In an earlier post, Sarah Harris reflected on the women who travelled with Jesus. She noted that both women and men were disciples, while the twelve apostles who will judge the twelve tribes were only men. In this article, she considers how the apostle Paul viewed women.
For many women today, Paul appears a threatening figure who seemed to have an aversion to oestrogen! In my early years, I was uneasy with the Apostle Paul. I desperately wanted to be faithful to Scripture, but Paul’s words did not make sense to me. There didn’t seem to be room for me to be me. God wired me as a teacher and leader, and gave me a fierce love of Scripture: I am useless with flowers, I get bored discussing ‘women’s things,’ and I am not a big fan of things pink! As speaker and author Jackie Roese says, “God made me lime green!” (1)
My love of Scripture made me dive deeply into the Bible, as I sought to find out what Paul really said, and what God wanted from me as a woman made by him and for him. I started to read Paul’s writings more closely…and I began to notice detail that I had previously overlooked in the passages. I saw that God has plans for women inside and outside the home and church, and I realised that many others had noticed this too! What was going on?
Until more recently, scholars and pastors were men who interpreted the Bible in ways that made sense to them. Western society has historically divided ‘roles’ at home, work, and church along gender lines, and so Bible passages about women in the home, and at times subordinate to men, seemed to make sense; at the very least, they were not questioned. But in the last twenty or thirty years, these passages have been faithfully re-examined with greater attention to their historical context, and a wider appreciation for the ‘gospel women’ we find in the Bible.
Therefore, the position I will briefly outline here is that of mutuality – where women and men work together for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not seek a feminist voice which places women at the centre of the equation: I hold a theocentric view, where women and men work together, and God alone is at the centre of all things. This view is well accepted by most leading evangelical biblical scholars, and explains that God always intended to gift women in and for the church, home, and work. What follows are the key ideas.
The charismatic gifts which Paul discusses are not assigned by gender. Therefore, when we read of prophets, apostles, and teachers (etc.) Paul does not even hint that God gave some gifts only to men, and others to women. All of the gifts are for God’s people as he chooses (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12, 14). God made some women and some men to be teachers and pastors, prophets and apostles, administrators and healers. The Holy Spirit was poured out on all at Pentecost, and this empowerment was for the sake of mission. For some, this will involve being at home and thriving in traditionally understood ways, while others will be found flourishing in more formal roles.
Paul worked alongside women
Paul had female co–workers; he did not have a male-only leadership team. Paul worked extensively with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4: 19). They are described as the most significant couple in the early church, and worked in the leading centres of Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. That Priscilla is mentioned first may signal her as the more prominent person in ministry, or that her social status is greater. However, with Paul strongly opposing any appeal to social status, the former is more likely. (2) In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila explain – they teach – the way of God more accurately to Apollos, a well–known church leader (Acts 18:26).
Euodia and Syntyche from Philippi are also described as Paul’s gospel co–workers (Philippians 4:3). They will almost certainly have proclaimed the gospel, because this is what Jesus commanded the disciples to do (Luke 24:47).
Phoebe was a deacon in the church at Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2). Paul trusted her as letter carrier for the letter to the Romans. This involved her reading the letter to the church, and being the interpreter of the letter. (3) She was not silent in the church! She was upfront discussing theology and practice.
Junia was prominent among the apostles (Romans 16:7). (4) The twelve apostles were central, but they were not the only apostles of Jesus Christ; others also carried out this function.
Mary “worked very hard” among the Roman Christians (16:6). The language of working hard (kopiaō) is synonymous with co–worker language, and can be translated as toil or struggle. It alludes to significant work. Persis also “worked hard in the Lord” (16:12).
Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 mentions nine women – this showed extraordinary precedent in the ancient world! Paul was clear to show that women carried out key gospel roles, with some playing central roles in the church.
So, how do we make sense of passages that seem to subordinate women, or even silence them?
