Conversations on Paul I: “Well, Paul Said...!”
Well, Paul Said…
Women should be silent in church.
Women should not teach men or exercise authority over them.
Women should be submissive.
Women should cover their heads when they pray.
Women were created for men’s sake.
Between growing up as a Pastor’s daughter, attending public schools in Nigeria where religious courses were taught and tested up until junior secondary (middle) school, graduating from a Christian university in America where foundational theology courses were mandatory, going to quite a few Christian conferences around the world, doing volunteer missionary work in Latin America and studying the Bible in its entirety on my own: I’ve been exposed to numerous and sometimes conflicting teachings about what it means to be a woman vis-à-vis Apostle Paul’s doctrines. Over time, my views on the Apostle and his writings have evolved. One thing I have learned over the years through my various cultural, professional, academic and personal experiences is this: there are millions of women for whom gender equality can never be a reality until the writings of Paul are addressed.
Who is Paul? (Considering Paul and I’s long history, I’m going to assume he would be okay with us being on a first-name basis). A lot of what is known about Paul comes from the New Testament’s Acts of Apostles. Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew, born in a city called Tarsus (present-day southeastern Turkey). Historians believe he was born within a decade of Jesus’ birth. A tentmaker by trade, and a member of the ‘Pharisees’ religious party, Paul was infamous for his persecution of the early Christian movement. For example, Paul was complicit in the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. However, sometime between his mid 30’s - 50’s, Paul had a radical conversion experience (you can read about it in Acts) and became very influential to the spread of Christianity. In the 20 years following his conversion to Christianity, Paul used his status as a Jew and a Roman citizen (Tarsus was part of the Roman empire at the time) to travel widely, planting several churches across Asia Minor and Europe.
In fact, the followers of Jesus Christ were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch, at a church where Paul had taught great numbers of people for a year. Basically, Paul is kind of a big deal.
The global relevance of Paul’s influence should not be underestimated. A comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries & territories by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that there are 2.2 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third (32%) of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion. Most Christians, whether they are aware of it or not, understand the importance of Jesus Christ and the tenets of Christianity, through the writings of Paul. The New Testament uses the word “God” over 1, 300 times—500 of these uses occur in Paul’s writings. While Jesus Christ left behind no writings, Paul is traditionally credited with writing nearly half of the New Testament. Paul’s books are sometimes called the ‘Pauline Epistles.’ Because Christianity began to be recognized as a separate religion from Judaism in the New Testament era/post-Christ, Paul has been called the “second most important person in the history of Christianity” (Jesus Christ being the first) and even the “second founder of Christianity.” It is no surprise then, that Paul’s writings on women have greatly shaped and influenced so many women’s private and public lives, in both positive and negative ways.
In churches across the globe, Paul’s writings have sometimes been used to silence women, to restrict them from leadership positions, and to deny them missionary and other opportunities. Consider the writings of one of the most influential contemporary Christian leaders: Wayne Grudem. A Harvard and Cambridge trained theologian, Grudem served as the general editor of the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible (as of 2014, more than 90 million ESV Bibles had reportedly been distributed and accessed worldwide). Grudem has been vocal about what he considers appropriate gender roles and founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In his book Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism, Grudem offers specific lists of what women should and should not be allowed to do in church ministry. According to him, activities women should be restricted from in the church include: presiding over a baptism or communion service, permanent leadership of a fellowship/group meeting (whether the participants are male or female) and teaching the Bible to adults. When I come across this kind of dogma, I can’t help but wonder: Would Paul be pleased with the ways his writings are being applied to women today?
There needs to be more global conversations about the Pauline epistles. Do global understandings and applications of Paul's writings need to evolve to be relevant to the issues and realities that women (and men) face today? The American Constitution, one of the greatest documents of governance ever created, has been amended several times over the decades to reflect changes in America's cultural landscape. Its authors—men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—were men ahead of their times. But, they were also men of their times. Their declarations that “all men were created equal,” famously exempted women, people of color, and other groups. For example, it wasn’t until 1920 that American women were granted the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution. In light of inevitable shifting dynamics, shouldn’t more Churches consistently face the task of reviewing their constitutions? Shouldn’t we as Christians constantly (re)evaluate our biblical beliefs?
I believe Paul would welcome this challenge. In his parting words to the church of Thessalonica (present day Thessaloniki, Greece), the ever intellectually rigorous Paul advised: “Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid… Do not stifle the Holy Spirit…but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 12-21).
More importantly, I believe God welcomes this challenge. I am constantly citing the story of the daughters of Zelophehad because I don’t think it gets referenced enough: The early laws of Israel restricted women from inheriting property and left the 5 daughters of a man called Zelophehad destitute upon his death. These brave women went before Moses, the leader of Israel at the time, and an entire assembly to plead their case. The Bible notes that Moses took their case before God, God told Moses their claims were legitimate and Israel’s laws were amended to allow women inherit their father’s property (you can read the full story in Numbers 27 of the Bible). Surely, the same God that gave Moses the green light to amend Mosaic laws towards liberating women thousands of years ago, would invite the contemporary church to test scriptures against the contexts, challenges, and crises that women currently face? Surely, the same God that could part the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross into the promise land can hold our hands as we ski theological slippery slopes towards greater rights for women?
So, what do you say we take this challenge on? How about we roll up our sleeves and deconstruct some of the things Paul wrote about women? I need you, because here’s the thing: I do not have all the answers. While Paul’s writings have influenced diverse Christian traditions for centuries, including the Catholic and Orthodox churches, my personal and academic Christian experiences have been within Protestant denominations, primarily in evangelical/Pentecostal spaces. So I welcome your ear, I welcome your voice, I welcome your questions, I welcome your experience, and yes, I welcome your disagreement. Regardless of your religion or gender, you are welcome here.
I believe that iron-sharpens-iron, and that sometimes, tables need to be turned in temples. We might not change the world, but we might change our minds.
Consider this an open invitation. Event: A series of conversations on Paul’s writings on women. Venue: Right here. RSVP: By hitting the subscribe button below. Plus Ones: Welcome. Meet you here for Part Two.