Paul: The Sexist Apostle?

“Jesus is good, Paul not so much.” “You quote Paul too much, how about trying to quote Jesus more?” These types of attitudes are growing in christian circles. The reasoning for these statements are two-fold. The first issue is the person’s understanding of inspiration and inerrancy. That’s a separate issue from the discussion of this post. We will be focusing on the second and more common reason, at least in my experience. The second objection to Paul is that he was a sexist man. 

It is my belief that the Apostle Paul isn’t sexist despite not fitting into our 21st century’s sensibilities. What I think is happening is people use Paul to support their sexism, so people conclude that Paul is sexist also. 

So, why is Paul a sexist? Why is he the poster boy for religious chauvinism among popular culture? Let’s address a few assumptions before we get into the detractors of the Apostle. 

This will inevitably lead to a discussion on inerrancy and inspiration, because unless Paul was able to slip in some sexism pass the divine editor, how could it be the word of God if it is both prescriptive, binding and sexist? (The assumption being that sexism is wrong.) 

Generally speaking, I would agree that it would be a problem if Paul was writing a prescriptive sexist passage binding unto all Christians. But this is not what is happening. 

There are two major passages that are cited to prove the Apostle Paul just does not respect women like he should. The first is discussion on head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. The second is the more popular citation, Paul’s supposed barring women from leadership in 1 Timothy 2:12. 

The Apostle Paul states: 
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. . .”

This verse was admittedly perplexing the first time I read it. Christians are by no means monolithic on this verse. There are some who read this and see it as binding on women currently, thus we see etsy headcoverings and facebook pages dedicated to the craft. There are some who view this as a cultural issue. Even within these two positions there are many subviews, so it would be difficult to pain with a large brush on the interpretations of Christians regarding this passage. 

The question is this, Did God command women to wear head-coverings or did Paul? Was this Paul’s patriarchal fetish or is there something deeper here? 

Let’s discuss the historical background of the Corinthian passage before we form a conclusion. 

The Corinthian church was not a fan favorite, they were functionally idolatrous. The Lord’s supper was considered cannibalism. Christians would often perform baptisms at night to avoid persecution, this lead to rumors being spread that the Christians were doing cultic orgies, since the person being baptized was usually naked. The Corinthian church was no newcomer to controversy. 

Paul in chapter 7 just introduced a revolutionary concept at the time. This idea was martial partnership. The idea that women were not property but instead equal is something not common in that time period nor in religious marriage rites. Women truly are equal to Paul, otherwise he could not be arguing the way he is in 1 Cor 7:4. 

Specifically, Paul argues for a mutual consent in regards to conjugal relations. (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)  

So I think it is safe to assume that Paul was not sexist. So what did he mean in 1 Corinthians 11? Well, recent scholarship has an answer. Many Christians have attributed this to cultural relevance and the command passed away over time, but had no scholarship to back up this assumption. 

Now we do.  I go in depth on this peer-reviewed work here

Now, let’s move to 1 Timothy 2:12. 

Paul says that he does not “permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” 

Let’s consider other facts and view this passage in light of those facts. First, Paul endorses the ministry of Sister Phoebe, who was a deacon in the church. (Romans 16:1) 

Paul mentions his co-workers in the faith, Priscilla and Aquila, naming the woman first, which was uncustomary during his time. (While today it is more common to introduce the woman first, e.g. ladies and gentleman)

Are we to assume that Paul is simultaneously a misogynist and at the same time declaring their equality and endorsing their ministries? If your a priori assumption is that the Bible contradicts itself everywhere, I could see why you would be tempted by the simplicity of this answer. 

Let’s move away from the simple and take another look at 1 Timothy 2:12. First, the translation. 

The word “authority” translated by English versions is the greek word 

authentein. The reason why this is noteworthy is because Paul usually uses the greek word exousia (e.g. 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21).   or some form of it. authentein implies aggression in extra-biblical texts and is translated “domineer” by the Latin Vulgate. Considering this, it is possible that Paul is referring to something other than mere authority. 

Biblical Scholar Craig Keener makes an insightful point that while false teachers were mostly men, women spread false teaching through congregations. It is very possible that women had limited biblical training and would make easy prey for false teachers, so their interest in false teaching would prove to be dangerous. It is not obvious that Paul’s statement would be a permanent restriction for all time. 

I do not think that doctrines should be based on hapax legomenon (a word that occurs once) when a word only occurs once, it makes it harder to interpret the author’s original meaning.  I also make the assumption that the author does not contradict himself unless proven otherwise. 

Rebecca Groothuis notes “It is inconsistent to regard the dress code in 1 Tim 2:9 as culturally relative, and therefore temporary, but the restriction on women’s ministry as universal and permanent. These instructions were part of the same paragraph and flow of thought.”

There are two popular understandings of this passage. I will summarize generally what kind of views on 1 Timothy 2:12 are espoused by these groups.

Complementarism 

  • 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is to be taken literally, as a universal command. It applies just as much today as it did when the Apostle Paul wrote it. Women should learn in “quietness,”– this is probably not a literal silence but submission to authority. They shouldn’t teach in an authoritative manner or exercise authority over men. This includes women preachers and teachers. 
  • Prophecy has less authority than teaching, Paul allows women to do this in 1 Corinthians 11:5. This shows that God gives different roles without making women inferior to men.

    Egalitarianism
     
    Prophecy carries just as much if not more authority than teaching. Paul allowed women to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11:5, so his ban on women from teaching at the church of Ephesus must have been exclusive.

    Paul used Scripture to support cultural issues (such as head coverings and sperm hair in 1 Cor. 11) that existed in Paul’s time and don’t apply today.

    Paul wrote 1 Timothy as a letter to Timothy, giving him instruction and guidance on how to pastor at the Ephesus church. The letter seems to address  current situations at that specific church and were not meant to be universal commands.

    Conclusion

    “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. [1]

    I do not think Paul could be considered a Feminist by today’s standards but he no doubt revolutionized the way people thought about women in his area in the first century. 

[1] “Paul: Chauvinist or Liberationist?” Robin Scroggs. Christian Century. March 15, 1972.

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