Paul’s Two-Tiered Theology and Social Action

The big temptation for Jesus-followers who want to make a difference in this troubled world is to join forces with the very powers that be who make the world troubled — all in the name of getting something done. In the name of tolerance, acceptance, mutuality and humility (and maybe fear or shame), they shelve their faith or make it “personal” and dig into world-changing according to principles they can share with the world. All too often, they join the endless cycle of history and just repeat the same old damned things in the name of love, hope, and goodness.

Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul sets a rather clear example of how to go about social action that is not only faithful to Jesus, it is wildly effective. It not only keeps one’s eyes on the prize of God’s redemption, it can very flexibly apply to all sorts of contexts, cultures and collectives.

I named Paul’s thinking a “two tiered” approach to social action, the prophetic first tier being higher and more important than the practical second tier, the first tier being the heart of his action, the second tier being the varied, flexible and immediate application. You can’t follow Paul’s teaching without both tiers, and you may miss it altogether if you start with the second.

Did Paul even do “social action?”

The answer is yes. Paul’s social impact was huge. His first churches, though a tiny minority and persecuted, started a movement that eventually overran the Roman Empire. Much of their favorable reputation grew out of their alternativity, how they shared, how they loved. But no, Paul probably did not do “social action” in the way most of us think of it. Paul does not have an idea of “social” or “action” in the way we do. For one thing, he did not know about the conceptual frameworks of the Enlightenment that spawned Hobbes and Rousseau arguing about the essence of the social contract and the state of nature without God. And I don’t think he had any democratic sense of his rights to influence society as a whole.

Paul’s idea of social action, like all his ideas, started with his faith in Jesus. His motivation came from the Holy Spirit. His hope came from his trust that he lived “in Christ” which defined his present and guaranteed his future. He does not have a theory of social action under which his faith is subsumed.

The Church in the United States is sometimes unclear about the source of our action because we are subsumed under the sense of society donated by European rationalists and all their followers since their heyday. We sometimes start in tier two, or even forget tier one when we relate to others and try to make a difference in the world. I think we should be more serious about our faith and about the revelation in the Bible whether it seems to “work well” or not. What Paul has going works a lot better than what we usually do.

The two tiers

Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time.

What I mean is that there is a general, transcendent, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is, “There is no male or female hierarchy; his practical tier is, “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”

I think we often have a principled, rational, somewhat narrow approach to what is social and what constitutes action that is not as expansive or as in touch with God as Paul’s is. For instance, one of the groups associated with the church I served was passionately involved in social action as Carnival de Resistance — a wonderful, passionate people doing great meaningful art (fun, too!). They were trying to get one of their residencies to fly in Philly. On their very thoughtful website they had a small section devoted to their “faith element

Many of the Carnival Organizers and Carnival Crew members are approaching this project with a desire to put their faith in action and to create a space to allow dialogue and reflection. The Carnival de Resistance is focusing on reading and embodying the Judeo-Christian religion through an earth-friendly indigenous perspective, and as a resistance movement. We feel an enormous responsibility to be re-interpreting and reclaiming the deep meaning of our faith traditions- to understand them in a way that is liberatory, and about freedom, justice and restoration. We realize that justice and reconciliation are impossible without listening to the voices of the oppressed and their spiritual worldviews.

We hope you will join us in body or in prayer, as we seek to expose the wound, that the light of the Spirit might come through. We are working to create a holy game that we know is so crazy that it couldn’t succeed without the Spirit.

I think their statement certainly gives a nod to Paul’s first tier, but I think it is mainly about the reformation of society in terms the Enlightenment organized for us. I am not saying that is all bad, but I am saying it is worth talking about, because the second tier is where the Church has traditionally divided up and made Jesus look bad to the world. It is tempting to see our social action behavior as the definition of our holiness rather than an expression of it.

When our church was having a “doing theology” meeting on this subject, several people just did not get it yet by this time in the presentation. Already there were objections that I was trying to get people to get back in their cages and not speak and act against the injustices of society — much the contrary! I just think it is crucial that we act out of the first tier, not try to fit our faith into actions defined and driven by something else. Here are two places, of many, where we can see Paul work this out.

Romans 12

First tier:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. – Romans 12:3-5

Second tier

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. — Romans 12:6-8

The first tier starts with God, who distributes grace. The second tier is more about us who variously receive it. One could start with the second tier and celebrate the “diversity” of it and easily miss the first. God’s distribution is the essence of our oneness and what dignifies our diversity.

Trying a second example from Romans 12, I rearranged the material to make my point. Some people wondered if my tinkering was accurate enough.

First tier:

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. – Romans 12:21,17,19

Second tier:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is probably possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” — Romans 12:14-21 (minus the verses above)

The first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. Overcoming evil with selfless love is the heart of the new humanity the Lord is redeeming from their bondage.

