St. Paul and Women

by Nancy Forest

for the Sourozh diocesan conference, Oxford, June 2, 2002

St. Paul has been the victim of a bad press as far as women are concerned. Some have regarded him as an out-and-out misogynist whose basic message to women is to shut up, cover their heads and listen to their husbands. In the thirteen letters of St. Paul, there are probably no passages that are as difficult for modern Western readers as those having to do with women. It’s hard to read them without wincing.

My own introduction to St. Paul came when I was quite young, listening to the sermons of the Dutch Reformed minister of my childhood back in New Jersey. He was a man who loved St. Paul and could quote enormous passages from memory. I can still see him standing in the pulpit in his black robe, a great smile on his face and his arms outstretched, proclaiming, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s!” I remember the writings of Paul for their power and breadth, not for their knuckle-wrapping and border-drawing. Paul was a missionary, after all, who worked to expand the church beyond the initial small community of Jews to include an increasingly larger collection of Gentiles of every variety. So what are we to make of these difficult passages, which seem to exclude rather than include? How are we to understand them – without blinking past them and dismissing them out of hand? Can we see them as any more than an unfortunate justification for the shabby treatment that women have sometimes received inside and outside the church during the last two millennia?

My intention here is not to present a detailed exegesis of these passages, which I am not equipped to do. I’d simply like to discuss this question: why do St. Paul’s statements on women bother us so much? Is it his own background and milieu – in other words, is the criticism of Paul justified? Or is it us, our way of reading him – in other words, are we being careless and myopic? Do we have to look harder? Or is it a combination of these? What I hope to explain is that by probing this question we can come to a more profound understanding of some of the passages in question, and indeed of the whole body of Paul’s epistles. And we can learn something about ourselves in the process.

Let’s start with the passages themselves.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 Paul writes: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He goes on to say that “any woman who prays or prophesies” should keep her head covered, whereas a man should never cover his head, “since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)”

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul gives us the famous injunction, “… women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” This theme is taken up again in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where women are instructed to dress modestly and to keep silent in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Ephesians 5:21-32 is the passage that is read at every Orthodox marriage ceremony, so it’s already quite well known to us. This is the passage in which women are told to be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord, which Paul repeats briefly in his letter to the Colossians (3:18). The husband, Paul explains, “is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” While women are to be subject to their husbands, so men are to love their wives “as their own bodies.” “This is a great mystery,” Paul says, “and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”

So what are we looking at when we read these passages? Let’s begin with Paul himself. Are these the words of a man with a problem? Was Paul a misogynist, as some feminists claim? Was he simply a woman-hater who couldn’t stand the idea of a woman with something to say? Did he regard women as lower in the Christian pecking order and thus further from the fullness of Christ, to be avoided by men who take their faith seriously?

Those who support this argument generally cite other passages which suggest that Paul preferred the celibate life and urged it as a model for the rest of the church. “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 7, apparently in response to a question. “But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” And later, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” All these passages have been used to support the idea that in terms of spiritual growth and development, the celibate life is to be preferred – that marriage is for the weak, those who aren’t cut out for the advanced ascetic effort required of celibacy.

There’s no denying that this kind of thinking exists. Christianity has always been plagued with a preference for celibacy over the married state, with a belief that marriage is a concession to the weak but celibacy is for the real spiritual athletes. In his book Woman and the Salvation of the World (pp. 26-27), Paul Evdokimov writes, “Certain forms of asceticism that prescribe avoiding one’s own mother, and even animals of the female sex, say a great deal about the loss of psychic balance. This loss explains the opinions about married love held by certain Doctors of the Church – opinions drawn, it seems, from manuals of zoology, whereby the couple is viewed from the perspective of breeding.” And so we get statements like those of Tertullian, who said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is the fatherland of eunuchs” (De monogamia, III, 8), St. Ambrose: “Married people ought to be ashamed of the state in which they live” (Exhortatio virginitatis, PL 16:346), and St. Clement of Alexandria: “Every woman ought to be overcome by shame at the thought that she is a woman” (Pedagogus, II, 2, PG 8:429).

