Paul hated women, didn’t he?
Short answer: I don’t know. We aren’t really equipped to read that far into the head of someone who died 2000 years ago.
We could reframe the question: Did Paul write things that have been used by Christians to do great damage to women and that have hampered the work of the church for centuries? Absolutely.
But we must also ask: Did Paul write things that suggest he believed men do not possess superiority over women, as well as things that support women’s full participation in public Christian leadership? Again, absolutely.
Is this state of affairs frustrating and confusing? I think so.
First, however, there is good news. Instead of reflecting on what Paul thought about women in a general sense, as a subset of humanity, it seems more helpful to attend to what he said about specific women he knew.
Paul was unashamed to refer to female coworkers, people who ministered on behalf of Jesus and the church like he did (Romans 16:3-5, 12; 1 Corinthians 16:19). He mentions women who offer leadership to Christian congregations (Romans 16:1; Philippians 4:2-3). He referred to a woman named Junia as an “apostle,” one sent into ministry by the risen Christ (Romans 16:7). He had no problem with women in Corinth praying or prophesying in the church’s communal worship (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Therefore, the best evidence we possess suggests that Paul’s network of coworkers and church leaders consisted of women as well as men. This was pretty early in the church’s history; we’re talking about the years 50–60 CE, just 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This approval of women exercising religious leadership was not necessarily a radical thing in the first century, despite the patriarchal assumptions guiding ancient societies. We know of other religious groups, including some Jewish communities, that also allowed for this. Yet it wasn’t exactly common, either.
More good news: we also find in Paul’s writings a strong statement claiming that, when it comes to understanding our identity as children of God, there is no differentiation among the sexes. Paul said: “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 Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul knew that gender distinctions weren’t altered or dissolved among Christians. (He was Paul, not RuPaul.) Rather, the unity that Christ creates obliterates the delineations that our cultures rely upon to exalt one group, gender, ethnicity, or social class above another.
Now the bad news. Paul’s letters don’t spend much time exploring the implications of what he said in Galatians 3:28. True, he was a bulldog when contending for the full inclusion of gentiles (non-Jews, the people he meant when he used the word “Greek”) in the church, as equally children of God alongside Jews. Yet he seems not to have pushed so hard in reorienting people’s perceptions about women and slaves.
Like you and I, Paul was a person of his time, deeply influenced by the cultural waters in which he swam. At times, then, he spoke about a kind of hierarchy among men and women (1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9), a view that the vast majority of his contemporaries would have shared.
We might say, then, that Paul’s theology (his views about men’s and women’s status in God’s eyes; see Galatians 3:28) did not fully transform his sociology (his views about how men and women exist in relationship to one another; see 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9). I suggest we follow Paul’s theology to its logical conclusions and let his sociology fade into obscurity, as something interesting to learn about but not exactly helpful in the modern world. Like Roman numerals.
Wait! There’s more bad news.
It’s no secret that there are several passages in letters attributed to Paul that really reinforce the notion of distinctions between men and women, and these distinctions leave women in subordinate, diminished places -- subservient to men, forbidden to contribute audibly in public worship. These passages are not major emphases in those letters, but they are there. Some of the most noteworthy offenders are Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
Those and similar passages reinforce ancient assumptions about proper social roles and about the natural state of women. They are driven by beliefs that are not necessarily rooted in what God has declared through Jesus Christ; rather, they express what the culture asserted: women essentially belong to their husbands and fathers, and women are naturally or physically disposed to be deceived by falsehoods. Best to keep the ladies cooped up indoors and quiet, then. As you know, these views have had a way of sticking around through history.
It is important to note that these especially troublesome passages appear in letters that, although they bear Paul’s name as their author, may have been written by others (men, no doubt) several years after Paul’s death. See the discussions of these biblical books elsewhere in Enter the Bible for more information.
If these letters were indeed written by others (as I am convinced they were), then Paul himself may be off the hook for what they say.
But those passages still appear in the New Testament. So they continue to attract attention and do damage.
Still, they conflict with some of the things Paul wrote. This conflict forces us to explain our reasons for why we should privilege some passages over others in our understanding of Christian faith and life today.
When I side with what Paul says in Galatians 3:28, then, I need to be clear why: those words sound more like Jesus.
Like Paul and those who came after him throughout the church’s history, we still have a long way to go in living out what he meant about the unity Christ establishes. Don’t put all the blame on Paul, or even on other biblical authors. It’s lots of people’s fault that we haven’t gotten there yet.
Matt Skinner is associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.