What Paul Really Said About Women: The Apostle's Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love

What Paul Really Said About Women: The Apostle's Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love

by John T. Bristow

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A challenge to the traditional understanding of St. Paul's epistles and sexism in today's church.


A challenge to the traditional understanding of St. Paul's epistles and sexism in today's church.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

Where the Idea That
Women Are Inferior to Men
Really Began

A cartoon appeared in a Christian magazine about two decades ago, depicting Saint Paul arriving by boat on some distant shore, met by a group of women carrying placards that read "Unfair to Women," "Paul is a Male Chauvinist Pig," and the like. Paul looks sheepishly at this protest rally and says, "Heh, heh, I see you got my letter."

Throughout most of church history, the apostle Paul has held the reputation of being what one might call the Great Christian Male Chauvinist toward women. After all, did not Paul declare that women are not to speak in church? That husbands are to rule over their wives and wives are to obey their husbands? That women are more easily tempted than men? That women can be saved only by bearing children? That women are not to wear jewelry or nice clothing, or have their heads uncovered during worship?

Even such a scholar as Herbert J. Muller, writing on Freedom in the Ancient World, denounced the apostle Paul for deprecating women: "Although they [women] had fared well with Jesus, appearing as central figures in many of the gentlest parables and episodes of the Gospels, their degredation began with St. Paul. He took very literally the myth of Eve. While he remarked in passing that male and female were one in Christ Jesus, he taught more emphatically that on earth woman should be subject to her husband 'in everything,' as one who has been created for the sake of man. Even so, Paul did not really approve of her creation."

This same condemnation of Paul is so firmlyentrenched in the minds of most people who read the New Testament that the kindest thing one might hear of Paul's attitude toward women is that if Paul was not actually an out-and-out misogynist, a woman-hater, he was at least certainly inconsistent! On the one hand, Paul's writings about women have been cited throughout the centuries as authority for the notion that women are second-class citizens in the kingdom of God and the Church . On the other hand, Paul's great declaration in Gal. 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek...neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," has been lifted up as equally authoritative by advocates of sexual equality. How can Paul's writings be used to defend these opposing points of view?

The beginning of this statement in Galatians deserves respectful attention. "There is neither Jew nor Greek" -- these words are the central conviction of Paul's ministry, in his great ambition to bring together in the Church both Jewish and Gentile Christians. This dream was the heartbeat of his apostleship. Such a statement was certainly not written "in passing"! It would seem unlikely, then, that Paul would conclude this great declaration with the phrase "neither male nor female" if these words reflected only a slight sentiment for him, almost accidentally penned just before he wrote with firm conviction, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

No, it was certainly not just "in passing" (as Muller contends) that Paul proclaimed "there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In fact, if one dares to set aside the traditional certainty that Paul regarded women as inferior to men, and then if one also sets aside the implications inherent in the words used to translate Paul's writings, carefully studying only what Paul actually wrote, suddenly this apostle is revealed in a new light. He was not a believer in the inferiority of women. He did not advocate a secondary role for women in the Church. He did not teach some notion of a divine hierarchy, with husbands ruling over their wives.

Quite the contrary. Instead, the apostle Paul consistently championed the principle of sexual equality within the Church and the home. He carefully avoided those words in Greek that would connote meanings that -- ironically -- our modern English translations imply! He carefully selected his words in writing about women and marriage, challenging the social roles for women in his age and the philosophy and theology that defined these roles. And yet his words have been interpreted so as to defend the very roles he challenged!

How could such a transition be made, that Paul would become identified in the minds of so many as the arch-male-chauvinist of the Bible? It happened because those who first quoted Paul and interpreted his writings were themselves bearers of centuries of Greek philosophy. They understood Paul from the viewpoint of their own culture and customs. In a sense, they read Paul's words through the eyes of Aristotle. And in so doing, they established a traditional method of viewing Paul's insights from a perspective that was Greek rather than Jewish and pagan rather than Christian.

It All Began in Athens: The Greek Legacy of Disdain for Women

Athens was named after the lovely goddess of wisdom. How ironic that a system of philosophy that maintains that females are in all ways inferior to males should originate in a city named after a female deity who embodied wisdom!

Yet here in the capital of ancient Greece, in the brilliant minds of her philosophersand teachers, lies the source of the Western world's formalized conviction that women are inferior to men. Here was codified an attitude about females, a prejudice regarding women that Dr. Arthur Verral, a noted classical scholar, identified as "the radical disease, of which, more than anything else, ancient civilization perished."

Perhaps this attitude was first expressed by the blind poet Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as he sang of the struggles of distant heroes and how "each one gives law to his children and to his wives." Or perhaps this attitude was first given social and religious sanction by Solon, called one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, as he built a brothel in Athens and dedicated its profits to the erection of a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

What Paul Really Said About Women. Copyright © by John T. Bristow. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Dr. John Temple Bristow is a Disciples of Christ Pastor in Seattle, Washington.

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