Men, women, and ‘heads’
When we approach texts such as 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16, which discuss ‘heads,’ we find there is a language problem. The Greek word is kephalē: this can mean a literal head, or a source (of something), and it can represent “a being of high status” (BDAG), while the word is also used metaphorically. There is a further problem as the English concept of head generally has the connotation of authority, while this was often not the case in Greek writing. Reading a passage such as 1 Corinthians 11, then, is complex, and we should take both care and advisement. This is how I understand what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3: Christ is the source of every man, for they were created by him; and the man is the source of the woman, for Eve was taken from Adam’s rib. Paul is saying that the woman is of the same humanity as the man, quite unlike the animals created before them. Paul goes on to say that God is the source of Christ for, as the creeds say, he proceeds from God. Jesus is God, he is not a lesser being. None of this is about hierarchy; it retells the creation account to aid the Corinthian’s understanding. For Paul, men and women are equal in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:3-4; 11:11–12; Ephesians 5:21).
The ‘difficult passages’
There are two key passages which have kept women out of leadership and teaching in the church. These are 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12, with their surrounding passages. For the sake of time, I will address the more ‘difficult’ text: 1 Timothy 2:8–15.
This passage deals with the behaviour of men and women in the Ephesian church. At this time, there was a problem with false teachers in Ephesus which Paul addresses directly (1 Timothy 1:3–4; 4:4, 7;2 Timothy 4:4). These teachers were encouraging asceticism, endless genealogies, myths, and false ideas about creation. Of marked concern was that they were particularly influencing women (2 Timothy 3:1–9).
Paul brought some limitations into this situation, beginning with a command (an imperative): “Let the women learn in quietness with full submission” (2:11 my translation). Women had little access to education in the first century, and were married at age twelve to fourteen. It is no wonder they had been influenced by the false teachers; they did not have the same opportunities as men to study. Paul’s solution was to “let… [them] learn.” Far from being a difficult text for women, this is empowering. God wants women to learn theology!
Paul then goes on to make a limitation on teaching because it is linked to learning. He says, “I am not permitting women to teach and have authority over a man, she is to remain quiet” (2:12 my translation). This was a restriction for the women in Ephesus, but it is not a ‘forever’ or normative limitation. Paul does not say this as an imperative, but as an indicative and present tense verb. To confer that Paul is saying here, “At this time, I am not permitting…” is a clear and faithful translation. The women had been influenced by this heresy (probably by their limited access to education), and so it was not suitable for them to teach in the church. But it is incorrect to suggest that this is an all-time ban for women. If it was, how do we make sense of all the female teachers and leaders in the New Testament? Why would Paul have sent Phoebe to Rome with his important theological letter? Why would he have called women his co–workers? We should assume that after these women had learned, some might have gone on to teach like Phoebe or Priscilla.
Paul’s example of Eve being deceived in vv.13–14 is a vivid description of another woman who was duped: this picture helps with his argument. If Eve is paradigmatic of women in the church as quintessential transgressors, then the cross would be rendered as limited or invalid for women – that is not so! Paul explains in v.15 that women “will be saved through childbearing.” This is a reference to something we already know – that women (as well as men) are saved through Jesus Christ. There is not a two–gendered paradigm for righteousness. Women are not saved through having children; many women cannot even have children and some do not get married, so what would happen to them?! Instead “Paul urges women to embrace their identity precisely as Christian women instead of finding liberty in the heresy.” (5)
I am greatly encouraged by the faithful Christian women I continue to meet and whose gospel–shaped lives bring glory to God. May women continue to be lifted up by God alongside men to run the race together. Together is better!
Story: Dr Sarah Harris
Sarah is a New Testament lecturer at Te Kāreti Iriiri o Carey (Carey Baptist College).
- How have you read Paul’s view on women? Does this article challenge you? Discuss this with others in your church.
- How has God wired you? What gifts has he given you? Take time to reflect on this with God and others.
- Where might your gifts need to be developed? How could you do this?
- Where might you be called to “work hard?” How could you pursue this?
- Jackie Roese, Lime Green: Reshaping Our View of Women in the Church (Dallas: HIS Publishing, 2015).
- Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 64.
- Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 20-22.
- Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge: CUP, 1988), 115.
- Bird, Bourgeois Babes, 48. Italics added.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.