by Dr. Randy White | August 13, 2023

Biblical interpretation often involves the study of words, contexts, and historical surroundings. These aspects, along with the underlying text, are absolutely essential to interpreting the Bible. However, in addition to these textual and linguistic considerations, there is also the matter of theology. You and I interpret the Bible through a theological lens, and doing so is practically unavoidable.

Today, we will re-examine one of the theological lenses that fundamentally affects our biblical interpretation. Even though this issue may seem insignificant at first, in reality, its impact is almost all-encompassing. In fact, I will refer to it as the foundational issue of biblical interpretation. The issue is the role of the Apostle Paul in our Christian theology.

The thesis of this article is that there is a discontinuity rather than continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the 12 Apostles and that of Paul.

Considering Colossians 1:25-26

We will use Colossians 1:25-26 as the key passage of scripture to introduce this matter, although many more could be included. This passage provides a concise summary of Paul’s claim. We will examine this claim both linguistically and theologically, and then consider the continuity approach of evangelicalism and the discontinuity approach we will call Right Division.

In verse 25, Paul claims that the “dispensation of God,” which refers to what we might call the dispensation of grace, was “given to me for you.” This is a bold claim in itself, suggesting that the Colossians would not have had this “dispensation” if it had not been given to Paul. If that isn’t bold enough, Paul goes on to say that this dispensation was given “to fulfill the word of God.” The claim is that God’s Word would be lacking without this dispensation given to Paul. In other words, a correct understanding of the revelation to Paul is necessary for a full understanding of God’s Word.

He continues in verse 26 to further clarify this dispensation, using the word “mystery,” which biblically is something that cannot be discovered without revelation. He then says that the mystery “hath been hid from ages and from generations” and is only “now made manifest to his saints.” When combined with the claim that the mystery dispensation was “given to me,” Paul’s claim is that God revealed something entirely new, and this new revelation is fundamental to a full understanding of God’s Word.

The Evangelical Standard: Paul’s Greater Understanding

I have interpreted Colossians 1:25-26 through a theological lens known as “Right-Division.” However, there is a more standard evangelical lens for these verses.

First, evangelicalism almost wholly rejects the term “dispensation,” as evidenced in modern translations. The word is translated as “stewardship” (ESV), “commission” (NIV, NASB, CSB), and “responsibility” (NLT). The English word “dispensation” comes from the Latin “dispensatio.” This word, like the underlying Greek term “oikonomos,” was used to refer to a singular individual filling a management position. While “stewardship,” “commission,” or “responsibility” could describe that role, none of these words convey the singular nature of the word “dispensation,” and thus fall short in precision. This reflects the evangelical preference for a broad understanding, rather than a narrow one, of Paul’s role as one steward among many.

Second, the modern translations take a broad view of Paul’s claim that the dispensation give to him was “to fulfill the word of God” (v. 25). ESV says that the “stewardship” was “to make the word of God fully known.” NASB says that the “commission” was “so that I might fully carry out *the preaching of* the word of God.” These two are representative of the others, all of which add a heaping dose of interpretation beyond the translation of the Greek words themselves. Rather than bringing the Word to completion, the modern translations simply give Paul a better proclamation of the Word preached by others as well.

For example, says that

“he is referring to the gospel message, or truth of God, which he had been preaching. This included the writings of the Old Testament (John 10:35) as well as the teachings which Jesus gave to the Apostles (Acts 4:31; 6:2, 7).”

The same website continues in v. 26 saying that,

“Before Jesus came to earth, no one knew exactly how God planned to fulfill all of His many prophecies regarding the Jewish Messiah. The prophets who wrote about the future only vaguely understood the message they were given (Ephesians 3:4–5). The complete story was only revealed after Christ came in the flesh.”

The claim that the “complete story was only revealed after Christ came” is indicative of the vague and general approach of evangelicalism which refuses to fulfill the story in the revelation to Paul.

The “Right Division” Approach: Paul’s Unique Revelation

The “Right Division” approach, which I favor, takes the words of Colossians 1:25-26 in their most literal nature, that a dispensation was singularly given to Paul, setting him apart from the 12 Apostles, who served under Peter’s authority as the head of a dispensation of the Kingdom offer to Israel.


The implication of this approach is that Christians today live in a Pauline dispensation, with unique theology that pertains to our dispensation alone. There are a number of passages which would support such a view, including, Ephesians 3:1-12, Romans 16:25-27, 1 Corinthians 9:17, 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Galatians 1:11-12, 2:7-9, and others.

As stated previously, this approach is at odds with the evangelical standard interpretation. For example, evangelical scholar Douglas Moo, in his commentary on Colossians 1:26, says,

“The coming of Christ and the accompanying gift of the Spirit, the climactic event in salvation history, reveal to the Lord’s people (hagiois, “saints”; see the note on v. 2) God’s ultimate purpose and plan.”  ([Douglas J. Moo, *[The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon](*, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008, pg. 139].

However, Right Division takes a far different approach, claiming the Lord’s ultimate purpose and plan was revealed through the apostle Paul, rather than in the coming of Christ and the accompanying gift of the Spirit.


The choice between the “Right Division” view and the “evangelical” view is far from minor. Rather, it is a foundational issue for biblical interpretation, affecting every other interpretive decision. The Pauline dispensation of grace is either central or peripheral to the Bible, and no one should take that decision lightly.

The choice between these views will affect the way you read and interpret the Bible, your understanding of the role of the Church in the world today, and even your own personal role in the body of Christ. The Bible is meant to be studied and understood, and a correct theological lens is vital to proper interpretation.