Paul was no feminist but his Gospel is

The Bible contains statements about gender relations that sound harsh to modern ears – wives are called to submit to their husbands and women are told to keep quiet in church. How do we account for this? Are the Sydney Anglicans right that God has given men responsibility for leadership in home and church? And if not, how do we account for the biblical material? Were the biblical authors hopeless misogynists as some claim? Or, as others argue, were they flag waving table thumping proto-feminists whose writings have been misunderstood? I have been grappling with this issue for over twenty years. I have written a Masters thesis on the use of the creation stories in New Testament discussions of gender, taken bible studies, preached, read everything I could get my hands on.  Here, for what they’re worth, are my conclusions.

In a Nutshell

For many years I found myself in the camp of those arguing that the early Christians championed the idea that men and women are to share in a partnership of equals in marriage and church. While I certainly think Scripture points us towards a partnership of equals, the argument that this was taken up and championed by the first Christians now strikes me as anachronistic and dependent on highly implausible interpretations of key texts.

The early Christians lived in a patriarchal social system that saw a man at the head of a household, with his wife, children and slaves all in a subservient relationship to him. The gospel the early Christians proclaimed radically subverted this social system, eventually leading to its toppling. Whether it was a failure to fully grasp the subversive implications of the gospel or the pragmatics of living as a minority, the biblical writers don’t critique the institutions of slavery or patriarchal marriage but seek to live Christianly within the constraints of those systems. They infuse them with the virtues of love, grace and humility. Nonetheless, the gospel they proclaimed so radically undermined these systems that they were bound to collapse. Just as we now recognise slavery as fundamentally at odds with the gospel, so we should recognise patriarchal marriage and patriarchal church structures as sub Christian and embrace a partnership of equals.

Biblical Descriptions of Gender Roles Fit the Cultural Norms of the Greco-Roman World, with One Critical Difference

First we should note that the descriptions of gender roles found in the New Testament fit quite exactly the patterns found in the first century Greco-Roman world, with one critical variation.

Scholars are universally agreed that the culture of the first century Mediterranean world was “patriarchal.” This meant that power rested in the hands of men. Women were commonly thought to be intellectually, morally and emotionally inferior to men and therefore needed to be kept under male control. For example, Seneca speaks of “a woman’s lack of self-control and “weakness of mind”; Plutarch states that “women by reason of their weakness need many protectors”; and Areius Didymus writes

For the man has the rule of this house by nature. For the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and it is completely foreign to slaves.
Stobaeus Anthologium 2.148-149

This gave rise to a culture where women were highly valued as wives and mothers, but were expected to observe strict gender boundaries set by their culture, markers designed to keep them under male control. The boundary markers differed from region to region but commonly governed things such as dress, movement in public, speech in public, relationships with members of the opposite sex who were outside the household, deference to husband and father, etc.

A woman was expected to be married, center her existence around the needs of her husband and children, and defer in all things to her husband. Husbands were expected to control their wives and had the authority to physically punish them.

It was commonly expected that women would not speak in public meetings, but it was accepted that they could prophesy. The rationale appears to be that when prophesying a woman was under the control of a god, and so was not speaking for herself.

Around the first century CE we also see the emergence of wealthy women as patrons of cities and collegia and as magistrates. These offices required the holder to spend large sums on public events and buildings, but often did not require public speech. They did however give a growing number of women a measure of influence and independence. A number of less wealthy women are also starting to emerge as business people.

These patterns are replicated in the New Testament documents. Wives are expected to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5.22-33; Colossians 3.18-21; Titus 2; 2 Peter 2.13-3.7); women are not to speak in public (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36), though they may prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:3-16); and there is a small group of women who have prominent roles as patrons and office bearers, whose roles stand in some tension with the normal expectations for women:

  • female apostles (Junia – Romans 16.7);
  • female members of Paul’s ministry team (Priscilla – Romans 16.3; Eudoia and Syntyche – Philippians 4.2-3);
  • female church leaders (Phoebe – Romans 16.1-2; Priscilla – Romans 16.2-3); and female teachers (Priscilla – Acts 18.26).

The one critical difference between the biblical texts and other Greco-Roman writings is that the biblical writings do not share the Greco-Roman view of women as physically, intellectually and morally inferior and thus needing to be controlled. Such reasoning is absent from both the Old and New Testaments.