The second tier is a brainstorm about how one does that, about what it means to keep revealing this in the world. It is a list of actions to take. Like in the Lord’s metaphor, the first tier is about good trees, the second about good fruit. Paul could have said more about action in Romans 12, and he does elsewhere, because he continues to apply this truth. He doesn’t try to sum it all up because Jesus is his heading. He is describing something that is living. Our actions are more like the traits of our character, like an aspect of Christ culture than like an ideology we apply or a law we follow.

Back to women

Paul’s writings about women, as revolutionary an application of his revelation as they were, have been the source of much oppression by the men who eventually came to dominate the church. My former church was an alternative to so-called conservative and liberal churches in how we dealt with the “issue” of women. We were acting out Paul’s two tiers.

First tier:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:23-29

In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. — 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Everything comes from God. We receive it. Our faith makes us children of God, and we go from there. Relatedness, love rules.

Second tier:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved…. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.  — 1 Cor 11:4-5, 11-16

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. — 1 Cor 14:34-35

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it – he surely did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation  that says  the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.


If you read the New Testament looking for these two tiers, you can find them, repeatedly. It is a very basic part of Paul’s mentality. He applies it when he is talking about meat sacrificed to idols, at length. He applies it when he is talking about philosophy, about equity and mutuality, about marriage, about freedom. It is an interesting lens with which to re-read his letters.

One of the most abused elements of his teaching is about slaves. It needs to be noted that taking slaves and women seriously as members of the church and addressing them in his letters, is, in itself, subversive social action. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are labelled “minorities” and marginalized. Paul is writing as one of those “others.” His view is small; he has become small; the churches are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

First tier:

All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.  — Galatians 3:27-29

For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings – 1 Cor. 7:22-3

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving – Colossians 3:23-4

Second tier:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so….Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. — 1 Cor 7:21,24

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. — Colossians 3:22, 25, 4:1

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.”  Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we can know we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

So there are options for tier two action. Get free if you can. If you can’t don’t let it get you down; life is not that long and how do you know how you will be used by God for good? The return of the Lord is imminent; do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Workshopping Groups

We spent half our time in dialogue, centered on these questions.

  • How are you doing with this “two-tiered” idea of dealing with social relations and various injustices?

Consider it with two of the examples given:

  • Women – in light of the women’s march?
  • Slaves – in light of economic theory and jobs?
  • How would you turn this two-tiered understanding into a clarified approach for guiding how we think of “social action?” This would be a distillation of scripture according to our mutual theology.

There were too many takeaways to summarize them all, but here is some of our thinking.

  • This way to see the revelation is freeing. If you start with the second tier, most things are causal: apply the theory, delineate the action, get the grant. It is all a logic model. But here, God is causing and we are moving with the Lord’s direction.
  • This way helps us to interpret the Bible apart from the rationalistic strictures of systematic and materialist thinking. We are freed from the endless loop of arguing or rebelling against the dominant argument.
  • Historically, Paul’s teaching is so revolutionary, it could be compared to creating ISIS.
  • Matthew 16:24-7 applies. If we gain the whole world, we could lose our souls. Fighting for equality is not the main point (since our equality before God is already established). Getting rights from the government does not save people. We operate out of what is right. Should we achieve gender equality politically, that is good, but I was already acting out of my rightness.
  • Jesus did not pay too much attention to Herod, apparently, unlike most of the other parties in Palestine (like the Pharisees and the zealots). Jesus is doing small, incarnational things – pointedly alternative to the powers who demand their dominance. Perhaps not reacting to the power is more powerful than fighting them.
  • Live like you have the rights granted by God. Don’t limit yourself to achieving political or economic justice first.
  • Come from the place of Jesus as our center, our direction. The second tier is the impact of being in the first. Jesus seems to submit when it comes to himself and act when it comes to others. He is universal but acts according to his context. Often when we are indignant we are losing our dignity.
  • We need to discern what is competing with the first tier. We can fret about the number of CEOs who are women and miss asking why there are CEOs at the top of the heap in the first place.
  • Using the “Jesus frame” allows us to be wrong in the second tier. We can be wrong and be wronged, not just right, like we used to feel we needed to be. There is freedom to risk daring acts of love and justice-seeking, to collaborate with people who don’t yet believe, to explore aspects of many cultures that have truth in them.
  • Matthew 25 is the basis for social action for many Jesus-followers. With such a clear call to see Jesus in the needy, couldn’t I engage the government if it could help me do more? Yes. But small things coming from being small, might be even more relevant. There are different gifts.
  • Tier 2 also allows us the freedom to be aggressively right. We can risk putting out our best effort — making the most of our time because the days are evil. Paul says we need to make sure our house is in order as a primary way we impact the world. He pulls his hair out, so to speak, when he is talking to people who don’t seem to know who they are and who are returning to a place from which they came. When Corinthians are going to court against each other he says, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?”
  • Some people have hidden in a version of “tier one” thinking, not achieving enough hope to get out of it and into tier two application.

Original work is from 2017. This is a 2023 update.

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