Was Paul a Sexist?
On Reading Paul in Context
Many women would say that Paul was the cause of half their problems in the Church. Has he been unfairly maligned?
A few years ago I was asked to address a student meeting at Auckland University on the topic, Is God Sexist? It was an intriguing question to ponder.
In a sense, it was not hard to answer. If God exists and is inherently good, and if sexism (hostility towards or discrimination against women) is wrong, then God cannot be a sexist. A good God cannot cause or condone what is evil.
But, in another sense, the question could not be disposed of so easily. The fact that I was asked to address it in the first place suggests that many people suspect that God is sexist. That God is somehow responsible personally for the history-long oppression of women.
Why is that? Where does this suspicion come from? Why are God and sexism so closely associated in some people's minds? There are, I suspect, two main reasons.
One is to do with the track record of the Christian church. The fact that the church - which claims to speak for God - has been lamentably guilty of sexism over much of its history has served to brand the church's God as irremediably sexist. If the people of God have been sexist, then the God of the people must be too.
The other reason is to do with the Christian scriptures. The New Testament contains a number of texts which, to modern ears, seem overtly hostile to women and which place restrictions upon the ministry opportunities open to women that are not placed on men. In a couple of passages women are forbidden to teach or exercise authority over men and are told to remain silent, "for it is a shame for a woman to speak in church".1 In several other places, women are instructed to be submissive and to acknowledge the "headship" of the male.2
By contemporary standards, such texts sound thoroughly sexist. And since Christians claim that God is the ultimate author of scripture, then God must be the source of these views.
So perhaps it is not surprising that God has acquired the reputation of sexism. But is this reputation justified? Is God guilty of unjustly discriminating against women?
In some circles, one way of dealing with the problem is to shift the blame from God to the biblical writers, and in particular to the apostle Paul. If the Christian tradition has been marred by dreadful sexism, the fault is not God's; it is Paul's.
Jesus was not guilty of prejudice against women, nor is the God Jesus reveals. But Paul is another matter. It was Paul (and/or his followers) who were largely responsible for a patriarchal backlash against the initial egalitarianism of the early Jesus movement. That's why most of the 'restrictive' texts in the New Testament - those that place limits on the ministry of women - are found in the Pauline letters.
Part of the solution to Christian sexism, then, is to isolate and repudiate the oppressive legacy of Paul's letters, while affirming and emphasising the more egalitarian and liberationist themes found elsewhere in scripture (including elsewhere in Paul).
In the evangelical community, there have been two main reactions to this way of assessing Paul. In more conservative circles, the response has been to deny that the silencing and subordination of women in Paul's letters is intrinsically sexist. Rather it expresses the divine order.
God never intended men and women to exercise the same kind of roles or ministries. Men were created to be leaders and teachers, women to be supporters and nurturers. It is not Paul's affirmation of this fact we ought to question, but the feminist notion that such an understanding is intrinsically 'sexist'.
More progressive evangelicals, on the other hand, do not accept that the restrictive texts express some timeless, divine order for the roles of the sexes. They argue that the restrictive texts are neither central to Paul's thought, nor as oppressive as they might seem. They are few in number and should be understood sympathetically as appropriate reactions to crisis situations encountered in particular New Testament congregations.
But what was appropriate for those circumstances may not be for ours. Paul never intended such restrictions to be followed as divine law in all places at all times, and we are not bound to enforce them today.
I am convinced that this second approach is the best way to deal with the restrictive texts in Paul's letters. I cannot believe for a moment that the radical apostle, who believed so passionately in liberty and who insisted so emphatically on the equality in Christ of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female,3 would have wished the limitations placed on women in certain congregations to have been set in concrete for all time.
If Paul were alive in our day, I believe he would have been a fierce critic of Christian sexism.
It is crucially important that the two or three passages which silence and suppress women are understood in their original context. On the one hand, they need to be related to the context of the specific churches Paul is writing to. That context was one of disorder and doctrinal confusion, to which certain women were contributing disproportionately.
Paul reins in these women in order to deal with the problem of chaos and confusion, not because he was opposed in principle to the public ministry of women.
On the other hand, the restrictive texts need to be viewed in the context of Paul's own ministry practice and theology. Too often 1 Cor 14:34-36 and 1 Tim 2:8-15 are taken as the apostle's definitive position on the ministry of women, without any reference to Paul's explicit affirmations of gender equality elsewhere in his writings,4 or to the evidence that in his own missionary praxis Paul esteemed women as colleagues of equal standing as men.
