There were countless opinions being thrown around the room. The subject was the Apostle Paul’s teaching on women, the event a Friday night Bible study. There were some who were in agreement that women should be silent in the church and others were conflicted because it seemed like the Bible said one thing they couldn’t agree on. At the end of the discussion, as we entered conversations with each other, my Pastor turned to me and said that the Apostle Paul probably wouldn’t have written such things if he was married. At the time I said nothing but disagreed with what he said but now I kind of agree with him.
Christianity is a story, a story that near or less starts with and ends with women. It was a woman who is first introduced to us in the opening of the gospel of Matthew and after the resurrection, the first people Jesus appeared to were two women. Also, the first ever person to tell people about Jesus was a woman and the first known European follower of Jesus was a woman. Yet for some reason, some people think this faith is anti-women. It was back in 2006 when actress Jessica Alba talked about there being a lack of strong female role models in the Bible in an interview with ELLE Magazine. But it’s not just Jessica who holds this view, many people still think the Bible looks down on women. So if women played such an important role in the story of Jesus then why do so many think Christianity is a sexist faith? I would say popular imagination is at least one reason why many think Christianity is sexist.
Someone might say, ‘Hold on a second doesn’t the Bible say women must be silent’? I would say yes but anyone who focuses on that is missing the whole picture. It is true in 1 Corinthians 13:34 women are told to keep silent while in church and in 1 Timothy 2:12 women aren’t permitted to teach. Now I could go into these verses and look at what is exactly said in the full context of the text or write about how different translations translate the text in a more favourable or unfavourable way to women but instead let’s look at the wider context.
Firstly let’s think about early Christianity. Apostle Paul was basically on the ground trying to figure this thing out. He had a mystical encounter with the divine and I think he was just trying to figure who Jesus was and in the light of who Jesus was how those who follow Jesus should live. The term Christian or Christianity didn’t even exist back then. If you were to ask Paul if he was a Christian I expect he wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. It seems to me Paul was a Jew practising Judaism who’s faith was evolving. At the end of the day, he was just some guy trying to figure this thing out and writing all these letters to people who were trying to figure things out as well. When he was writing all these letters the gospels weren’t completed, he had no idea the words he was writing down would become apart of our scriptures. Furthermore, the Apostle was apart of a culture that many people today haven’t lived in and a period in history that none of us will experience. I can’t even begin to imagine how exciting and frightening it would be to start a new movement that was changing people’s minds and lives all the while under a brutal foreign occupation. This is what we have with Paul — he was a 1st century Jew living under brutal Roman rule. It seems to me most of the time when we read his writings we don’t consider these factors. Whether we’re a believer or not so many of us think Paul was like us and wrote his letters for us when in fact he wasn’t and didn’t.
If we’re going to understand Paul we need to understand the history and culture of his day and unfortunately, many read his epistles without any or not much understanding of such things. If we think Paul was someone like us or wrote his letters for us we are using our imagination. If we think women had to keep silent we’re using our imagination. When we look at the wider picture of the writings of Paul and the New Testament, in general, we don’t see women being very silent. I referenced the Samaritan woman at the well and Lydia of Thyatira being women who spoke up but they’re not the only ones. Throughout the writing of the New Testament, there’s a number of women referenced who would have had a voice and were likely to have done some teaching like the missionary Prisca, the deacon Phoebe and the church leader Nympha. When it comes to the silencing of women I think the women I’ve mentioned didn’t feel they needed to be silent because they weren’t told to be silent. The letters where women were told to be silent were written to people in Corinth and Ephesus and none of the women were in those cities. This couldn’t be applied to all women because if it did then why do we have women who weren’t quiet or women who were teachers?
There is also another way to look at what Paul wrote about women. Most scholars consider Romans to be one of Paul’s last letters and some would say it was his very last. In it, he has many interesting things to say and one of those things is in chapter 7 where he confesses to doing things he didn’t want to do and doing the things he hated. Could it be he hated writing what he wrote yet did it anyway? Another interesting thing is in chapter 12 he wrote about the idea of not allowing the present age to dictate thoughts and behaviour. Could it be while writing his letter Paul was viewing his words to the women in Corinth as a moment where he allowed his thoughts (and words) to be like those in the present age? It’s interesting how his words in 1 Corinthians 13:34 is awfully similar to a scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Pricilla is told speech is the business of men. Maybe the silencing and disregard of women was a case of allowing the present age to dictate thoughts and behaviour?
In an interview on the Nomad podcast, Paula Gooder talked about how in early Christianity, when it was a small private religion the women had more freedom to lead and teach but when it became public, more known to the world, they started to retract the roles women had because it wouldn’t be taken seriously in the culture they were in. The inclusion of women seems to be a never-ending battle, Paul may have struggled with it, those after the Apostle went about the retracting of women and even today there is this desire for women to be silent.
During the LRB Winter Lectures at the British Museum classical scholar, Mary Beard talked about how the ancient Roman and Greek hatred of women still influences us today. She said, ‘These attitudes… are hard-wired into us: not into our brains… but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history’. That present age that the early church was dealing with is still present today. There is still this wish for women to not say anything. There are still churches that forbid women from teaching. Paul Gooder talked about how she not only gets criticised for the quality of her theology but also for how she looks, dresses and talks. On social media, women are told to shut up and go back to the kitchen. Be pretty, look sexy but don’t have a voice or an opinion, if we are honest many have the view that women are great if they can be controlled. It should be said that it’s not just men who think women shouldn’t have a voice, it can also be other women who think like that.
Some of us may think we’re not like that but I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss this. We may think we don’t have a misogynist's bone is our body but I would ask how long have we thought about this issue? I would describe myself as a feminist but I catch myself reacting to women in a sexist way. I’m not talking about blatant sexism where I tell women to shut up and go back to the kitchen, it’s more subtle than that. In my time of great doubt, it was the writing of Rachel Held Evans who helped me still hold onto faith and it was the preaching of Sarah Bessey that got me to stop me being so cynical and start to believe in a God of love again, but despite this I feel a bit embarrassed that it was women who helped me with this. Two songs that never fail to not only lift me up but make me feel strong when time are tough are Rachel Platten’s The Fight Song and Andra Day’s Rise Up, and you know what? The fact that these two songs were written and performed by women cause me to question what kind of man I was. What kind of man would be so weak that a woman could make him feel strong with a song they wrote and performed? Someone might answer this question by saying a strong man would but there is this thought that a man would be strong enough to not need a woman to strengthen him. Like Mary Beard said hard-wired into us is the idea that women need to be quiet and also no man can be taught or helped by a woman but such ideas are not true.
Facing these prejudices whether we show them publically or we try to hide them privately must be done if we’re ever going to evolve into being better people. If we judge those in the past and think we’re beyond misogyny then we’re never going to be rid of this way of thinking that has caused so much damage to us as people. Are we going to allow the Roman and Greek age still dictate to us in how we view women or are we going to renew our minds and so we can be happy to hear a woman voice?