Christians for Biblical Equality

Paul and women: was the apostle a misogynist?
Kevin Giles
I have been involved in the very divisive and painful debate over what the Bible teaches on the status and ministry of women for over 30 years. Few people have published on this issue more than me. In most of my writings on the male-female relationship I have concentrated almost entirely on what the Bible says.  However, I must admit to you in the last few years I have been saying something more. I now tell people, without even looking at the Bible, you should not believe that God has subordinated women to men. We now know the earth is not flat, the sun does not revolve around our little planet, the world we live in is not 7000 years old, and women are a not subordinate class who God has excluded from leadership. On the first three matters the few verses in the Bible that theologians in past times quoted to prove these things do nothing of the sort. They simply reflect the beliefs of everyone in pre-scientific times and as an historical document the Bible from time to time innocently reflects these beliefs. We as Christians are not bound by these reflections of pre-scientific ideas most of us agree. It is the same with women. God has made it crystal clear to us in the last thirty years that women can have first class leadership abilities, first class minds and whip us men on most things. At this stage of my life, in the world in which I live, nothing at all inclines me to believe women are subordinated by God to men. I admit I come to read the Bible today with this conviction in my mind.
Today we consider what Paul says on women because Paul more than any other writer in the NT is taken to subordinate women to men, or to put it the opposite way, to give to men “headship”,  in plain speech, leadership.  I think this is a very one sided and objectionable reading of Paul and this is what I will argue today.
Paul the historical man.
Paul was a first century Jewish man. We all accept that he did not drive a car, did not have a radio or TV and knew nothing about computers, and he could not have imagined a world where women freely chose who they would marry, went to university, could support themselves financially and hold any job, including being the prime minister or president of a nation. We should therefore not expect him to speak or think of women as most of us do in twenty first century Australia.

In his cultural context women were subject to a man all of their life; father, husband, guardian, or eldest son when widowed. They were as a general rule not educated except in domestic duties and their husband was selected for them and she had to obey him. In public they were expected to keep silent when men were present, and the idea that women could be communal leaders was inconceivable, except in a limit way for a few wealthy widows.

In Paul’s world slavery was taken for granted. About a third of the population in the Roman Empire was slaves. When the Roman legions went to war those captured were made slaves, sold like cattle, and were forced to work by the whip. There was no movement for the emancipation of slaves. Slavery was simply a fact of life. Paul asked Christian masters to treat their slaves kindly but he never openly opposed slavery and in fact he exhorted slaves to accept their lot in life (Eph 5:5-9, Col 3:22-25, 1 Tim 6:1-2). Let me make the point again, the slave owners Paul addresses were Christians.

I raise the matter of Paul and slavery because it explains so much about Paul and women. In the same context in which Paul tells slaves to obey and respect their masters he tells women to be subordinate to their husbands. Once the texts addressing slaves were read to endorse slavery; now we are of the opposite opinion and cannot believe that once most Christians read these texts to legitimate slavery. Today, we say, no Paul was not endorsing slavery; he was just giving practical advice to slaves for whom freedom was not an option.

This is how we should also read the exhortations to wives to be subordinate. They are simply good practical advice to wives who had no other options. These texts in both cases simply reflect a world now long gone. But this is only half the story.

Paul and the new creation in Christ.
Paul certainly gave lips service to the cultural norms of slavery and the subordination of women but in both cases he laid the seeds that eventually sprouted and ended slavery – something we all concede – but this is also true of the subordination of women as I will now show.
My argument is that as a first century man Paul tacitly accepted slavery and the subordination of women yet as a Christian who believed God in Christ was ushering in the new creation he subverted the cultural norms on slavery and women.
Let me substantiate this assertion by exploring what Paul says first of all in principle on male-female relations, second what he says on women in church leadership, and third what he says on marriage.
1.    Paul on equality in Christ - the principle
We see Paul’s most basic belief on the relationship of the sexes in Galatians 3:28 where the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” Galatians 3:28 is rightly called the Pauline “magna carta” of emancipation. In considering this verse we can agree with evangelical social conservatives that in the first instance Paul is speaking about equality in salvation. These words come at the end of his argument that Jew and Gentile alike are saved by faith in Christ; alike they are Abraham’s [spiritual] offspring.  And we can agree with social conservatives Paul is not denying racial, social or sexual differentiation. In becoming a Christian someone does not cease to be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. What Paul is denying is these differences are of any consequence now for those who are in Chrsit.