But is it fair to pin this all on St. Paul? Was he really a misogynist? Perhaps not. First of all, he seems to have had great respect for women. After all, if he really had hated women so much he would have directed everything in his letters to men alone and would have spoken of women as if they were locked away in a closet. But women were full members of the church, full partakers in the life of Christ, just as much in need of his advice, encouragement and correction as men. One of Paul’s great themes is the church as the body of Christ into which we are all baptized, each of us with his or her own spiritual gifts, and no one is left out. “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians (12:22). And Paul’s analogy – that man is to woman as Christ is to the church – is well known to us. The unity and harmony we share in Christ transcends earthly borders: the border between Jew and Gentile, men and women, and slaves and free men. “For he is our peace,” Paul says, “who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15) This doesn’t mean that the borders no longer exist in this life; Paul was not out to abolish slavery and to struggle for the social equality of women. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out in her book The Ministry of Women in the Church, Paul “was not interested in the legal status of women or of slaves.” (p. 70) His overriding concern was not for the improvement of existing social structures but for the establishment of unity in the church, the one body of Christ. This means that in Christ – the new Adam – the division created between men and women by the Fall and the old Adam is healed. Paul’s understanding of the unity now held by men and women transcends any social divisions we may still recognize. So when Paul insists that women should not speak in church, he adds “as even the law says,” reminding his readers that this is the law and we’re all going to live with it. But women are no less “partakers of grace in Christ” than men.

And there’s another point: Paul depended on women to help him in his ministry, and he thanks them in his letters by name – Phoebe, a deaconess, who “has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:2), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians (4:2-3), who, he says, “labored side by side with me in the gospel.” If he really despised marriage, would he have spoken so warmly and repeatedly of the couple Prisca and Aquila, whom he referred to as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks.” (Romans 16:3-4)

And then there are the texts themselves. Not only does Paul address men and women equally in his letters, but he is also careful to point out that some of his comments are merely his own opinion. Throughout his letters, Paul emphasizes that what he is saying is the authorized Gospel of Jesus Christ and not simply his own ideology. But interestingly, in 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul seems to be urging Christians to adopt the celibate life, he also adds, “I say this by way of concession, not of command” and “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” and finally “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you.” Paul seems to be going out of his way to impress his readers with the fact that what he is saying is his own suggestion, and nothing more. In Paul’s humble opinion, married life is a cause for so much anxiety that it distracts a person from his or her devotion to the Lord; this may have been Paul’s experience with marriage seen second-hand. Or perhaps he was concerned about what he feared was to be a future of great uncertainty and tribulation for the church – the “impending distress,” as he put it (1 Cor. 7:26) – and was giving what he felt was sound pastoral advice. This was no time to take on a complicated relationship.

So if Paul can be cleared of charges of misogyny, perhaps we can pin his attitudes towards women on these kinds of historical considerations: the concerns of the church at the time and Paul’s own background as an educated Jew, “a Pharisee and a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) an intellectual heir to the hellenism that was so influential at the time. Paul, after all, was just as much a child of his age and upbringing as anyone else. In the Judaism in which he was trained, relationships between men and women were subject to the laws of ritual impurity. If a man so much as touched a woman at the wrong time of the month he could become ritually impure himself. In Leviticus, the law stipulates that a woman who has given birth to a daughter must undergo a period of purification twice as long as that for the birth of a son. And among the daily prayers (the Eighteen Benedictions) recited by Jewish men is this: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for not having created me a woman.” So Paul grew up with a certain way of regarding women, and some of the comments he makes about women can probably be ascribed to his own background.

And then there’s the whole issue of the accepted social hierarchy. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out, “In a Jewish and hellenistic milieu, the submission of the wife to the husband went without question as the foundation of the family order, and in turn, of the order of society.” The first Christians had been accused of rocking the boat, and Paul wanted to make it clear that Christians were not anarchists. In 1 Corinthians 14, for instance, a very interesting chapter, Paul discourages people from speaking in tongues, which apparently some were eager to do. “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit,” he writes (v. 12), “strive to excel in building up the church.” And later, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (v. 19) “Do not be children in your thinking,” he pleads, “be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” (v. 20) “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (v. 33)

The hellenistic worldview was one of order, not of chaos. Man did not impose order on the world around him; it was there already. Paul applies this notion of the cosmos – a word which in itself implies order and beauty (hence our own word cosmetic) – to the perfect beauty of the Kingdom of God. But the interesting thing is that within this order we are free, even free to create disorder and to choose to be enslaved by sin. “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,” Paul writes in Romans, “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin, which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:22-24) And in Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (5:13)

Another of Paul’s big themes, then, is visualizing a social order that is based on love and mutual submission. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” he writes (Galatians 6:2-3). “For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” And again, “I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5) In everything we do, Paul suggests, our basic attitude should be, what can I do, in love, to serve and strengthen my brother and sister? Is there anything I am doing now, even for my own spiritual edification, that might cause my brother and sister to stumble? For the fact is that “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” (Rom. 14:7)

Seen within this context, then, Paul’s statements about women tend to take on a different tone altogether. Pull them out of context and they seem like an effort to consign women to the lower levels of Christian society. And unfortunately they have been interpreted that way, time and again, to the detriment of women and the church as a whole. But seen within the context of all of Paul’s writings they serve to reflect and reinforce the message of mutual submission in Christ.

