The Apostle Paul: Sexist or Pragmatist?

Few Christians (particularly in the [Claremont Five College] community) would champion a return to Pauline ideals regarding gender roles. The apostle Paul is often the poster boy for good old-fashioned religious chauvinism. Unfortunately, it would seem, Paul was able to slip a few questionable passages past the Divine Editor and now modern Christians must simply closet these antiquated verses with embarrassment. The following article is by no means a final judgment in regard to Paul. It does not satisfactorily address every question of Biblical egalitarianism and it is not intended to. Rather, it offers a critical and authentic method for approaching difficult texts and demonstrates, perhaps, that the jury’s still out on Paul.

If Paul is to be defended with any legitimacy, two principally incriminating passages need be addressed: (1) Paul’s perplexing discourse on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 and (2) the smoking gun of Biblical sexism, 1 Timothy 2:12, in which Paul bars women from Church leadership. By supplementing these passages with appropriate historical context, I hope to demonstrate that while egalitarianism was a struggle for the early Church, Christianity’s roots are by no means inherently chauvinistic.

And so we come to our first problematic text, 1 Corinthians 11:5-6:

“And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off. . .”

It is precisely verses like this one that modern Christians would love to Sharpie over; its applications seem not only antiquated, but outright sexist. Must women conceal themselves before God while men lift their heads unbridled? Or were head coverings some patriarchal fancy of Paul’s, who used Christ’s authority to subject women? And if so, what use is this outdated, bias-laden Bible of ours? My answers came at the hand of a mentor of mine, an Episcopal priest and ardent feminist, who reintroduced me to Paul’s rebuke on head coverings in its proper cultural setting.

Let us begin unpacking the relevant background of this passage by establishing this: the Corinthian church was not well-liked. Corinth, as a commercial hub, entertained much religious diversity and brought pilgrims from throughout the empire.[1] Christians, however, discouraged idol worship, putting them at odds with artisans who fashioned idols for local temples. Mystics and brothel owners felt similarly targeted and united to discredit the Christian Church and its practices.[2] The Eucharist, in which Christian adherents “partook of Christ’s body and blood,” was denounced as cannibalism. Baptisms, performed at night to avoid persecution, were dubbed cultic orgies because the individual being baptized wore no clothing. At the time of Paul’s letter, the Corinthian church was an epicenter of cultural controversy and its reputation within the community desperately in need of repair.

Furthermore, in line with Paul’s initial encouragement, women in the Corinthian church had come to view themselves as free in Christ and no longer slaves to societal conventions. What’s more, they were no longer slaves to their husbands. Paul introduced the revolutionary concept of marital partnership when, in 1 Corinthians 7:4, he usurped the traditional interpretation of women as mere property. Instead he asserted that, though a husband has authority over his wife’s body, a wife likewise has authority over her husband’s, rendering conjugal relations subject to the radical notion of “mutual consent” (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). Rather than wear a symbol of their former subjugation, some women in the church, it would seem, rid themselves of their head coverings. Critics of the Corinthian church immediately censured those individuals as loose women who, in the practice of prostitutes, left their heads uncovered as to denote their belonging to no man.

Paul was understandably upset that in the midst of a barrage of public reproach the Corinthian church was exposing its image to further damage. Thus, while Paul did not abandon his position on improved gender equality, he pragmatically recommended Corinthian women readopt their head coverings.

Whether salvaging the church’s standing within the Corinthian community was worth sacrificing a consistent stance on gender equality is perhaps the most important question for us as modern Christians. Where should the Church compromise? How do we maintain our relevance without sacrificing our principles? What do we sacrifice for the purpose of unity, and when is unity not worth sacrificing people? I do not believe that 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 is principally concerned with the headgear of Christian women. If we are looking to take the Scripture seriously, I think we are called to look at a much bigger and more relevant picture.

