In the history of the church the most often quoted scripture to justify the less than equal treatment of women has been written by Paul. The author of much of the New Testament, I have often been ambivalent regarding Paul. On one hand, he penned some of the most powerfully egalitarian scriptures in the Bible such as Galatians 3:25 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. However he is the same person who stated in I Corinthians 14:34 “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the Law says. If they want to enquire about something they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” He greets the female apostle Junia in Roman 16:7 (so problematic because Apostles have a high level of authority over the church that her named was changed in the middle ages to ensure that she was thought of as a male) but also wrote to Timothy “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (I Timothy 2:12).The man who commends Priscilla and her husband Aquila for risking their lives for him (Romans 16:34) and mentions her name before her husband’s most of the times that they are mentioned is the same man who insists in Ephesians 5:25-33 that wives submit to their husbands.
So which is it? If women are to remain silent, why does Paul mention that they need to cover their heads while prophesying (I Corinthians 11:4). Why does he call Phoebe a deacon and Junia an apostle. To make sense of this first, I believe we need to look at the general culture and practices Paul was living in and addressing. Secondly, we need to look specifically at who Paul was addressing in each of these verses and thirdly we need to investigate what Paul’s main objective is.
We know Paul was a Roman citizen who lived during the same time as Jesus. During that time a male Roman Citizen had the power of life and death over members of his family including his wife, children, and slaves. He could sell his children and had the responsibility to the state to kill any severely deformed child.1 Women in this society could not vote or hold political office. They were always under the guardianship of a male such as a father, husband, or master.2
Within this contexts, philosophers such as Aristotle would write “Household codes” or general ideas of how household should be run, including the treatment of wives, children, and slaves.3 Paul also wrote a household code but in comparison to his contemporaries, his are radically different because he tells the husband to love his wife as himself, to treat his children with kindness, and to treat their slaves fairly.4
Paul also does something else that the other philosophers do not. He addresses the wives, slaves, and children themselves and extols slaves to obey and respect their masters with sincerity, wives to submit to their husbands, and children to obey and honor their parents. In addressing the wives, children, and slaves Paul gives them agency to be able to follow Christ and effectively spread the gospel even though they had very little freedom, autonomy, or respect in the culture they lived in (Ephesians 5:22-6:9 Colossians 3:18-4:1).
While we have examined the general culture and household structures that Paul lived and evangelized in, we need to look closer at who specifically he is addressing when he makes statements that on their face appear contradictory. When he addresses Junia, he says she has been in the faith longer than he has. Priscilla is obviously educated because when and Aquila heard Apollos preach, they took him aside and explained the gospel more accurately to him, even though Apollos himself is described as having a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 18:24).
However when he addresses the church in Ephesus, such as in his letters I and II Timothy and Ephesians he states that women should be silent, submissive and should not speak or teach, even though he commends Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice for their sincere faith. In Ephesus at the time of Paul’s writing there was a huge Temple of Artemis (Diana) that had been there for 500 years.5 The Christians in Ephesus would most likely be converts from the cult of the goddess Artemis. The temple was staffed by slave women, a priestess, young virgin women and eunuch priests. Paul may have been trying to keep the gospel pure without undue influences of another cult and the new female converts did not have enough background in Christianity to teach. Also I think Paul may have been again turning things upside down. The Ephesians had looked primarily to women as the leaders of their religion in their past and the women would have been well versed in the old religion but recent converts to Christianity and Paul may have been exhorting Timothy and the Ephesians to do something radically different, by putting those traditionally in submission in power, something that Jesus had practiced and preached over and over.6,7
The purpose for Paul’s exhortations in all his letters are to further the gospel. He states his purpose clearly in I Corinthians 9: 12-27 where he passionately states that his number one goal is to preach the gospel, taking on the culture of those he is trying to win. In verse 20-23 he states “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. To the weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.” When he commends women such as Junia, Phoebe (who he greets as a deacon), or Priscilla and when he tells women to be silent, cover their heads, submit to their husbands, and not to have authority over men his purpose remains the furtherance of the gospel, though the circumstances and the specific women he is addressing changes, so his exhortations change. I think Paul would be outraged that some people use his words to discriminate against women in a culture where it will impede the gospel to do so. When professional, educated women and men the Western culture hear people say women cannot speak in church or women must submit to their husbands does this further the gospel or cause harm to it?
1.Pater familias http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pater_familias. Accessed July 22,2013
2. The Roman Empire: in the First Century- Women.http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/women.html Accessed July 22, 2013
3. Clayton, Edward Aristotle: Politics Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-pol/#SH7d Originally published: February 10, 2004. Last updated: July 27, 2005. Accessed July, 22, 2013
4. Held-Evans, Rachel, June: Submission- A Disposition to Yield. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering her Head, and Calling her Husband Master. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN 2012
5. Temple of Artemis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Artemis. Accessed July 23,2013
6. Held-Evans, Rachel, August: Silence- I am Woman, Hear Me No More. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering her Head, and Calling her Husband Master. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN 2012
7. Mark 10:43-45, Matthew 18:1-4, Matthew 5:3-12, John 13:1-7