In what follows, I want to assemble some of the evidence from the New Testament that in Paul's own missionary team and in many of the churches he planted, women exercised as wide a range of ministries as men did and were not subject to the limitations found in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2.
If this is so, then the case for treating the blanket restrictions of these texts as responses to specific abuse situations rather than normative teaching for all time is considerably strengthened.
Women in Paul's Circle
In Romans 16, Paul sends personal greetings to some 29 named individuals in the church at Rome.5 It is highly significant that one-third of those named are women, and that Paul makes positive comments about women twice as often as he does about men. From the way he refers to these women, it is clear that many of them exercised notable public ministries.
The first woman named is Phoebe (vv1-2). Paul encourages the Romans to welcome and assist her, indicating that she is soon to visit the city, very probably bringing Paul's epistle with her. Phoebe was a woman of high social status, wealth and influence. Paul describes her as a prostasis of himself and others. The RSV translates the term prostasis as 'helper', but there is general agreement today that the word designates Phoebe's role as a wealthy patron, someone who sponsored and financially supported Paul's work. Hence the NRSV renders it as 'benefactor'.
Phoebe was also a leader (diakonos) in the church at Cenchreae. The word diakonos seems to designate here a recognised leadership office in the congregation which, in light of the way the same term is used elsewhere in the Pauline literature, probably included a teaching and preaching function.6
It is not an insignificant detail that Paul entrusted his magnum opus - the epistle to the Romans, arguably the most influential document in western cultural history - to a woman to deliver to the Roman church. Phoebe's task would not only have been physically to carry the letter to Rome but also to read it to the congregations there and to offer any explanation of Paul's meaning where that was necessary - effectively a teaching role. (Before she left, Paul probably spent some time with Phoebe going through the content of his argument to equip her for this task).
Moreover, as Paul's authorised representative, someone travelling on his behalf, Phoebe would have commanded a share in Paul's personal prestige and apostolic authority.7 Presumably the Roman church (unlike some modern churches!) had no problem with a woman functioning in such an auspicious capacity.
Priscilla (or Prisca, the diminutive form of her name) and her husband Aquila are the best known missionary couple in the early church. Paul speaks of them both as his "co-workers"; there is no indication he accorded Priscilla an inferior rank to her husband. On the contrary, in four of the six references to the pair in the New Testament, Priscilla is mentioned before her husband, perhaps suggesting she had the more impressive public presence.8
Both had a notable teaching ministry,9 and both shared leadership of house churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Paul speaks of the "church in their house", not in Aquila's home, as ancient convention prescribed.10 Paul's comment that "all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks for them" is a measure of the recognition accorded Priscilla's ministry.
"The public acknowledgement of Prisca's prominent role in the church," explains the great Pauline scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, "implicit in the reversal of the secular form of naming the husband before his wife, underlines how radically egalitarian the Pauline communities were."11
Andronicus and Junia(s) are another missionary partnership (v.7). The NIV takes the second name to be that of a man, and renders it as 'Junias'. But there is overwhelming evidence that it is, in fact, a woman's name, 'Junia' (she is probably the wife of Andronicus). The two most recent technical studies of the relevant linguistic and manuscript data have both independently confirmed this conclusion.12
So what? Because Junia affords us firm evidence that there was a female apostle in the early church, indeed one who was regarded as "outstanding among the apostles".13 The fact that Paul speaks of "the" apostles, and traces Junia's conversion back before his own ("they were in Christ before me"), suggests that she belonged to that limited group of authoritative figures appointed by the Risen Christ to lay the foundations of the Christian church.14
Paul regarded apostles as the foremost of the Christian ministries,15 with a clear teaching role.16 It is inconceivable that Paul would so gladly acknowledge the apostolic rank and function of Junia if he really believed women should be seen and not heard in church.
Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis
Paul identifies these woman as "workers [in the Lord]" (vv.6, 12). The term 'labour, work' is a technical term in Paul's writings for hard missionary work,17 so these women were all known for their missionary endeavours. Such work involved both preaching and teaching,18 as well as exercising some authority in the congregations they helped found.19
Tryphaena and Tryphosa (two sisters?) are still engaged in such work (the present tense is used), whereas Persis, who is especially dear to Paul ("beloved"), is no longer serving this way (the past tense is used of her). That Mary, "who has worked very hard" among the Roman Christians (v.6), is mentioned early in the list of names, may suggest she held an important place in the congregation.