(Some may argue that First Peter’s reference to wives as “the weaker partner” in1 Peter 3:7 echoes the Greco-Roman notion of womanly weakness. This may be the case, but as Peter doesn’t elaborate it is impossible for anyone to know what he had in mind. Moreover he doesn’t use the term to justify wifely submission but rather to promote a husband’s consideration for his wife)

Given the ubiquity of notions of female inferiority, it is quite remarkable and theologically noteworthy that the Bible doesn’t reflect those views.

The Bible Does Not Substitute a Creation Order for Female Inferiority as the Ground of Role Distinctions

So do the biblical writers substitute a new rationale for female submission? Do they craft a new anthropology in which male-female role distinctions are grounded in an order of creation rather than in female inferiority? There are those who believe this occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. I think they’re wrong.

The New Testament letters address very particular issues that have arisen in particular communities. To make sense of what they say we need to reconstruct the background. Sometimes this is straightforward; sometimes it’s tricky. In 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 it is very tricky.

Take 1 Timothy. One school of thought says the letter is an instruction manual for churches. The instruction that women remain quiet and do not lead or teach men is therefore meant to apply to all first century churches. The author appeals to the Adam-Eve story to support this guideline. The references are so brief it is difficult to be certain just how the creation stories contribute to the argument. Are they pointing to an order in creation as today’s ‘Complementarians’ claim? Is the point that Eve demonstrates female gullibility as many in the first century might have believed? Or is it something else entirely different?

And how does it affect the reading if the circumstances giving rise to the letter are constructed differently? Some argue that 1 Timothy is a highly occasional letter, written to address a crisis in the Ephesian church created by a set of false teachings that were subverting genuine faith. This possibly included an early form of the Gnostic myth that when Eve took the fruit and gave it to Adam she was liberating both of them, opening their eyes to truth. This in turn saw some of the Ephesian women seeking to emulate Eve by spreading the heresy. If that reconstruction is correct the women are instructed to be quiet, not because they were women teaching men, but because they were teaching heresy. The creation story is evoked to remind them that Eve did not liberate Adam, but was deceived just as they now are.

These are just some possible reconstructions. Which is right? I don’t know. A plausible case can be made for many.

A similar situation exists with regard to 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, the other New Testament passage that employs the Adam-Eve story in discussion of gender issues. The problem being addressed centres around the significance of women having their heads covered while prophesying. The simple truth is that we don’t know what type of head coverings are being spoken about nor their cultural significance, which makes it near impossible to be sure what Paul means when he references the Adam-Eve story.

Despite these texts being very  unclear, they are used by ‘Complementarians’ to argue that male-female role differences are part of how we are created. Yet this is taught nowhere else in the bible and goes against a natural reading of the creation accounts.

The only time Genesis 1-2 talk about authority and leadership is when they claim that all humankind, male and female, is created in the image of God, and is commissioned, male and female together, to rule and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:26-28)?  In a world that imagined a great order of being extending from the gods through the king, then down through households to slaves at the bottom the Genesis texts were explosive. They democratise notions of power and rule, setting up theological resistance in Israel to the notion that anyone but God should rule over people. To supplant this on the basis that two very difficult New Testament texts may, but probably don’t, teach a role-based order of creation order is folly. Such a reading is foreign to the Genesis stories and the logic bizarre (why would order of creation signal an order of leadership?!)

The Bible Does Not Champion Egalitarianism

While the New Testament writers do not argue for a created order that underpins wifely submission, neither do they champion egalitarianism. As we have seen, expectations around the behaviours of women in the Née Testament letters match very closely those of the surrounding cultures.

Those arguing that the early Christian community championed egalitarianism have to engage in some very dubious interpretation. Take for example the interpretation of the phrase “the husband is head of his wife.” A common egalitarian argument is that “head” does not refer to authority status but to “source”. While technically possible, to suggest that citizens of a strongly patriarchal culture would have understood “head” as anything other than a reference to authority relationships, is improbable to the point of being virtually impossible. The biblical teaching belongs to the same thought world as that which we find attributed to Callicratidas:

The husband governs, but the wife is governed…But he does not rule over her with a despotic power: for he is diligently attentive to her welfare…Those husbands that govern their wives despotically, are hated by them, but those that govern them with a guardian authority are despised by them…but those that govern them politically are both admired and loved.
Callicratidas, On the Happiness of Households 105.8-.106.9 For similar sentiments see Hierocles in Stob 4.505.5-22; Didymus in Stob 2.148.16-149.0; Plutarch, Moralia: Advice to the Bride and Groom 142E

The Gospel Undermines the Patriarchal Norms of the Greco-Roman World

So, my claim is the Bible writers affirm the basic cultural norms of their patriarchal world but do not ground this in the notion of female inferiority.

