Friday, May 12, 2017

Paul’s View of Gender Inequality

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Both were 1.78 metres tall

I support gender equality.

Whether Christian, an adherent of another religion, or having no religious affiliation, I think it important to consider the influence on contemporary attitudes toward women based on interpretations of the Christian texts.

What's the significance of the photo? I will comment below.

I understand the arguments conservative Christians make for supporting different roles for men and women in church, society, and the home. In fact, I think conservatives can find much more support for male superiority in the Bible than progressives can find for gender equality.

I think it’s time for Christians to take a fresh look at the texts that have driven gender inequality for millennia and decide anew why they think women and men should not be equal is all aspects of life. In my view, twisting ancient texts into an agreeable equality-for-all pretzel lacks integrity. I say, give the texts their due, make your peace with some notion of inspiration, and commit to a moral stance—one that declares all people are equal.

The stimulus for this post is my pending talk on the family relationships in the New Testament document knows as Ephesians—the first century letter, imperfectly carved up into six chapters by some Christian about 500 years ago.


"[T]he male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind..." Aristotle in Politics.

My first task is to look at the little verse about submission, which causes no end of consternation for contemporary evangelical women not wanting to plunge into the freedoms offered by progressive believers yet somehow hoping they can convince their conservative brethren to get over the submission doctrine and support full equality. In evangelical Christianity, women’s suffrage often suffers from a lack of support. Fundamentalists control the gates of evangelicalism.

To my frustrated female friends and their erstwhile male supporters, I say, consider what you are up against. Let’s be honest. If the problem of inequality could be solved by an honest battle over the true interpretation of the Greek word for submit, the war for equality would be over. But the battle is not just about submission. The battle involves a moral stance that consistently asks women to submit to the authority of scripture as written and interpreted by men for thousands of years. And when it comes to submission, the Israelites shared beliefs with Greeks and Romans.

I have seen arguments about where to carve the submission verses (Ephesians 5:21-22) but those aren’t going to help. The context is far beyond the short letter to the Ephesians. The context is as large as the Bible itself. And the Apostle Paul is just one more man continuing the interpretation of the differences between the sexes as having implications for cultural differences, which create stained glass ceilings in all cathedrals of culture from government to church and the 21st century home. The only window of equality in this massive edifice is the notion that in Jesus humble abode there is no male or female (Galatians 3:38). Other than that window, and a few other holes in the wall, the biblical world is a man’s world ruled by Kings—not queens, Priests—not priestesses, and fathers and husbands not mothers and wives.

The morality of the Apostle Paul conforms to the typical pattern of conservative views. He emphasizes respect for authority. For Paul, as for the Jewish scholars before him, God is the ultimate authority. Like Jesus, Paul quotes from, or paraphrases the words of Moses and the Prophets--perhaps dozens of times—it depends on what you want to count as a quote or paraphrase (Keener, 2014). Authority is important to Paul on a personal level. His authority as an apostle was challenged. He claimed to get his authority directly from Jesus the Christ (Messiah) and from God (2 Corinthians 12: 11-19; Galatians 1:1).

Paul consistently encourages men in the churches to submit to the authority of government (Romans 13; Titus 3:1), which is consistent with the words of other men (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-14). When Paul writes that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5: 22-25; Colossians 3:18), it is in the context of an orderly hierarchy from God to Jesus to the church. His analogy is that Christ is the head of the church and the man is the head of the woman. Christ does not submit to the church and husbands do not submit to their wives. Paul’s analogy does not permit the notion that Christ is going to be in a mutually submissive relationship with men.

A challenge is sometimes raised by referring to Ephesians 5:21—that’s the verse about “mutualsubmission. Perhaps Paul is confused or perhaps those who want the verse to mean otherwise are ignoring the consistent teaching about wives submitting to husbands. Logically, the 5:21 verse about mutual submission fits with the previous section directing men within the church to submit to each other. True, a few women are mentioned in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 16). But let’s be honest, Paul makes some specific comments about women, which are not very supportive of equality in the church (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Timothy 2). It really isn’t any wonder why Christians have not supported equality for centuries—and many still don’t.

Paul’s cultural context has a history of not supporting women as equal with men. We have already noted that Paul quoted from the books attributed to Moses and the Prophets. He knew the scrolls we call the Old Testament. Paul takes readers back to the beginning to establish his concerns about women. He reminds the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:3) that it was Eve who was deceived by the serpent in Genesis. And he reminds Timothy (1 Tim 2:13-14) of the same point-- making it clear that it was Eve and not Adam who was deceived. Think about Paul’s view of women through the lens of Eve’s deception. It’s as if Eve is a prototypical woman.

As I have written elsewhere (A House Divided, 2016), biblical teaching on women makes it clear that they were under the authority of their fathers who then transferred authority to their husbands. In the Law of Moses, Fathers—not daughters-- were to be compensated if their daughters were violated (Deuteronomy 22:29). There isn’t much concern for women in this law is there? Yes, I know there’s a very nice chapter in Proverbs 31 where a husband, at the city gates with the other ruling men (v. 23), is blessed because his wife takes on all kinds of responsibilities from early morning to late at night.

I support equality for women. I just don’t find support for equality in Paul’s writings. The summary in 1 Timothy 2:11 is pretty consistent with his teaching on women and the preponderance of Scripture before Paul sailed around the Roman Empire: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man…” (emphasis added). The Timothy text is consistent with Paul's teaching, Israel's old laws, and Roman culture-- women have limited roles in life compared to men.


In my view, Paul’s ethical stance on love is consistent with Jesus’ love ethic. In the context of his culture, Paul likely elevated women in the Christian community through his recognition of them and his consistent warning to husbands to love their wives. The teaching and actions of Jesus and Paul revealed a counter-cultural transformative love-based shift to consider women as people rather than property. While not attacking the cultural norms governing life on earth, Paul made it clear in that in the Kingdom of Heaven women and men were equals.