We cannot agree, however, with evangelical conservatives who are united in denying any practical, this-worldly, consequence for this grand affirmation. To suggest that to be one in Christ has no practical consequences, no social dimension, is an abhorrent idea. We must insist that spiritual equality has as its goal and ideal social equality, especially in the Church, the community of the Spirit.  

Paul in his own day saw clearly the implications of his “one in Christ” theology in relation to Jew and Gentile. If Jews are saved on the same basis as Gentiles then in the church they stand on an equal footing. Spiritual equality results in social equality. This is not an assertion but a fact. In this very epistle, Paul tells us he opposed Peter who was abstaining from eating with Gentiles as if they were not true Christians (Gal. 2:11-16).  Paul thought his an awful failure on Peter’s part. If Jews were fellow Christians he should eat with them. Their new spiritual standing made them his social equals.
With the master-slave division Paul clearly saw that oneness in Christ had a social dimension but in his context where slavery was an institution of the state he was restrained in what he asked. He did, however, exhort the master and the slave to give each other their due (Eph.6:5-9, Col. 3:22-24) and he did ask Philemon to consider Onesimus a “brother” (16). Most Christians today think these comments, and what is said in Galatians 3:28, so undermined slavery that when the time was opportune most Christians came to oppose slavery as unjust and degrading of the human spirit. In this case few would disagree that Paul recognized that spiritual equality for master and slave anticipated social equality.  

With women, Paul’s connecting of spiritual and social equality takes yet another turn. Because men and women were one in salvation they were one in receiving the Holy Spirit. It thus followed for Paul that men and women were given the same charismata that made ministry possible in the church. Thus he speaks of women apostles, prophets, house church leaders and evangelists among other ministries. This must be seen as a social implementation of the spiritual principle in the life of the church. I therefore now turn to this matter.

