Perform a web search of anything that contains some combination of the words “Paul,” “women,” and “Christian,” and you will invariably become aware that you have hit a sensitive nerve. My latest search returned articles with titles including “Does the Apostle Paul Hate Women?” and “Women and Paul: Was Paul an Egalitarian or a Chauvinist?” to name a few. Indeed, what the Pauline epistles have to say about women is a well-established bone of contention. The apostle’s words are usually interpreted as either downright misogynistic or forgivably outdated, but it seems that neither of these extremes does justice to the beautiful tension which Paul sets up for us in his writings, a tautness that points to the power of Christianity to inform us about the proper relations between the sexes.
To get a taste of this tension, one need only take a look at some of Paul’s most famously loaded quotes. The same man takes us from the highs of spiritual egalitarianism in Galatians 3:28, in which he declares that “there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to the lows of his notoriously sententious tone in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11, which curtly recommend silence and submissiveness for women in public worship. Although I will not be delving into scholarly debates regarding the possibility of some of the epistles’ more restrictive injunctions being in fact “post-Pauline interpolations” and not the instructions of the apostle himself, it is hard to deny that Paul often takes a rather hard line on women. At the same time, of course, this observation is counterbalanced by Paul’s frequent and positive references to the valuable activity of women in the life of the early Church.
How – and why – should modern readers attempt to sustain or engage in this tension? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to either totally discount Paul as hopelessly bigoted or attempt to explain away his more unsettling injunctions as tied to passé cultural norms that no longer concern us? Yes, but we do not live in simple times; indeed, we live in an era of unprecedented consternation regarding gender roles and the very meaning of sexual distinction. Perhaps Paul should be taken more at face value, as a reflection – and perhaps even a solution to – some of the complexities of our time.
How so? In my view, many of the dilemmas surrounding gender and sex stem from an excessive focus on the purely human. I would wager that this was as true in Paul’s time as it is in our own. Consider the questions with which society has continually flagellated itself in regard to women. What are women allowed to wear? Should they be allowed to vote? How should their time be divided between childrearing and the wider workplace? How much authority should they be given in relation to men, and (more recently) how can they fight for their rightful place in society? What all these questions have in common is a reference to the troubled insertion – or assertion – of a particular group within the machinery of human society, without reference to any higher order. This task is invariably fraught with struggle, domination, and a general jostling.
It is noteworthy that Paul’s harshest sentiments towards women (and the entire Church, for that matter) are in the context of the pragmatic – the tiresome practical details of how day-to-day life is to be carried out. His most gracious comments regarding women are consistently in the context of the sublime. In 1 Corinthians 11, after rather prudishly expounding on the proper headgear of female worshipers, Paul surprises us with this elegantly harmonic description of the relationship between the sexes: “Yet, in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman. In the same way that woman was made from man, so man is born of woman; and all is from God.”
It seems that Paul is presenting us with is an accurate depiction of the harsh realities of living in a purely human world, while also extending a remedy to that situation. In one sense, Paul’s writings suggest that we should face the fact that as long as the current world order of sin and death remains, we will always be faced with the unpleasant task of making, obeying, and enforcing laws and customs. These laws and customs, while useful for the maintenance of order and morality, are often but sickly substitutes for the grand vision of the Kingdom. And so it is that even as he engages in the grim task of worldly necessities, Paul points us towards that vision, a vision enlightened by the transcendent tenants of Christianity, which introduced the quietly shattering concept of a rebirth and salvation in which men and women participate without distinction.
So perhaps society’s best hope of putting to rest the timeless “battle of the sexes” is to lay down the weapons of this world and, in Paul’s word’s, “seek those things which are above.” This does not mean embracing anarchy or throwing off the yoke of law. Neither does it mean placing confidence in attaining lasting equality through social engineering programs or legal gymnastics. Instead, it involves devoting energy to cultivating our fundamental identities as sons and daughters of Christ, which peek out like rays of sunlight through the occasionally cloudy writings of Saint Paul.