top of page

Did the Church Misconstrue Paul's Writing? (4)

Paul was a prolific writer and his letters were widely distributed, and since the 4th century the church has largely viewed Paul's letters as supportive of male patriarchy. Did the church misconstrue or misinterpret Paul's words, either deliberately or inadvertently? Did they separate Paul's actions in empowering women from Paul's words and believe Paul restricted women? Did the misinterpretations cause the church to misstep, stumble, or go off course? In the last fifty years, we seem to have a new strand of Pauline Christianity, that puts a focus on Paul's teaching over the Gospels. This is part 4 of a 4-part series on Paul.

The Early Church

In the early church, women and men both led home churches and were liturgical leaders, speaking, leading, praying, prophesying and blessing the people gathered for worship. In fact, Celsus, a 2nd-century writer, taunted the church for attracting and involving so many women. In the book Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, Dr. Ally Kateusz shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, teaching, guiding, and encouraging the male disciples. Kateusz provides visual evidence in art and manuscripts of women in worship and liturgical leadership. Her book is available free by open access. It was a woman named Paula who inspired the translation of the Bible to Latin and proofread and edited it with Saint Jerome in the 4th century. The Holy Spirit led and the groups of believers formed to follow.

The Established Church

Image of powerful male priest in traditional church setting
Image: Mart Production

The belief that Paul's letters endorse male leadership at home, church, and society, has dominated the church since the 4th century. Dr. David Fitch, author of The Church of Us vs. Them says that it was after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity that the church became organized in a male hierarchal structure. Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 so that the bishops of the Christian church could address divisions and come to a consensus on what Christians believe. The Council established a number of canons, church laws or rules of discipline. The Council organized the episcopal, top-down organizational structure with bishops as regional authorities/overseers, then presbyters/priests/elders, then deacons/ministry assistants. The Council agreed on the Nicene Creed as a statement of correct doctrine, asserting the equality of the three co-eternal persons of the Trinity, and that the Son took on human form in Jesus. The Nicean Council and episcopal authorities defined Christian orthodoxy and generally accepted church doctrines. Any belief or interpretation that differed from church orthodoxy was heretical and punishable. When Arius disagreed with the description of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed, bishops excommunicated him from the church and Constantine exiled him, using secular power to confirm Christian doctrine. The Council of Nicaea also outlawed the ordination of females.

Augustine, a very influential theologian in the 4th century, seems to promote the idea of women taking a subordinate role, especially in the spiritual realm. He had been very sexually active in his youth and begged God: "Give me chastity and continency, only not yet" because he feared God might cure him of the disease of strong sexual desire or lust, "which I wished to have satisfied, rather than extinguished." Augustine was influenced by Greek ideology which assigned women roles based on function: a concubine as a tool to satisfy a man's sexual needs; a wife to satisfy a man's reproductive needs. Augustine suggested men are in the full image of God, with a spiritual nature, and women have a partial image of God, including the fleshly/worldly portion, created for the purpose of man's reproduction. He thought any sexual acts not intended for procreation, even within marriage, were sinful acts of lust. He believed a fellow man would have been better for companionship or assistance, and therefore

"I cannot think of any reason for a woman's being made as a man's helper, if we dismiss the reason of procreation." Augustine

Augustine's interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 and Genesis 2 led him to teach that women are worldly tempters, only help by providing reproduction, and are inferior and subordinate to men. These negative views of women have become pervasive in the Christian church.

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation aimed to flatten the hierarchal structures, opposing the priest as an intermediary for confession or assurance of forgiveness, and proclaiming we are all a priesthood of believers. Some Reformers established a presbyterian, bottom-up organizational structure, with Christ as the head of the church and all members equal under Christ. The church officers, pastors, elders, and deacons are chosen by church members and accountable to them. Other Protestants use an autonomous organizational structure, where each individual church governs itself, allowing equal freedom for believers to determine the mind of Christ. In autonomous or independent churches, it is often the pastor who sets direction and confirms doctrinal policies such as whether women may be ordained. Protestant Reformers talked about equality in the priesthood of believers. Martin Luther married Katharine von Bora and apparently respected her as an equal, and she managed a large land holding, breeding and selling cattle and running a brewery as well as bearing six children and raising four orphan children. However, many Reformers did not include women in their views of equal priests:

"Woman was originally the inferior... She is more easily deceived and more easily deceives." John Wesley
"... she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will... 'thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes.'" John Calvin Commentaries, Genesis Chapter 3
"I... do speak of women as nature and experience do this day declare them. Nature I say doth paint them further to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish: and experience hath declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment. And these notable faults have men in all ages espied in that kind, for the which not only they have removed women from rule and authority, but also some have thought that men subject to the counsel or empire of their wives were unworthy of all public office." John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1558
Cover of book by John Knox
Front Cover of book by John Knox opposing women in leadership

These negative views of women are based on the way our forefathers interpreted the Bible. Their interpretations were also formed by Greek philosophy, a patriarchal culture, and an apparent desire to maintain the authority to rule.