In addition to these women, Paul also greets the mother of Rufus, whom he regards as like a mother to himself (v.13), Julia, and the sister of Nereus (v.15), but says nothing of their roles. Overall, a greater range of specific ministry roles are ascribed to women in Romans 16 than to men, an astonishing fact and evidence of "the falsity of the widespread and stubbornly persistent notion that Paul had a low view of women and something to which the church as a whole has not yet paid sufficient attention".20
Euodia and Syntyche
In Philippians 4:2-3 we meet two other women in Paul's circle who have fallen out with each other. Euodia and Syntyche are missionary co-workers of Paul who "have struggled side by side with me in the gospel", along with Clement and others. There is no hint that these women had a subordinate role to Paul or to male workers like Clement; on the contrary, Paul's language stresses their equality.
They are not explicitly identified as leaders of the Philippian church. But the prominence Paul accords them in a letter addressed to the whole church suggests that they were influential in the community, so much so that their dispute threatened to tear apart the entire church.21 It may be that a good part of Paul's purpose in writing the epistle was to deal with the potentially negative impact of the quarrel between two such outstanding leaders in the congregation.22
Apphia, Nympha, Chloe
In Philemon 2 Paul greets Apphia, along with Philemon and Archippus, suggesting she shared leadership with them in the house church. In Colossians 4:15, Paul greets "Nympha and the church in her house". She was perhaps a widow who hosted a Christian congregation in her home and exercised leadership in it.23
It is probable that Chloe was also a well-to-do woman whose home was used for church gatherings in Corinth.24 She possessed sufficient mana to send a delegation to Paul to appeal for his intervention in a situation of conflict and factionalism in the community, and to get it. As Fiorenza notes, "if the delegation travelled under the name of a woman, women must have had influence and leadership in the Corinthian church not only in worship meetings but also in everyday life and the decision-making processes of the community".25
The above listing of women in Paul's circle does not exhaust the New Testament evidence. Reference could be made to the leadership function of women 'deacons' in the Pastoral epistles,26 and to Eunice and Lois who gave instruction to Timothy.27
Then there are the women who appear in the narrative of Acts, named presumably because of their prominence in local congregations - Mary in Jerusalem,28 Tabitha (or Dorcas) in Jaffa,29 Lydia in Philippi,30 Damaris in Athens31 and Philip's four daughters in Caesarea, who were recognised prophets,32 a function that afforded them a significant public, and instructional, role.33
Altogether, the evidence strongly suggests that women were among Paul's closest associates in his apostolic work and among the most prominent leaders in the house churches he founded. They served as apostles, deacons, teachers, prophets and patrons, as well as in other capacities. The gifts, functions and accomplishments Paul ascribes to them are in no way distinguishable from those he ascribes to men. There is no indication that their authority and ministry were restricted to women and children, nor that they exercised particularly feminine roles in the church.34
The data indicates, in short, that Paul's assertion that "in Christ there is neither male nor female" worked itself out in a practical egalitarianism. In Paul's sphere of influence, women and men enjoyed a remarkable degree of equality, an equality of status, of opportunity and of responsibility.
So was Paul a sexist?
Certainly not. Those few texts that silence and subordinate women do sound sexist when they are read in isolation from the wider context of Paul's ministry. But in light of the evidence elsewhere that Paul affirmed the contributions of women in a wide diversity of ministries (including those with a marked public, leadership and teaching function, and as 'senior' as apostle and prophet) it is hard to see how Paul could have ever intended the kind of restrictions specified in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 to apply to anything other than the specific situations of abuse being addressed at the time.
If the 'medicine' prescribed seems unfair to women, it is only because women in particular were exacerbating the problem being dealt with.
This does not mean that we simply ignore the restrictive texts. From them we can learn that order, discipline, mutual respect and theological understanding are essential components of leadership and teaching ministries. But to take from them some eternal, God-given limitation on the ministry opportunities open to women per se, is to ignore crucial evidence to the contrary and to render the great apostle an advocate of the injustice we today call 'sexism'. And that, I believe, would be an injustice to Paul.
Dr Chris Marshall is Head of New Testament at the Bible College of New Zealand's Residential College in Henderson. He is married to Margaret and they have two sons, Peter and Andrew.
13 Some commentators take this phrase to mean that they were "outstanding in the opinion of the apostles", but Cranfield regards it as "virtually certain" that the words mean outstanding among the apostles, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), II:789.