I do not permit a woman to teach
or to assume authority over a man;
she must be quiet
1 Timothy 2: 12 (NIV)
It’s no secret that quotes from letters attributed to the apostle Paul put women in their place—that is, a place outside the ministry and beneath men in the home.
This post examines the idea that Paul actually supported the equality of women and men.
Paul I, II, III
In church tradition, many of the letters in the New Testament were written by the Apostle Paul. As we will see, some of those letters limit the role of women in the life of the church as well as their functioning in the home. There is no sense that men and women are equal despite admonitions that men should treat women in a loving manner.
Some Bible scholars who favor equality of women make arguments that discount Paul’s statements by saying they should be understood in terms of the cultural context of the first century, the context of the entire Bible along with a recognition of a specific situation (e.g., Gail Wallace/ Junia project).
Other contemporary Christians argue against Paul’s teaching based on examples (e.g., Rachel Held Evans). That is, they are keen to point out the number of women who had leadership roles in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Beth Moore echos a familiar argument based on Jesus' attitude toward women and, ignoring his selection of all male disciples, she does not see Jesus as sexist (Relevant)
In this post, I want to present a different type of argument. That is, writers like Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan argue in their book, The First Paul, that Paul’s view of men and women was a radical perspective emphasizing equality. Like other scholars, their study of the letters attributed to Paul indicates there are three categories of letters: 1. Letters Paul almost certainly wrote, 2. Those Paul almost certainly did not write, and 3. letters in dispute.
I realize many readers prefer to believe church tradition regarding the authors of these letters. And other readers may prefer to think it doesn’t matter because God is the author of the contents of the Bible, which is a belief that does not account for an active role of ancient men in writing the texts over nearly 1,000 years of ancient history.
Now, back to the three groups of letters corresponding to Paul I, II, III. Let me list them first before looking at the different views about women and men.
1. The 7 Letters of Paul
Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon
2. The 3 Letters not written by Paul—The Pastoral letters
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus
3. Letters in dispute
Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians
In 1 Corinthians, Paul presents advice to couples that reveals a male-female balance. This is almost 2,000 years ago! And this Jewish man is not giving moral advice on a sexist basis. He treats the Corinthian women and men as equals on several matters. Take a look.
Abstinence 1: 3-4. Abstinence requires agreement and applies to wives and husbands. Today we might say consent. And the emphasis is equal.
Divorce 7: 10-16. Christians do not divorce. In the mixed marriage, divorce may be acceptable but he advises wives and husbands to consider remaining in the relationship for the other spouse. There is an equal emphasis.
Virginity 7: 25-28. The emphasis is equally focused on women and men—not one or the other.
Abstinence II, 7:29-35. Again, Paul advises abstinence and in so doing, he treats wives and husbands equally.
So, the problem of veils in the church group appears in chapter 11. He argues from creation and nature. Setting hair aside, notice the equality in what these Christians are doing—praying and prophesying.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.
Paul’s women. Here I refer to the women mentioned in the letter to the Romans 1: 1-16. Notice their roles and the number of women mentioned. For example, Phoebe was a deacon. He also notes four women who work hard: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis.
On a side note, Borg and Crossan tell us that Junia, a woman, was considered at one point in church history as Junianus, a man’s name.
Paul II – The Conservative
Recall that according to Borg and Crossan and other scholars, Paul did not write Colossians or Ephesians. These books organize the subordinate structure of a Christian family with men as the head of the family. There is no equality here despite the language of love. There is a greater emphasis on husbands in Ephesians suggesting that men were more of a problem in the relationships.
For ease of reference, I will present the text locations below.
wives & husbands: Colossians 3: 18, 19; Ephesians 5: 22-24, 25-33
children & fathers: Colossians 3: 20, 21; Ephesians 6: 1-3, 4
slaves & masters: Colossians 3: 22-25, 4:1; Ephesians 6: 5-8,9
Paul III—The Ultraconservative
If you are or were a Christian, you have likely read 1 Timothy 2: 11-15.
11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (NIV)
So, not much wiggle room here. The subjection of women to men (full submission) is more severe in this letter than in the family structure mentioned above in the passages from Colossians and Ephesians.
How you understand the Bible matters. For example, read what American Southern Baptist Albert Mohler wrote last year.
"Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2."