2 Paul on the ministry of women.
Nowhere is Paul see as a social revolutionary more clearly illustrated than in his theology and practice of ministry in the congregation.
Paul’s theology of ministry.
At a theological level Paul is emphatic; all ministry flows from the empowering and enabling of the Holy Spirit. He says to “each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). In these words he is speaking of ministry given by the Spirit. The Spirit gives to every believer a ministry for the good of the church. It is simply impossible to read into these words any social, racial or gender distinctions. For Paul, the Spirit is non-discriminatory in bestowing the spiritual gifts (charismata) that make leadership in the church possible. Then to explain his argument he likes the church to a human body where each part has a contribution to make of equal value. See Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor.12-14, Eph. 4:11-12. C.f. Acts 2:17-18, 1 Peter 4:10-11. One is like a foot, another like a hand, another like an eye – and one cannot do without the other. Again it is impossible to read into this metaphor, racial, social or gender distinctions.
Paul’s practice of ministry.
Paul’s practice of ministry reflects closely his theology of ministry. The number of women in leadership in the early Pauline churches, given the cultural context, is breathtaking. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sixteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans. In this final chapter, he mentions ten women; he names eight of them, and commends the ministry and leadership of seven. Most of them we may infer were women of some social standing.  If we consider all the early Paulines at more than one-quarter of the leaders Paul mentions by name are women, twelve in number.
In his epistles he speaks explicitly and positively of -
    Women prophets (1 Cor. 11:5, c.f. Acts 2:17, 21:9). And for him the prophet is ‘second’ in the church, the teacher ‘third (1 Cor 12:22) and he says prophecy is a ministry of first importance because it builds up the church (1 Cor 114:1-13).
    A woman apostle (Rom. 16:7), “first in the church (1 Cor 12:28).
    Women church workers and evangelists (Rom. 16:6, 12, Phil. 4:3)
    Women as ‘fellow workers’ in the Gospel (Rom. 16:3, Phil. 4:2-3)
    Women as leaders of house churches (Col. 4:15, 1 Cor. 1:11, c.f. Acts 12:12, 16:14-15, 40 etc)
    Women deacons (Rom. 16:1, 1 Tim. 2:9).
    Husband and wife ministry teams (Acts 18:24-28, Rom. 16:7)
Given the patriarchal cultural setting, the number of women involved in Christian leadership in the first century church is quite amazing. What this evidence means is that the apostolic practice of ministry wherever possible matched the apostolic theology of ministry. These examples show that Paul valued women in a way none but his Lord and master had done.
But you ask, what about Paul’s restrictions on women in church leadership?
Three times Paul is forced to deal with a pastoral problem caused by women disrupting church life in one way or another. Each of these passages envisages a first century cultural context and what is said is specific to the church addressed. Before looking at these three texts may I suggest to you, it is a good rule to build theology/doctrine from theological texts not from texts giving specific advice on specific problems.
i.    1 Corinthians 11:2-16. This texts makes plain that in Corinth men and women were leading in prayer and prophecy in church, the most important ministries in the early church, and Paul commends this practice. However he wants men to minister with heads uncovered and women with heads covered to conform to social norms so that men are seen to minister as men and women as women. This passage involves some discordant cultural presuppositions for us but it is an affirmation of women in church leadership. This passage unambiguously indicates that Paul believed that both men and women could stand in church and lead the congregation in verbal ministry. Nothing could be clearer.  
ii.    1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Again at Corinth, it seems married women were asking questions in the little house-churches in which all Christians met, probably about the prophecies given, and thus disrupting church gatherings. In reply Paul tells these women to ask their husbands at home. This text undeniably deals with disruptive behavior and thus again it is no problem for those who see Paul as a progressive for his day.
I must add, nevertheless, that there is growing evidence that Paul did not actually write these words. They were added by a later scribe. If there is any doubt on the textual authenticity of any text in the Bible, the binding rule is it should not be quoted in support of any doctrine. (On the doubtfulness of this text see P. B. Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009), 217-270.
iii.    1 Tim. 2:11-12. Later when the church in Ephesus was under threat from heretical teaching, in which women were involved, Paul tells them to stop teaching because as we will see in a moment he was convinced they had been “eceived.” As Paul nowhere else gives such a ruling; he speaks positively of women in leadership, and before this time women had been teaching at Ephesus (he asks them to stop teaching), an aberrant situation must be envisaged. This is conclusion is confirmed by the use of the exceptional and negative word authentein found only here in the Bible. This word indicates two things
•    An exceptional situation. The use of this word with no parallel in the Bible suggests a situation with no parallel in the Bible.
•    And something very objectionable. In the first century the Greek verb authentein had very negative overtones. The word speaks of someone “assuming authority” wrongfully, of “dominating” in an improper way. It speaks of self- aggrandizement; of improperly putting oneself first.
(For first class scholarly support of this understanding of the word authentein and this interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:11-14 see P. B. Payne, Man and Woman One in Christ.)