Paul was no misogynist. But he was no supporter of gender equality either. Like all humans, Paul was a product of his culture. I don’t doubt he was inspired. And he often pointed readers in the direction of living a virtuous life—a life bearing fruits that nourish relationships in love, kindness, generosity, and so forth.

It’s no surprise that sincere Christian fundamentalists, adhering to biblical texts, want to be kind and loving toward women but cannot get past the texts. They see the texts clear enough. They are not lacking intelligence nor do they lack integrity. Instead, those evangelicals who try to bend the texts to support biblical equality walk the more precarious path for their path teaches people to look for loopholes, textual inconsistencies, mistranslations of Greek words, and small hints that a wealthy woman here or there got some respect and seemed to be a leader.

To me, the only honest way to get around Paul’s teaching about women being silent and submissive is to take the cultural route-- put off the old man in Paul's language. Paul spoke to men in a male-dominated culture, which has been true of human relationships in most places during human history. The rare places where women were honored are few and far between in the extant historical records. The principle of loving God and one’s neighbor and the principle that regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social status, all are children of God are the kind of principles on which a progressive moral stance of equality has a firm foundation. This moral stance does not attempt to challenge biblical authors for their inconsistencies nor does it seek to locate other proof texts like a child seeking a treat from one parent when the other has said no.

A principled morality requires the courage to discover moral principles and apply them within their cultural milieu. In this way, people can still say they know Christians by their love (John 13:35).

Some Additional Thoughts

Submission is a Serious Concern

I have a serious concern about the doctrine of submission as it has sometimes been practiced. In fact, Paul’s teaching that men must love their wives is crucial to the well-being of women encouraged to submit to men. Other biblical teachings that limited divorce options for women have kept submissive women chained to abusive men out of fear of eternal damnation for sinning against God. It is one thing to remind men of their duty to love their wives but it is quite another thing to ensure that men do not abuse their supposed authority to keep their wives in submission by force.

The Unchained Progressive Christian Approach

It might be tempting for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals to think that progressive Christians, untethered by the literalistic interpretations of biblical texts might as well be agnostics or even atheists. Supporting their fears, some free from the chains of fundamentalists and their close kin in the evangelical community might find their way out of Christianity altogether. Despite those fears, many progressive Christians sincerely attempt to live a moral life informed by the principles of Scripture and shouldering the responsibility to love one another as worked out in the nitty-gritty of contemporary dilemmas that often shroud potential harm and unjust outcomes ignored by Christians who just follow rules with a "Hey, that's what God said" mentality. Progressive Christians are tethered by principles not bound by chains.

Women in Roman Culture

You can learn something about women in Israelite culture from the biblical texts. These would of course be part of Paul's culture as a Jew. But Paul also lived as a Roman citizen so to understand his culture and that of the people he wrote to, it is important to understand Roman culture. I have included a few notes along with references where you can read more.

Roman women were citizens but they could not vote or hold political office.

Women were under a man’s authority. First their fathers then their husbands.

Some wealthy women had more freedom than did other women.

Women could inherit and own property and engage in business.

They could be priestesses.

Marriage age was early teens for women, twenties for men and marriages were arranged.

Unfaithful wives who were divorced could not remarry.

Wives could be divorced if they did not bear a son.

Childbirth and disease risk meant many died in their 30s.

They were expected to be wives who cooked and raised children unless they were wealthy and had slaves.

Women and Ancient Cultures

I quoted Aristotle's view of women's inferiority from the Politics. There are other quotes that sound familiar to the teachings of the Apostle Paul. Recall Paul's comment about silencing women. In the Politics, Aristotle quotes a poet: "Silence is a woman's glory." (See Dudrey, 1999).

Dudrey quotes a neo-Pythagorean text about the importance of a woman's chastity. He obsrves that the worthy woman of Proverbs is similar to the descriptions of the wives of Homer and Plutarch among others. Dudrey concludes that households were fundamental to ancient cultures, which continued through inheritance and succession via worthy sons born to worthy women. The pure, obedient, worthy woman who honors and submits to her hunsband is a pervasive teaching of multiple cultures and shows up in Paul's guidance e.g., Titus 2:3; 1 Corinthians 14:33.

Dudley's article also supports other comments indicating that women were treated as the property of men in ancient cultures. Men had a primary interest in the children born to their wives. Dudley also notes that in ancient Athens, fathers even had control over their married daughters to the extent that they could terminate one marriage and marry the daughter to a more desirable husband.

Text Note

Some of you may be aware that a number of contemporary scholars do not consider the Apostle Paul to be the author of the epistles attributed to him. Those arguments are complex and deal with an analysis of texts beyond the scope of this post. I suggest that even if we were to rely on the texts most agree can be attributed to Paul, women still do not get much support when it comes to equality. Read more on this issue (Ostling, 2015). I also recommend The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor P. Furnish.

In A House Divided, I write about gender issues, including submission, in Christian cultures. In Chapter 8 I write about Christian marriage and in Chapter 10 I discuss biblical views of women and men.

A House Divided is available from the publisher, PICKWICK, and other booksellers, including AMAZON. The book is used in seminary and university courses.

If you are a professor, get a free examination copy from PICKWICK.


Dudrey, R. (1999). 'Submit Yourselves to One Another': A Socio--Historical Look at the Household Code of Ephesians 5:15-6:9. Restoration Quarterly, 41(1), 27-44.

References by Hyperlink

About the photo: The prince and princess were about the same height but Prince Charles is pictures above his wife revealing a culture of male superiority.


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