Thus far, we have constructed a plausible alibi for Paul in terms of 1 Corinthians 11:5-6. We are left, however, with the difficult task of rationalizing 1 Timothy 2:12. In this infamous passage, Paul asserts that, “[he does] not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” As far as subjugation goes, Paul’s discourse on Church leadership appears to be a textbook example. Moreover, when pumped up with the authority of God, it is often the last word. But while the dogmatic interpretation of a misguided minister seems compatible with the text at face value, proper perspective is again in order.

Paul emphatically endorses the ministry of “sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1). Deacons, early Church equivalents of bishops or pastors, are described in 1 Timothy 3 as “overseers” who exercised leadership over the members of their house churches. Paul writes to the Romans advocating Phoebe in this role, commanding them to, “give [Phoebe] any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Romans 16:2). Paul grants this woman his authority in Rome, acknowledges that he has learned from her. And while some cling to the possibility that Phoebe simply needed help baking cookies for after the service, contextual evidence bars such an interpretation of the deaconship.

So we are left with a Janus-faced Paul, sometimes asserting gender equality and other times surrendering to cultural prejudice. And while the former is all well and good, these points of compromise require explanation. Some point to the ambiguity of 1 Timothy 2:12 as an instance of dialogue within Scripture, in which the boundary between moral “prescription” (the what-to-do’s) and “proscription” (the what-not-to-do’s) becomes thin. While Scripture explicitly encourages us to emulate Jesus and avoid the pitfalls of Jezebel, some Biblical figures are not so black-and-white. It is not apparent, for example, which of Elisha’s bold acts are examples of faithful zeal and which are warnings of blind passion. The same is potentially true for Paul, whose devotion we should imitate but whose cultural conformity we should avoid. Others emphasize the importance of Paul’s clause “I do not permit …” as opposed to “God does not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”

Both theories have their merits. The first introduces an appealing way not only to approach Paul and Elisha, but many Old Testament figures. The second seems consistent with the character of God throughout the Bible, in which women such as Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) were divinely appointed to serve as spiritual leaders for God’s chosen people Israel.

My conclusions in light of these difficulties are two-fold. Firstly, while Paul might not be considered feminist in the context of our modern culture, he did much to establish himself as a catalyst for the reexamining of gender roles in the first century C.E.. Pronouncing that there is “neither male nor female” in Christ (Galatians 3:28), Paul recognizes a woman’s right to participate in public prayer alongside Christian men (1 Corinthians 11:5, 13).[3] In a display of cultural radicalism, Paul entreats the church in Rome to “greet Priscilla and Aquila, [his] co-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3), not only recognizing Priscilla as a fellow apostle, but naming her before Aquilla, a man and her own husband, as a gesture of respect.[4] “Far from being repressive and chauvinistic,” Biblical scholar Robin Scroggs asserts, “Paul is the one clear and strong voice in the New Testament speaking for the freedom and equality of women.”[5]

Secondly, Scriptures such as this one require a good deal of wrestling with. Regardless of which interpretation we choose, there is no easy out. We can, however, find comfort in God’s willingness to be confronted. We can trust that He will always be with us—sometimes to answer our questions, and other times to simply acknowledge our frustrations. Yet, there are also times when the faithful pursuit of truth does bring answers. The intellectual pursuit of God, though frustrating at times, is an incredibly fulfilling way to experience Christ and a refreshing change of pace from the all-too-commonplace hunt for an emotional high. While secular culture often dismisses Christianity as self-deceivingly “gettin’ psyched up for Jesus,” we have an opportunity “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15a). “But do this with gentleness and respect,” Peter continues; be a certain kind of intellectual who offers answers in humility and love to the ultimate questions of peace, hope, forgiveness, and purpose.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume X. Abingdon Press. Nashville 2002.
[2] Ibid. 775
[3] Ibid. 926-932
[4] Marie Noel Keller, Priscilla and Aquila: Paul’s Coworkers in Christ Jesus (Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).
Pp. xviii + 106. Catholic Biblical Quarterly. April 1, 2012. (William O. Walker, Jr., Trinity University, San Antonio, TX 78212)
[5] “Paul: Chauvinist or Liberationist?” Robin Scroggs. Christian Century. March 15, 1972.

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