The argument that Paul is laying down a universal rule that forbids women from teaching with authority in church has little to commend it. Why designate the teaching proscribed by the exceptional word authentein and if it is a fundamental principle that women should not speak in church why does Paul lay down this rule just this one time in contradiction to his theology of ministry and usual practice of ministry?
To make their case that Paul is giving a timeless, transcultural principle, women must not teach in church, some tell us the apostle’s two supporting arguments, ‘For Adam was formed first … but the woman was deceived’ (vv 13-14) speak of the creation ideal order. God wants men to always be “first”, the ‘head’, and women should not teach because they are more prone to sin and error. This is unconvincing. As we have seen, Genesis 2 does not teach that woman are second in rank or subordinated because Eve was created second or that women are more prone to sin and error because the devil first deceived Eve. Paul’s two supporting arguments as to why women should not teach in an authentein way do not refer to a past creation social order but specifically to the present disorder in the church in Ephesus. Some women are teaching without authority to do so, having been deceived by the false teachers (1 Tim. 5:13-15, 2 Tim 3:6-7, Titus 1:10-11).
3.    Paul on marriage.
What Paul says on marriage also clearly shows he did not simply endorse the cultural norms of his day. Rather, he sought to subvert them.
1 Corinthians 7:1-40
Paul says the most he says anywhere on marriage in 1 Corinthians 1 Corinthians 7:1-40.  What Paul is on about in this chapter is mystifying for us Westerners living in the twenty first century. It seems the Corinthians had asked Paul about whether or not to marry as the end was near. His overall argument is not easy to follow because he deals with a range of issues about which the Corinthians had asked him and does not want to get his questioners off side by how he answers. What is crystal clear, however, is that Paul has a counter cultural egalitarian view of marriage. In twelve instances he makes the opportunities, rights and privileges of the man and the woman exactly the same (vv 2, 3, 4, 5, 10-11, 12-13, 14, 15, 16, 28, 32 and 34a and 33 and 34b). In each of these references he addresses men and women as equals. The most revolutionary comment is found vv 3-6. Paul says, ‘The wife does not have authority (exousiadzo) over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority (exousiadzo) over his own body, but the wife does’. In these startling words, Paul places husbands and wives on an equal footing as far as their sexual relations in marriage are concerned. This is highly significant because the sexual side of marriage reflects the relationship itself. It is symbolic of the one-flesh union. In this passage Paul balances the authority the husband has over his wife’s body with the authority the wife has over her husband’s body. Paul does not give any special rights to men. Like Jesus (Matthew 19.3-8) he sees men and women in marriage having joint responsibilities and privileges. Against a cultural backdrop where women were viewed as owing sexual duty to their husbands Paul’s ruling is startlingly counter cultural. However, it is not just this comment on sexual relations in marriage that is so exceptional, Paul’s fully symmetrical and egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of the marriage relationship seen throughout this chapter have no parallel in the ancient world.
Ephesians 5:21-33
Ephesians 5: 23 is the only text in the whole Bible to speak of the husband as the head/kephale of the wife. Few texts get more often quoted by men. To properly understand what Paul is saying we must focus primarily on the whole passage as one developing argument, noting carefully what Paul actually says and does not say, and take full account of the historical context in which he wrote. Paul was writing to Christians in a cultural setting that assumed the subordination of woman. Thus, when Paul asked women to subordinate themselves to their husbands, because the husband is the “head” of his wife, no one in his day would have felt uneasy or threatened.  Paul was simply giving voice to the realities of the fallen world in which he lived.  Today in our profoundly egalitarian culture Paul’s advice to wives makes most of us feel very uneasy, even hostile to Paul.
How Paul introduces this comment and what follows is what is totally unexpected and counter cultural.
Paul begins, v 21, “Be subordinate to one another.” Wow.
Then he gives seven verses addressed to husbands after saying the husband is the head of the wife. In these verses Paul asks husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her”, and to “love their wives as they love their own bodies”. He does not use the Greek word eros – sexual love, or philia, brotherly/family love, but agape, self-giving love, which as far as we know no one before Paul had used for the marriage relationship. No one, save Christ had ever suggested anything like this. This was revolutionary teaching. It subverted patriarchy by asking men to give themselves in sacrificial service for their wives.
My argument is that Paul was a first century man who took for granted slavery and the subordination of women, nevertheless he clearly saw these things were part of this fallen world which was now passing away. With the death and resurrection of Christ a new creation had been inaugurated. Thus in principle Paul thought social, racial and gender differences were all to be challenged when the opportunity arose.
In the church was where the new creation was first to be realized. Thus Paul insisted the Spirit was given in equal measure and power to men and women and for this reason both were free to lead in church.
In marriage women were to accept that their culture subordinated them. But to the men, Paul says, give your selves in selfless, self-sacrificial agape/love.

If you do not think all these three things are not revolutionary ideas then we part company.