Rather than reading male-female relations through the lens of female inferiority, the New Testament authors read them through the revolutionary lens of the gospel. Whatever divisions may have existed in the wider culture are overcome in Christ. Contrast the statement of Didymus with Paul’s triumphant declaration in Galatians 3:26-28.

For the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and it is completely foreign to slaves.

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.

Where Greco-Roman culture saw a gulf between men and women, and slave and free, the New Testament sees unity. The gospel declares that culture, gender and social status are of no significance in our standing before God. And if that is the case then there can be no grounds for making them significant in our standing with one another.

Here the gospel is in step with the counter-cultural movement of the creation narratives. The creation stories were crafted against cultural narratives that saw a divine order of being, extending from the gods through the king, to peasants and slaves at the bottom. In these narratives the king alone bore the image of his god and the right to rule.  The explosive message of Genesis is that all human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image and called to rule over the earth and its creatures.

In step then with the creation narratives, the gospel sets up a trajectory towards equality and mutuality. Paul brings into question social systems that divide Jew and Gentile, but does not call into question the institutions of slavery and patriarchy. Arguably Paul’s comfort with slaves and females as co-workers, his championing of the sexual rights of both husbands and wives (1 Corinthians 7:1-4), and his ambivalence about the importance of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:25-40) indicate the implications of the gospel may have been seeping into his practises, but he does not call for an abandonment of the structures of slavery and patriarchal marriage.  It would be for later generations to do that.

The Pastoral Advice of the New Testament Letters is to Infuse Cultural Systems with Love

If the theology of the gospel sets up an inevitable clash with the structures of patriarchy, the practical approach of the New Testament writers is to infuse the patriarchal social structures of their time with the virtues of Christ.

This is evident in the household codes found throughout the New Testament letters. There usually speak to three pairs found within the patriarchal household structure: husband-wife; father-child; master-slave. The bible writers call on each member of each pair to fulfil their responsibilities to each other in a loving, graceful and humble way.

As we have seen from the Callitacridas quote above, in this, the New Testament writers echo the best of the pagan world, offering the example of Christ. Husbands are to love their wives in the same way Christ loves the church and wives are to submit to their husbands in the same way the church submits to Christ. This provides a softening of patriarchal marriage structures even greater than that of the best pagan philosophers, for it establishes that the husband is to serve the best interests of his wife.

It is argued by some that Ephesians 5 does more than infuse patriarchal social structures with Christian virtues. It is claimed  this text sees Christian marriage as modelled on the relationship between Christ and the church. This makes the husband-as-leader-wife-as-follower structure of marriage transcultural.

I think this is completely wrong headed. When Ephesians 5 and other texts say “the husband is the head of the wife” they are not making a theological claim about what ought to be. They are simply stating the reality of their world. By law and by custom husbands were in a position of enormous authority over their wives. Recognising this, the bible writers search for models that will help people infuse those realities with Christ-like virtues. So, in Ephesians 5 Paul employs the relationship between Christ and the church as the perfect example of a hierarchical relationship that believers can model their own hierarchical relationship on. Husbands, be like Christ. Wives, be like the church.

We can test this interpretation by looking at how Paul deals with the master-slave relationship just a few verses later. Slaves are to serve their masters as though serving Christ, while masters are to remember that Christ is Master of both. In using this model Paul is not arguing that slavery is modelled on the idea of God as Master. Rather he is drawing on an analagous relationship to show masters how to behave.

Living it Out Today

How then do we live this out? I believe we need to reject the notion that there is a God-ordained order to marriage that establishes husband as leader and wife as supportive follower and to the church that privileges male leadership. Rather, we ought to recognise such distinctions as features of a very sub-Christian social system that the Gospel subverted by, firstly infusing the structure with love and grace and, secondly, by establishing a trajectory that must ultimately lead to the rejection of a patriarchal system in favour of a partnership of equals.

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