Nevertheless, women obeyed when God called them to preach and teach. Just a few examples:

Argula Von Grumbach 1492-1557 wrote and circulated pamphlets

Katharine Schutz Zell 1497-1562, most published female theologian of the Reformation era

Elizabeth Hooton 1600-1672, the first woman Quaker evangelist

Mary Cornwallis 1736-1770 author of a four-volume commentary on the Bible

Jarena Lee 1783-1864, a black travelling minister in the United States

Antoinette Brown Blackwell 1825-1921, an ordained minister in the Congregationalist church

Catherine Booth 1829-1865, co-founder of the Salvation Army

Olympia Brown 1835-1926, ordained by the Universalist Church of America

Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters preaching and writing in the 1800s

Fidelia Woolley Gillette 1827-1905, ordained in the US, was a minister in Ontario, Canada

Josephine Butler 1828-1906, preached and lobbied for the rights of prostitutes

Elizabeth Rundle Charles 1828-1896, wrote over 50 books, including a story of Martin Luther

Janet Douglas Hall 1863-1946, church planter and preacher in Ontario, Canada

Aimee Semple McPherson 1890-1944 founder of Foursquare

Dorothy Sayers 1893-1957, writer and Christian apologist

Lydia Emelie Gruchy 1894-1992, first white woman ordained a minister in Canada

Addie Aylestock 1909-1998, first black woman ordained a minister in Canada

Some churches agree that Paul endorsed gender equality, that in Christ there are no more restrictive gender, race, or class distinctions. These Christian denominations accepted women and men as equals in church leadership from their inception, including The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Salvation Army. The Moravians founded the Bethlehem Female Seminary in 1742.

These are just some of our foremothers, and I mention them here because we hear less about their teachings and writings than those of our forefathers.

Pauline Christianity

Some have said that the differences between Jesus and Paul are so stark that Paul usurped Jesus's message and created a Pauline religion. Pauline Christianity, or Paulinity, describes a belief that there are large differences between Paul's teachings and Jesus's teachings (see post 2 of 4 on Paul) and Paul's writings take precedence. Pauline Christianity describes a movement where Paul's writings are interpreted in ways that lead to teaching and behaviours that are unChristlike.

"Paul's version of Christianity was uniquely his own, very extreme and very different from that of the Apostles in Jerusalem." Sally Mallam, The Human Journey
"The Christ movement was led by Paul. He reconceptualized Jesus as both man and a divine being whose message was religious and nonpolitical." Barrie Wilson in How Jesus Became Christian
"Paul separated himself from Peter and James to introduce his own version of Christianity, which would continue to develop independently of the message that Jesus, James, and Peter preached." -blurb from Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor

Barrie Wilson says that there is a stark contrast between Paul's vision of a divine Jesus that dies and rises and the historic Jesus that was a Jewish Messiah establishing the Kingdom of God.

Some say that Paul's version of Christianity was unique and different from that of the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul believed we could be saved only by Jesus, not by observing the Jewish Law. Unlike Jewish followers of The Way, Paul said that new Gentile believers did not have to follow Jewish laws to become Christians. Jewish Christians often rejected some of Paul's ideas and also questioned his credentials as an Apostle. Paul deviated from Jewish Christians because he said the Jewish Messiah came to save all people, abolishing the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and offering redemption to all people, without the need to follow the Laws of Moses such as circumcision. However, Jewish Christians lost influence after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, while the Gentile churches founded by Paul increased in influence.

Some sources define Pauline Christianity as different from Jewish Christianity because Paul includes Gentiles and rejects the need for circumcision; effectively Pauline Christianity is Gentile Christianity. Some say that Pauline Christianity brought Greek ideas, myths, and unpleasant or offensive attitudes into Christianity. In my last post, I show how Paul quotes Greek ideas, myths, and religious practices in order to refute them.

Opponents of Pauline Christianity say it does not honour the Bible as authoritative and consistent and it is distant from true Christianity. GotQuestions, an evangelical Protestant, conservative Christian site, defines Pauline Christianity as teaching that Paul's writings are completely different from Jesus's teachings. It states that followers of Pauline Christianity believe that:

  • Paul twisted the life and work of Jesus

  • Jesus was not divine

  • The Bible contradicts itself

  • Paul's ideas were not accepted by Jesus's true followers

However, Paul himself proclaims Jesus as divine, our Lord and Saviour; Paul calls himself a slave of Christ.

