying to reign in what they saw as egalitarian excesses.

Imagine that.

I’ve said it before but it’s still true—I find the Bible more interesting as an atheist today than I did as an evangelical Christian. Or perhaps the issue is that I find it interesting on a different level. I used to comb it for theological truth; I read it daily, and sought to make it my life’s guide. But since losing my faith, it’s like I’ve been handed tools for understanding it on a level I could not before. I don’t have to try to reconcile passages that seem contradictory, or milk a theological point out of confusing text. Instead, I can understand the why behind it. Textual criticism is a truly heady rush.

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