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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

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

Updated: May 7

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

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

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