If the church puts a higher focus on the traditional understanding of Paul's doctrines than on the life and example of Jesus, then perhaps many of today's churches follow Pauline Christianity. If we misunderstand Paul's letters to endorse patriarchy and unequal roles and freedoms while Jesus taught that the first shall be last and that we must show our love by serving others, then we are prioritizing Paul over Jesus. If we teach and preach more about Paul's letters than about the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, we are prioritizing Paul. If we follow Paul's limitations on women rather than Jesus's empowering of women, we are Pauline Christians. We carefully curate and enforce Paul's discussions of moral behaviour. Some passages are ignored (such as greeting one another with a holy kiss, washing one another's feet, condemning, manstealers (sex traffickers, pimps) and slave traders (1 Timothy 1:10), looking at a woman with lust (porn) being equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). Other passages are made into church policies, such as silencing women and limiting women's roles and functions. Paul's letters have been taken at face value without reference to Jesus's teaching and actions to uplift women. Paul's writings are frequently interpreted in ways that lead to teaching and behaviours that are unChristlike, unloving, unforgiving, and judgemental. Scot McKnight points out that many of today's churches base preaching and policies on Paul's letters. Any contradictions are minimized; where there are differences from the gospels, Paul's letters are seen as explaining the Gospel message and being the final word.

The church of today appears to follow a Pauline Christianity. We are Gentile Christians and we are Pauline Christians.

Does the Church follow Pauline Christianity?

Pauline Christianity would not exist if we understand Paul's letters in context. Pauline Christianity came about because traditional views and church policies are in stark contrast to the model of Jesus and are based on a misunderstanding of Paul's message. The traditional view of Paul's letters endorsing women's submission and silence, together with its focus on Paul's letters for preaching and policy-making has often resulted in gender-related roles and restrictions. Some women and men believe the traditional interpretation is true and they are content with their assigned roles.

However, others have found that these interpretations seem to encourage hate and division over love and unity. They ask:

  • Has the church misunderstood or perverted Jesus's teachings and established a version of Christianity aligned more with Paul's teachings, a Pauline Christianity?

  • Do traditional interpretations misconstrue or misunderstand Paul's teaching?

My last post showed how Paul's writings, can be interpreted to be consistent with the way the Gospel honours and empowers women. Paul tells those in positions of power to lower themselves, overturning Greco-Roman hierarchal structures and opposing patriarchy.

James Tabor believes we have misunderstood Paul when we say he teaches a different message from Jesus and the disciples. While Paul says we are saved by grace, he also agrees with Jesus and James, calling us to show our faith by how we live. "In all his [Paul's] letters he takes pains to enforce and reinforce the essential ethics revealed in the Torah as applicable to Gentiles upon his followers."

N. T. Wright, a Pauline theologian, believes the church has fastly misunderstood Paul's message. He promotes a New Perspective of Paul, He suggests that Paul's writing does not promote individual justification for a person's salvation and afterlife, but corporate justification as God and humans redeem and renew God's creation. In other words, we need to focus not on saving individual souls but on building God's kingdom here and now. In other words, our actions mark us as a member of God's family.

Cynthia Long Westfall, in Paul and Gender, writes “The conclusion of this study is to call for a thorough rereading of the Pauline passages on gender.” For example, in 1 Timothy, Paul is addressing both men and women who have turned to false teachers. Paul is describing how to deal with the problem by letting them learn; he is not telling women to always be silent.

We have come full circle.

Part 1: Is Paul Misunderstood? Here I outline five ways we can react when we see the apparent contradictions between Paul and Jesus.

Part 2: Is Paul a Misogynist? Here we interpret Paul's writing to endorse male hierarchy, either as the result of sin and the fall or as God's design from the beginning. This interpretation has resulted in the church subordinating women to gender-defined, less important roles, for centuries. The church traditionally explains apparent conflicts between the Gospels which lift up the lowly and Paul's letters by saying Paul interprets and applies Jesus to the church.

Part 3: Is Paul Misquoted? Here we see interpretations of Paul's writing to oppose male hierarchy, either as misquoting or misunderstanding. With these interpretations, there are no conflicts between the Gospels and Paul's letters. Biblical egalitarian scholarship sees how Paul and Jesus both endorse equality through their actions and their words.

I conclude with Part 4: Did the church Misconstrue Paul's Writing? The church has traditionally asked us to hold in tension two opposing ideas: women are equal and women are subordinate. Do Paul's teachings contrast with those of Jesus? Where there is a conflict, we place a priority on Paul's teaching that women be silent and submissive. Does the church give Paul's letters a higher emphasis than the Gospels in its preaching and policy-making? Did the church misstep?

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page