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).

Holy. Mother. Mary.

(#2 in a series. Please refer back to home page of blog for earlier posts)

The Introduction lays out Barr’s experience growing up Southern Baptist in Texas. She has a PhD in history with a focus on European women and medieval England. Her husband is a Baptist minister who was fired from his position for petitioning the elders to allow women in ministry.  In the Baptist church, and based loosely on the letters of Paul, women are not allowed to preach at church (I Cor 14:34) or teach men (1 Tim: 2:12). His firing was the initiating event for this book. She states upfront that this book is aimed at evangelicals, and that she still considers herself to be one. I almost put it down.

Then this blew the top off my head:

Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context (6).

I’ll do it again, with my own punctuation:

Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are READ INTO the biblical text, rather than the biblical text BEING READ WITHIN ITS OWN HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT.

She put into words something that I have been feeling for a couple of years now—that many leadership structures in Christian faiths are busy making God into their image instead of themselves into an image of God. Who among us has not at some point sat in a pew listening to the guy in collar explain something and thought “is that really what it means?”

I had this struggle with the traditional telling of Mary as Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest. We should all be obedient like Mary was a refrain of my Catholic school upbringing, a definition of womanhood as submissive, quiet, docile. When I looked at the statues and pictures of Mary, I saw an impossible ideal.  The women in my life were not like this Mary. I was not like this Mary. She didn’t even feel real. If that’s what God wanted from me–silent, submissive sacrifice–then he should have made me differently.

Then came my feminism, which taught me that the definition of womanhood has always been contested and controlled by people trying to cram every woman into a box. I learned to question the box makers, and what they gain from making the boxes. Most importantly, I noticed that no woman who changed the world ever behaved like docile Mary. Not outside the church, but not inside the church either. They tended to be confident, strong risk-takers who upset the status quo.   

It was not until I became a wife and mother that I set out to read and understand the Mary story for myself. What I found was a bare bones telling of the conception and birth of Jesus into which had been read a certain obedient ideal of womanhood. This ideal does not exist on the page. There is certainly room for this interpretation, if we don’t know our history and context. But we do know our history and context.

God asked Mary to appear in Jewish society as an unwed mother, which was a killing offense. He asked her to tell her parents and her future husband that she was pregnant. He asked her to endure the stares, gossip and shame others would try to heap upon her. And that was just before the baby was born. If Mary’s fiat is only a blind act of obedience to an authority figure, then it lacks free will, and as such becomes meaningless.

For her fiat to be extraordinary, her faith has to be greater than her fear, meaning she knew what was being asked of her and chose it anyway.

Boom. All of a sudden, Mary was visible to me.

“Being obedient like Mary” has nothing to do with being quiet or loud, big or small, educated or uneducated, working or staying home. Mary is not an example of how women should behave. She is an example of how women should believe.

Interpreting Mary’s obedience as subservience is reading social assumptions into the Scripture where they do not exist.

Mary is a much more central figure in Catholicism than she is in Protestantism, so Barr’s disillusionments stemmed from the concept of complementarianism, and how that doctrine is used to restrict evangelical women from a full participation in the fruits of the faith.

She stands on the shoulders of Rachel Held Evans in challenging this tenet of evangelicalism. Evans did it with her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she basically exposed the silliness of reading Scripture with no cultural or historical context (including standing at the entrance to her hometown holding a sign that read “Dan is Awesome”, in accordance with the Proverbs 31 directive that she keep her husband’s name good at the city gates).

Barr’s book is more researched and academic. She doesn’t question whether Scripture is sacred and holy. She’s not here to crush Paul’s letters. For her, the Bible is the Word of God. But she does have her sights set on the men who manipulate scripture to their own ends and the women who support them.


Hey! Were trying vlogging every day for Advent over on Facebook and Instagram (@graceinthedetails).

I want to tell you something about that kid who had to cut his dreads to wrestle.

The ref is the villain of this story. But the failure is not his. He has been honest about who he is.

The failure rests elsewhere.

Andrew Johnson is 16 years old. I know 16 year olds. They were my whole career. And I don’t need to know him personally to know things about him.

Like how he’s stuck in that difficult place between childhood and adulthood where it’s not always clear to him when he has the right to speak for himself.

That his default is still to defer to the adults in charge when he thinks he’s on shaky ground.

That he still believes people like teachers and coaches will defend him from those who would hurt him.

They are on the ones who failed him.

I watched the video of the trainer cutting his hair once. I yelled at her to stop, stop, stop. I waited for a coach to grab the scissors. I waited for someone’s mama, anyone’s mama to rush to the floor, wrap her arms around him and protect him.

We don’t know how Andrew feels about all this today, because he hasn’t spoken yet. But we saw how he felt about it after the match. And as I watched him cry, I knew one thing:

Not worth it, not worth it, not worth.

I wish to God that the story had been about the high school athletic trainer who was fired because she refused to cut a boy’s hair for a wrestling match. Or the coach who was arrested for unruly behavior towards a ref. Or at the very least, suspended from coaching for forfeiting the whole meet in protest of the ref’s decision.

I wish the video was of parents who came down from the stands and stood around the boy to protect him. Or all the coaches at the meet throwing the ref out of the gym.

Instead, there were adults who thought a forfeit was worse than cutting a child’s hair off his head.

Adults who thought their stony silence was enough.

Adults who should have known better.

Just a few years ago, I would have read this as a story about a nasty bigot. But since then, some of us have been forced to face truth about how far we have come with racial equality. Not as far as we thought. Only 13% of Division 1 college wrestlers are African-American, which means the sport is weak at recognizing and responding to racism in its ranks.

This was it.  An abuse of power by a man who had previously demonstrated his bigotry and been allowed to return to interacting with young athletes. And the complete failure of the adults around Andrew Johnson to protect him from that abuse.

Bigots need permission. Everyone who stood and watched gave it to him.


Sisters, we got a puppy.

I KNOW. But here’s what happened. Two weeks ago I was driving the kids home from Sunday school and when I got to the intersection where the Humane society is located, I felt the command to turn.

“Where’re we going?” Gabe asked.

“Let’s go look at dogs.”

“Are we getting one????” Annie squealed from the back seat.

“Only if there are puppies” I said. In the almost two years since Sugar crossed the Rainbow Bridge there have never been puppies at the Humane society. Not. Even. Once. But that day, there were four. Litter mates, surrendered without parents so only God knows a single thing about their pedigree–probably closer to ketchup than whole wheat. Two of them were all black, one looked like a black and white Springer Spaniel and one was colored like a German Shepherd.

He was the most chill. I sent Shea this picture:


He texted “You had one job. Go to Sunday School. WHY ARE YOU AT THE HUMANE SOCIETY???.”

“God made me” I texted back. “I’ll explain when we get home.”

Other kids wait for their moms to say “Yes”. But my kids know when I text dad the picture, the deal is sealed. If it was up to me, we’d live on five acres and breed bassets. If it was up to Shea, we’d own a zoo.

Surely it is not news that our crazy sits on the front porch and hollers at the neighbors. What’s one more dog? Especially when he’s cute.