This is the third in a series of posts where I am asking what difference it makes to our reading of Paul if we have misread Paul on women.
For centuries Christians have lived with two different apostle Pauls:
- the one who worked with many women, who publicly held these co-workers in high esteem, who at least once sent a woman to read his newest letter to a distant church, who gave a woman, with her husband, responsibility for teaching men the things they had not known and who declared the artificial differences which had placed women under the authority of men to be null and void because of the cross and empty tomb of king Jesus
- and the Paul who insisted that women have no authority over men, never be allowed to teach men, to cover their heads in worship as a sign of subservience to men and, in contradiction to remarks made in the same letter, remain always silent in worship, neither praying nor prophesying but rather asking knowledgeable male superiors their questions in the privacy of their homes.
In two posts on this subject at the end of March and the beginning of April, I discussed the work of Glenn Miller on two of the passages which have always been read to support the second Paul, the conservative/reactionary Paul: I Timothy 2:8-15 and I Corinthians 14:33-38. I laid out Miller’s arguments and some of his examples within my own frame for why Paul should not be read as we have often read him, as follows:
I gave a relevant and historical context for why in I Timothy, Paul was instructing Timothy as to the decorum, dress and behavior of those he was considering as teachers for the churches of Asia, both the males and the females.
In I Corinthians I gave evidence as to an often overlooked, untranslated or mistranslated Greek particle which appears in the most ancient texts just after “the Corinthian proposal” that women be silent, which Miller notes –and I agree – mostly likely means that Paul was dismissing the “complete silence” proposal of 14:34-35 as contrary to the teachings and commands of the Christ.
In short, in the first two posts on this subject, I gave sound and plausible evidence for how Paul meant in those letters the opposite of what we have for centuries taken him to have written.
Therefore, if, as I and others have suggested, Paul always intended for women and men to teach, to pray in public and to prophesy, what is left of Paul the misogynist?
Some Last Points
How about Ephesians 5:22: Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord? This verse is the first half of an exemplary comparative in a string of three such couplets which, when taken together, teach that all Christians should be subject to each other. This verse and the rest of the passage are utterly dependent on verse 21: Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. Verse 22 is also textually dependent on verse 21 in that the Greek word, ὑποτάσσω, (hupoSTASsoe) to “arrange (yourselves) under” which is usually translated as “be subject” does not even appear in verse 22; the word is borrowed from that same thematic verse before it.
In fact, Ephesians 5:21–6:9, when read in context, is all about how husbands, wives, children, parents, masters and slaves and anyone Paul has failed to mention all ought to all be subject to each other because of their reverence for their Lord. You have to really work hard to make the entire passage mean anything other than mutual voluntary submission of all Christians to each other because of awe and gratitude for what the Lord Jesus has done for them. No misogyny there!
So what is the deal about male headship? What does it mean in a marriage that the husband is the head of the wife? And first of all, what does it mean that anyone is ever “the head?” In our culture, “head” means leader, authority, chief or boss. What about in the Greco-Roman world? Or, more relevant, how about in the second-temple world of Jewish culture? In both those ancient cultures, decisions were not understood to be made with the head but with the heart; the imperative was: “Follow your heart,” not, “Use your head!”
The head – look to Miller for this – was all about beauty, adornment and sustenance. Persons were recognized by their heads; they “gussied up” their heads: they wore jewels and braids on their heads; and they fed their bodies through their heads. So to be the head of something or someone, was to be its identifier, its beauty and its means of support. The issue of authority, of decision-making, did not figure in. For whatever reason – Paul says it is because of the angels, somehow – the apostle thinks it is very important that women cover their heads when in formal worship as a recognition of God’s glory, of God’s beauty, of God’s provision for his people, etc.
Paul thinks this is important but he also challenges those women and men who read and hear his letter to consider for themselves whether this matter of head-covering is important. In many churches around the world today it is still considered important for women to cover their heads when in church for worship, although in most assemblies in the U. S., even in churches which will not allow women to teach or hold offices, it is not even an issue: women are not ever expected to cover their heads.
And note: while they had their heads covered these early Christian women were praying aloud, prophesying and teaching in the churches Paul had founded. So, no misogyny there!
Help Me Out
Does anyone know of any other reason why we should view the apostle Paul as having viewed women as inferior to men or unqualified to teach, preach, prophesy, pray aloud or hold offices in the churches he had founded? If I have missed something, be sure to let me know.
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1 Back to Post Which does make it strange that verse 21 is so often written up in our English Bibles as the last verse of the previous paragraph rather than as the first verse and thesis sentence for a new subject. If 5:21 was really a part of the previous passage it would have been hard for verse 22 to share its verb!
2 Back to Post See Miller on the Roman written moral codes (http://christianthinktank.com/fem09.html, section 4. Controversial Pauline Passages). Such codes always emphasized complete and unquestioning obedience of all family members and servant/slaves to the paterfamilias. How utterly subversive of “the way [Roman] things are” Paul’s reworking of the Roman code in Ephesians 5 and in the shorter Colossians 3:18–4:1 really was. Outside of its usual military use, “hupoSTASsoe” meant, to voluntarily comply, cooperate, assume a burden or take on responsibility.
3 Back to Post Lest we imagine that Jews of the period were romantic folk who considered only their emotions when making decisions, in the Jewish scriptures and thus in their worldview, the heart was not first of all the seat of emotion; it was the locus of the will, of ultimate loyalties and commitments; (see Genesis 6:5; Exodus 7:14; Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:16; Proverbs 3:5, 4:23; Ecclesiastes 8:5, 9:1; Isaiah 32:6; Malachi 2:2; Matthew 5:8, 6:21, etc.)