I have heard my fair share of critics call out Paul for being sexist and misogynistic. They claim that Paul was anti-woman. They point to his instructions concerning the household codes (Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3) and his prohibition against female leadership in the church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2).
Aha! There it is. No egalitarian would ever urge women to submit to their husbands! And no one truly concerned with equality would then prohibit half the population from joining in the leadership of the church. Would they?
And I would say those people are exactly right.
But sexist men who view women as inherently inferior to men would say those exact things while they translate and interpret Paul. In other words, it’s not that Paul is sexist. History has shown us that the men who assumed authority in teaching and interpreting Scripture were/are the sexist ones. They were reading their misogynistic and oppressive views back into Paul’s letters and latched onto key words and phrases. They have been misinterpreted and misapplied for centuries.
I know that’s a big claim, but I stand by it.
How can we take the bulk of evidence in Scripture that is pointing us toward a future of restored relationships between the sexes, line it up against a total of about four out-of-context verses in Paul’s letters, and claim that those are universally and eternally binding? Unless…it happens to benefit those in power to do so.
So was Paul a card carrying member of the He-Man Woman Haters Club? Read through my previous post, and the answer is obviously and resoundingly NO.
What then are we to make of those seemingly sexist passages that men have used to oppress women and keep them subjugated to our authority?
SUBMISSION GOES BOTH WAYS
Let’s start with the household codes. Anyone who researches the life and times of ancient Romans will learn of a system called the pater familias. That’s a Latin phrase for “father of the family.” This patriarchal structure was bred in the bones of Roman society. Throughout the Roman empire, the man was the head of the house. His word was law. He essentially owned his wife, his children, and his slaves. Wives were instructed to be submissive to their husbands in all circumstances. Children were to obey their fathers without question. Slaves were property to be used and discarded at their master’s will.
Paul is trying to speak into this system and subvert it in a way that mimics the rabbi he follows. Remember when Jesus was asked about paying taxes? His words could have sparked a bloody revolution right then and there. But he chose to answer in a way that left everyone thinking and examining their own political and religious perspectives. That’s what Paul is doing, too, by addressing the household codes under which Christians were expected to live.
No, Paul did not spark a women’s liberation movement or a slave revolt. What he does is much more subversive.
Before he says, “wives submit to your husbands,” he tells all of them to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then – and here’s the real revolutionary bit – he tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church! What’s love got to do with it? No one married for love. It was an economic and legal arrangement often managed between two sets of parents. But if a man loves his wife, he is not going to abuse her or mistreat her or view her as his property. Paul was saying that marriage should be based on mutual submission, love, and respect for one another. That seems obvious to us, but no one was saying anything like that in his day.
He then urges children to obey their parents – father AND mother, not just their father. But he goes further by warning fathers not to exasperate or be too harsh with their children.
In what sounds like a problematic passage to our modern ears, Paul tells slaves to be obedient to their masters commands as if they’re working for the Lord. But then he also reminds the masters that they themselves serve a Master.
Do you see how Paul’s treatment of the pater familias codes sets the groundwork for revolution? Do you see how he nudges them a little closer to the original creative intent found in the Garden and foreseen in the coming Kingdom? These relationships were no longer based on power imbalances and competition but on mutual submission, respect, and, above all, love.
CUT IT OFF
But what about in the church in general? Isn’t Paul still discriminating against women by prohibiting them from speaking or holding authority?
We will get to the 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 passages very soon, I promise. To end this part of the discussion, though, we must direct our focus to the book of Galatians.
The church in Galatia had its fair share of problems. It’s the only church letter in which Paul does not open with a prayer of thanksgiving and encouragement. He goes straight into the problems within the church. The key issues is division. Some Jewish Christians were claiming that the Gentile converts had to become Jewish in order to follow Christ. They insisted that these Gentiles had to become circumcised (if they were male) and follow the Kosher food laws. Even Peter got swept up in the division within the church.
Paul basically tells these “Judaizers” that they can just go ahead and shut all the way up. Some of his harshest language is reserved for those who tell the Gentile men to get circumcised. He says that if circumcision is so important, then go ahead and finish the job – balls and all (Gal. 5:12, that’s my paraphrase).
Let me cut to the chase. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. However, it was only a sign for the men. Paul lays out the case that baptism is the new circumcision, and this time anyone can do it – men and women, Jews and gentiles. All can now equally participate in the symbolic rite signifying the salvific covenant between God and his people – all people.
In Paul’s day there was a common rabbinic prayer that would often be recited by Jewish men. It went something like this.
I praise you, Lord, that I was not born a gentile.
I praise you, Lord, that I was not born a slave.
And I praise you, Lord, that I was not born a woman.
This was loosely based on a prayer from the Greeks along similar lines. Do you sense the privilege in that prayer? Do you sense the divisiveness? The animosity? The contempt? The implication is that gentiles, slaves, and women were all second-class at best. They were lower down the pyramid. They were somehow lesser in the sight of God.
Paul says that if you think that, just do us all a favor and chop your balls off (Gal. 5:12). Because: “…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.”
**”male and female” here is a direct quote of Genesis 1:27**
Paul completely dismantles the privilege of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender in what is one of the most radically egalitarian statements in the ancient world. He wanted the Galaltian Christians to know the full extent of the freedom we have in Christ. This freedom is offered to all people everywhere. Who are we to throw roadblocks in their way? Who are we to make up all sorts of rules and laws and codes that have nothing to do with living out the gospel?
But that’s exactly what we do. Thats why a woman can read Scripture, offer insights, and fully participate in class, but once the bell rings and we shuffle into another part of the building, suddenly all those things are prohibited. We end up doing the exact sort of thing Paul is warning against. That’s not freedom. That’s not gospel. That’s not love. That’s not the fruit of the Spirit.
That’s offering lip service to the idea that women are our equals but then going right back to the comfort of our own position of privilege.
“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12)