When I read some of the things Paul wrote about women, especially looking at it through 21st century lens, it’s easy to understand why many (especially Non-Christians) consider Paul to be quite sexist.
As a Christian feminist woman who strongly believes in equality, and a great fan of Paul the Apostle, needless to say I found this rather disturbing, and that led me to ask the uncomfortable questions and seek to understand what led my favorite Apostle in the bible to write the words he did.
Let’s start by looking at the “offending verses”
1. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NLT)
“Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. 35 If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.”
2. 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (NLT)
Women should learn quietly and submissively. 12 I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. 13 For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result.
Needless to say that careless interpretation of the verses (as well as others) has led to theologies that suppress women and are downright harmful to Christianity in general. Now, a good Bible student learns to figure out what the original writer had in mind when he wrote what he wrote. Usually, there’s more to a passage than what first meets the eye.
A proper bible interpretation must consider other relevant Biblical passages, cultural concerns, historical precedence, traditions and the various English translations of the Greek and Hebrew texts.
The answers are to be found in the societal context within which the Apostle Paul ministered in the first century A.D. please note that in the first century Jewish world, women were forbidden to learn the law, they had no part in the synagogue service, and they were customarily shut apart in a section of the synagogue, or in a gallery where they could not be seen.
Apostle Paul was a person of his time, who like you and I, was deeply influenced by the culture of his day.
However, did his theology override his sociology?
I will say to a very large degree; Yes! And that is the basis of Christianity as we practice it today. Paul’s teachings regarding women were revolutionary to the society he lived in.
In Christianity, women were no longer to be shut-down and hidden from the general population (of men). Looking at 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 in its proper context, Apostle Paul is saying that: “Yes, she was once deceived, so teach her!” His theology actually invited women into the church service! As we see in the next passage, women were encouraged to speak, pray and even prophesy in church meetings! This was actually a big deal and quite unheard of in Paul’s time!
On the subject of covering heads that is much debated (and also often used to suppress women), it is to be noted that in 1st Century Jewish and middle eastern and Mediterranean society, Loose women in those days went with their hair and faces unveiled and were quite outspoken and would look a man in the face. In the culture of the times, the unveiled woman was the careless woman, the immoral woman; while the veiled woman was the ‘honorable’, ‘chaste maiden’ wife or mother who cared about character and her reputation.
To subject the 21st century woman (from a totally different culture, age and time) to the same cultural practices of medieval middle-eastern society is not being religious. Permit me to say, it’s being ignorant.
I believe the proof of Apostle Paul’s real feelings towards women in general and women in ministry and leadership positions can be found in his own words and historical account of his life and ministry.
Romans 16:1-2 (NLT)
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. 2 Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.”
Obviously, Phoebe was a leader (a deacon) and a vital part of Paul’s ministry. Looking at the above verse, bible scholars actually believe that It is most likely that Phoebe was the one entrusted by Paul with delivering the letter of Romans from Greece to Rome.
Another prominent woman that featured in Paul’s ministry was Priscilla. She’s usually mentioned with Aquila (her husband). See Acts 18:24-26 and Romans 16:3-5 (NLT) Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament.
Priscilla’s name is mentioned before Aquila’s in four of these verses, and according to theologians, that indicated either her superior rank or, more likely, her prominence in ministry. Priscilla and Aquila were ministry colleagues of Paul and they led churches in their home in Rome and later in Ephesus. It is clear from the few verses about Priscilla and Aquila that they traveled a great deal in their lifetime, preaching and encouraging the new churches.
In several writings, Paul freely referred to female coworkers, people who were ministers like him (Romans 16:3-5, 12; 1 Corinthians 16:19). He mentions women in leadership among Christian congregations (Romans 16:1; Philippians 4:2-3). He clearly had respect for a woman named Junia who shared a jail cell with him and who became a christian before he did and was a leader in the church. (Romans 16:7 MSG). and he clearly had no problem with women in Corinth praying or prophesying in the church’s communal worship (1 Corinthians 11:5).
If you study Apostle Paul’s letters, you will discover several women he worked with and greatly respected who had leadership positions in the early church and I believe this speaks more loudly than whatever cultural issues that may have colored some of his words.
Matt Skinner (an associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary) said:
“Like Paul and those who came after him throughout the church’s history, we still have a long way to go in living out what he meant about the unity Christ establishes. Don’t put all the blame on Paul, or even on other biblical authors. It’s lots of people’s fault that we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Finally, the greatest summary of Paul’s theology and the Christian perspective can be found in Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 and those are the words and principles i choose to live by. Because they fully represent all that Jesus lived by and died for.
Galatians 3:28 (MSG)
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.”