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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Is Paul Misunderstood? (1)

Updated: Apr 29

In a recent interview, I revealed that I didn't really like Paul. That's because I read his letters in the New Testament and it looked like he was prejudiced against women, and he especially disliked strong, capable women. I was interviewing Marg Mowszko and she said she loves Paul because when she read his letters, it looks like he had a wonderful vision for the community of God's people. Paul loved people, helped people of all classes and genders, made deep friendships with women and men, commended women as co-workers, and promoted unity within the body of believers. This article is part 1 of a 4-part series on Paul.

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Paul was central to the expansion of Christianity and a key figure in its growth. He dramatically converted from a persecutor to a promoter of Christianity and suffered imprisonment and persecution in his zeal to spread the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. He travelled widely, planted many churches, and wrote letters to his friends and followers. Paul wrote ten of the 27 books in the New Testament: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. If you include 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, letters where Paul's authorship is in doubt, then Paul wrote 23% of the New Testament. Many of Paul's writings seem to limit women's freedoms and force women into silence and subjugation, making him an easy target for criticism. Paul's writing is influential. The 3rd-century theologian Tertullian called women "the devil's gateway". The playwright George Bernard Shaw suggested Paul was the "eternal enemy of woman." Since Paul's writings are a large part of the New Testament, we need to get this right.

What do we do with passages that have been thrown in our faces, telling women that there are restrictions on what they can do? What can we do with Paul's uncomfortable messages? When faced with these passages that are difficult to understand or seem to conflict with other passages, we have five choices:

  1. Patriarchy is the result of sin: Believe that Paul's intent is to confirm male hierarchy as sin's impact on God's creation. Since the beginning, men and women have had similar roles and responsibilities as God's representatives, co-creators in both being fruitful, stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28). The fall resulted in men ruling and the original equality will not be restored until Christ returns and restores their equality. The three persons of the Holy Spirit are equal in essence and authority. Humans have equal value and at the same time, some humans hold higher rank than others, with more privileges and fewer restrictions. This has been the historic approach of the church.

  2. Patriarchy is designed by God: Believe that Paul's intent is to promote a hierarchy as a guide for living; from the beginning, God designed a hierarchy with men in authority and women being submissive. This could mean that the Son, Jesus, is eternally subordinate to the Father in the Holy Trinity, as an example of how wives are subordinate to husbands. It could mean a preference for the plain reading over contextual interpretation. It could mean acceptance of sexism, slavery, and racism, believing Christians (or white Christians) are God's chosen people, entitled to wealth, power, and privilege and the earth is ours to use. It may also mean salvation by God's grace with no action or behaviour required to prove your faith; a focus on the spiritual needs of others exclusive of their physical needs. It could mean ignoring the way passages supporting male hierarchy conflict with the teaching and example of Paul himself, as well as of Jesus. This option has been pressed forward in the last fifty years, especially in evangelical circles. I address the first two views in post 2 of 4: Is Paul a Misogynist?

  3. The Bible opposes Patriarchy: Paul's intent is to oppose pagan hierarchy and promote equality and mutual dependence as a guide for living. Paul breaks the barriers dividing people and promotes mutual service. We can focus on the life and work of Jesus, the Messiah, and understand Paul'sletters to expand on the meaning of Jesus's death and resurrection and God's redeeming love. This view is for those who seek to understand God's word in a way that is consistent and makes sense. It could mean a preference for contextual understanding over the plain reading. Where there are Bible verses that seem to promote slavery or prejudice, we interpret them with historical context. Starting with a focus on the overall commandment to love God and love one another, we can interpret Paul's letters differently. In context, these passages seem to flatten the hierarchy or give men and women equal freedoms and responsibilities. These views see how the Bible consistently shows God's love for us and encourages us to love one another, serve one another, and build one another up. A deep dive into passages that appear to limit women may result in realizing they actually lift up women. Maybe God did not allow unloving or inconsistent passages in the Bible. Maybe humans have misunderstood these passages. I address this in part 2 of 4: "Is Paul Misquoted?"

  4. The Bible is Faulty: The Bible is inconsistent and Paul endorses patriarchy and promotes unChristlike behaviour. The writers of the Bible, while inspired by God, were influenced by the culture and time in which they wrote and by their own male experience and frame of reference. The Bible may provide advice that was suitable for a specific past audience but which is unsuitable for us. The Bible may show man's incomplete understanding and conflicts between God's justice and mercy, between God's love and the world's pain, and God's power and the world's suffering. Some stories of the Bible are not historically accurate, and the Bible may contain myth, fable, or allegory. This view might leave you rejecting the Bible or accepting Jesus and rejecting some of Paul's writing. If their understanding of Paul's letters conflicts with the words and actions of Jesus or the overarching message of God's word, seems to take away the freedom that Jesus provides, seems unloving or unChristlike they can be treated as secondary, irrelevant or ignored.

  5. Bible is Segmented: Some passages are inconsistent with others. Paul's letters may conflict with the Gospels or with the Old Testament, and we must hold in tension two different ideas: women are equal and women must hold subordinate, support roles. If it appears that Paul limits women's roles and functions, then other passages are interpreted to fit that perspective. The moral teaching and apparent restrictions on women are not seen as unloving, but as beautiful and harmonious. You may believe the Gospels and interpret the words and actions of Jesus through Paul's writings. This has traditionally resulted in a church that limits people based on gender. Many people have believed the church and are content with their assigned roles. Others may think the church has perverted Jesus's teachings and established a version of Christianity aligned more with Paul's teachings, a Pauline Christianity. That is the topic of post 4 of 4: Did the Church Misconstrue Paul's Writing?

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