Reading Paul Wrong

Chapter 2: What if Bibilical Womanhood Doesn’t Come From Paul?

(This is #4 in a series. Please see homepage for previous posts)

St. Paul was not my favorite guy. I had this in common with many Christian feminists.

But a closer study in recent years has brought me to a new conclusion: In fairness to everyone, Paul must be read within historical context.

Also, Paul had a HUGE task before him: to somehow answer the questions and unite the diverse seedling Christian populations in cities along the eastern Mediterranean.

The key word here is diverse. Search “St Paul’s letter on a map” to be reminded just how far the Christian faith travelled in the two decades after the death of Jesus—on foot, no less. And not just in miles—Corinth is 1800 miles from the Holy Land—but in culture. These cities were influenced by Greek and Roman rule.

This is important to remember when we look at Paul’s household codes, contained in Ephesians 5:21-6:29, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 and Titus 2:1-10. In these verses, Paul describes how a Christian family should look and function. These codes are often held up in evangelical congregations as the standard for male headship and female submission. But Barr suggests this is a mistake within the historical context.

She describes Greek and Roman family structure as influenced by male philosophers such as Aristotle and quotes Aristotle’s Politics to set the stage: “(t)he male is by nature fitter for command than the female…the inequality is permanent…All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, ‘Silence is a woman’s glory but this is not equally the glory of man’” (48).  From his Generation of Animals: “’the female is as it were a deformed male’ and that ‘because females are colder and weaker in their nature…we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity’” (51).

No one who is a follower of Jesus Christ can agree with Aristotle’s assessment. God made us all in His image; Jesus spent his ministry showing us what it means to love one another as we love ourselves; he kept women around him as central to that ministry, which was revolutionary; and then he died on the cross to show us the depth and breadth of love, from this life into the next.

Within that understanding, it’s difficult to think that Paul’s household codes were meant to reinforce the Greek and Roman notion of family structure. But when we consider that Jesus came to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5), it becomes impossible.

Therefore, Barr suggests that “the household codes should be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy” (53). In fact, Paul begins or ends each household code with a reminder that Christians are called to be different.

  • Ephesians, to “live as children of the light” (8).
  • Colossians, to “(p)ut on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (12).
  • 1 Peter to “Come to him, a living stone,[c] rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be builtinto a spiritual house” (4-5).
  • Titus, that “(f)or the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly” (11-12).

As Barr points out, the call in the household codes was not for women, but for men. No longer can they live separate from their wives and children or treat them as property or discard them as a burden. Paul calls them to be fathers, as God is a Father; to not hold themselves up as an authority but to submit their authority to Jesus. This was an incredible social shift for the men of the time, and it actually brought their wives and children forward to be cherished and loved.

In this way, the household codes corrected the behavior of men, instead of setting behavioral expectations for women.

Which begs the question: How did it get so twisted? How did Paul’s words, used out of context and history, become the biblical standard for the subjugation of evangelical women?

I’ll leave you with a quote that Barr uses in the book, from a speech Cato the Elder gave in the Forum during the time of Caesar Augustus, regarding women:

Our ancestors did not want women to conduct any—not even private—business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers or husbands; we (the gods help us!) even now let them snatch at the government and meddle in the Forum and our assemblies…If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt?

As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors (59).

3 thoughts on “Reading Paul Wrong

  1. When I first became a Christian I struggled with Paul and someone gave me this book: What Paul Really Said About Women. Actually written by a man—John Bristow. I started reading it again after finishing this book
    We have a new pastor who believes this complementarian stuff. And I need ammunition. The trouble is he will just tell me I’m wrong. Not interpreting the Bible correctly. I might have to find a new church…sigh.

    1. I’ll look into it. I know what she…and therefore I…am saying: that the Bible meets us where we are. Still. Paul met the Colossians, Ephesians, etc, where they were. My church says the revelations of the Word of God ended with Paul and everything since then is reflective or clarifying but not foundational. No more prophets. No more revelation. But doesn’t that make us stuck in the first century? God revealed His word for 5000 years and then poof! No more? How very–convenient.

      1. My background is Presbyterian and Baptist and they both believe the same—no more prophets or revelation, just adding to the foundation of The Rock and the Cornerstone of Jesus. Actually I’m glad of that. There’s so much to understand in real scripture that worrying about some new prophet is off the table. 😀
        But I don’t think that covers new study or new discoveries?

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