And there’s a problem with something in one of Paul’s letters
Turning back to 1 Corinthians, the chapter 14 text has a similar prohibition against women in the context of prophecy and spiritual gifts. That limitation seems to contradict much of what Paul has written elsewhere. Here’s where scholarship matters. Not every old Greek copy of 1 Corinthians includes the limitations found in 14:33. Instead, they are in a separate paragraph at the end of the chapter, as if they were added later.
I’m not a religious scholar. I am a Christian with minimal college coursework in biblical studies. And my study of New Testament Greek is limited to six college classes. I’m a psychologist with a background in philosophy. This background means I must think critically about the arguments made by those who have the appropriate credentials, which at a minimum includes:
✅1. Mastery of the ancient languages of the Bible
✅2. An in-depth knowledge of the cultures relevant to the biblical texts they write about
✅3. An ability to reason well enough to discern the strengths and weaknesses of different types of arguments presented by other scholars holding different opinions.
I study and write about the psychology of religion. I am particularly intrigued by the way contemporary worldviews are informed by beliefs derived from ancient sacred texts and how beliefs about the words of these texts, in combination with life experience, govern human behavior today.
In the United States, different understandings of Christian morality have impacted national, state, and local laws and thereby influence human behavior. It is patently obvious that women have limited employment opportunities in some Christian organizations based on how people interpret the New Testament texts.
My point in writing this blog post is simply to suggest that Paul, the man who wrote the earliest documents in the New Testament, treated women and men as if they were equal in family life and active in prayers and prophesying within the early church gatherings within the letters he almost certainly wrote.
To the extent, Paul’s writings are considered sacred, then the weight of authority should be on those documents he actually wrote. And those writings suggest Christians should both support the equality of men and women and recognize the contributions of each person to a healthy relationship and vibrant church communities where people pray, share their inspired thoughts, and hold positions of responsibility.
When context matters. The writings that are questionably attributed to Paul reveal a more typical ancient view of men as leaders in society and the home with women in a subordinate role to men. Although these letters advise men to behave in a loving manner, they do not support equality in the home and others mentioned above indicate a subordinate position to men in church gatherings. The most convincing biblical argument against accepting these positions as binding on women today is the cultural context. That is, when there are different views in the Bible and readers wish to take the views seriously, they are left with few options than to consider under what conditions does a particular rule or teaching become “official” guidance?
Slavery. Furthermore, there is the matter of slavery, which I am not addressing here but I mention it to encourage consideration as a somewhat analogous contrast between the different groups of New Testament letters. As modern societies, we have condemned slavery. The same authors, Borg and Crossan, do review the slavery issue contrasting Paul’s writing in Philemon to words about slaves in the questionable letters of Colossians, Ephesians, and Titus. The Paul who wrote Philemon presents a radical view of equality of people compared to the subordinate position of slaves in Colossians, Ephesians, and Titus.
Now a big however. Christians who are willing to consider that some letters attributed to Paul were not written by him must still deal with the letters that limit a woman’s role in the home and the church. So, they still have to deal with the Timothy verses. The challenge of Albert Mohler stands. And of course, the largest group of Christians, the Roman Catholic Church, does not permit women to become priests or members of the church hierarchy. To counteract the words of Timothy and related texts requires a reliance on arguments from other texts for Christians who consider the Bible to be an authoritative guide or as I wrote elsewhere, God’s Life Manual.
Weighing Experience. One of the intriguing ways some Christians argue about women’s ministries is the argument by Pentecostals who believe God’s Spirit came upon women in the early 1900s as happened at Pentecost. Thus, some Pentecostals add this experience to their list of arguments favoring leadership positions for women. See Pentecostal Women: A Paradox.
Cite this post
Sutton, G. W. (2022, May 3). St Paul, and Christians divided about women. Divided Christians. Retrieved from https://dividedchristians.blogspot.com/2022/05/st-paul-and-christians-divided-about.html
Borg and Crossan refer to the third Paul as “reactionary” instead of my word, “ultraconservative.”
Use this link to read a review of the book, The First Paul.
For an evangelical perspective on women in ministry see Craig Keener's post.
For arguments about Pentecostal women in ministry, see Melissa Archer's reference to the Holy Spirit in Kay & Carledge (Eds). Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies.
The photo of the woman is from Bing listed as Free to Share and use.
Please check out my website www.suttong.com
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You can read many published articles at no charge:
The First Paul by Borg and Crossan
The First Paul by Borg and Crossan
God Forgive Us for Being Women by Joy E.A. Qualls
God Forgive Us for Being Women by Joy E.A. Qualls