So part of our problem with Paul lies with us – with our tendency to read his statements about women out of context and to point our enraged fingers at him. Not only that, but we must remember that we, too, are children of our age, and as we read Paul we are looking through all the intellectual lenses that we are heir to. The strongest of those lenses, perhaps, is our sense of justice and our demand for equality. We demand our rights – we demand equality – and with that in the forefront of our minds we turn to Paul. Of course he enrages us! Nothing has been drummed into us more than the importance of standing up for our rights. It’s what wars are fought for, what heroes suffer and die for. Great literature has been based on it, it stirs our hearts, it makes us weep. All American schoolchildren memorize these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Self-evident? It may have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson, but it wasn’t to St. Paul. Paul wasn’t terribly interested in rights. Paul’s great vision of the church was that of the Body of Christ, whose members are united to each other in Christ, in love and mutual submission. Paul does not urge us to insist on equality or to fight for our rights. His message is quite different. It is this:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The only time Paul discusses the issue of rights is in 1 Corinthians, when he points out that he has foregone certain rights, of his own free will, in the service of preaching the Gospel. (1 Cor. 9) “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful,” he writes. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24)

Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at our neighbor in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated? In his recently published journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison – the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976; p. 107)

This principle of comparison is just the opposite of the attitude that St. Paul tried to engender in the young church. The only language of comparison that Paul uses is when he calls himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), which has become part of the prayer that every Orthodox Christian prays before receiving Holy Communion. Not better than others, not even equal to others, but worse – the very worst.

The trick in adopting an attitude of submission with regard to your neighbor is to adopt it with integrity – not becoming like Uriah Heep, whose humility was really a manipulative strategy for gaining power over others, not humility at all but howling selfishness and greed. Paul’s message is to stop looking at yourself, to focus your gaze from yourself to the Other. The only way you can do that is to look out from the center of your Self, from your heart, from that center where Christ lives, so that it is not we who live, as Paul says, but Christ who lives in us, and to view the world from there. Insisting on equality forces you to abandon that center and to look at yourself from a distance, as if you were someone else, and to see how “you” stand in relation to the Other. This is no longer being who we really are, who God really calls us to be. It is the stance of the modern individual – the basis of the scientific method, of our entire approach to education. We spend the bulk of our lives developing this way of seeing things, viewing the world empirically, learning how to compare one thing to another, developing standards, quantifying, analyzing, testing. And when it comes to ourselves, then, we apply ourselves to the same kind of analysis and comparison, and see how we fit in – as if we were watching ourselves from the moon. But if Christ is living in me, if I have “taken on Christ,” I adopt the attitude to the Other that Christ did. If I as a women adopt an attitude of submission to my husband, Paul is suggesting, I am not doing it because I am essentially any less than my husband and I have no other choice; I am doing it as a radical exercise of my freedom, and I am entering – as is he – into the submission of Christ.

I’d like to return to the first passage I cited, 1 Corinthians 11:3. Here Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” What struck me when I read this passage over carefully is the last part: “the head of Christ is God.” This, Paul says, is what it really means to regard someone as your “head.” It means to adopt Christ’s attitude towards God, which he explains more fully in Philippians 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

So the model for women is Christ himself, who was equal with God but freely chose to empty himself. This kind of submission is terribly hard – for men and women alike – but it’s probably even more difficult for women, who for so long have been the victims of twisted, misinterpreted caricatures of Paul’s teaching. The natural response, of course, is what we’re seeing in certain parts of the feminist movement – anger and militant insistence on a flattened, two-dimensional equality. The great challenge to Christian women, however, is not to insist on some kind of equality, which for Christians is a meaningless phrase. Nor is it to assume an attitude of exaggerated self-effacement. What both these attitudes have in common is that the main focus is the woman herself – they imply a person who has abandoned the center of her life and is out there looking back at herself, trying to decide who she is. The real challenge to Christian women is to learn to understand the difference between being a doormat and adopting the attitude of mutual submission – in freedom and love – that St. Paul has set before us.