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Is Paul Misunderstood? (1)

See the recent conversation where 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.

Classic painting of Paul struck blind on road to Damascus
Wikimedia commons:

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? These passages are difficult to understand and seem to conflict with other passages.

We have four choices:

  1. Patriarchy is the result of sin: 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 because of the Fall, God ordained that women be subordinate to men. The original equality will not be restored until Christ returns and restores their equality. This view perpetuates divisions based on gender. Some stories of the Bible are not historic but may be understood as myths, fables, or allegories. 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 is the historic position of the church.

  2. Patriarchy is designed by God: Paul's intent is to promote a hierarchy as a guide for living. God designed a hierarchy from the beginning with men in authority and women submissive. In the Holy Trinity, the Son, Jesus, is eternally subordinate to the Father, providing an example of how wives are subordinate to husbands. This interpretation could lead to acceptance of sexism, slavery, and racism, believing Christians (or white Christians) are God's chosen people, entitled to wealth, power, and privilege and can exploit the earth for personal benefit. It may also mean that since we are saved by God's grace, no action or behaviour is required. The outreach focus is on the spiritual needs of others, and not their physical needs. It could mean ignoring the inconsistency of some passages supporting male hierarchy while others show both Jesus and Paul working with women and commending them. This option has been pressed forward in the last fifty years, especially in evangelical circles. I address these 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. Paul's letters expand on the meaning of Jesus's death and resurrection and God's redeeming love. This view could mean a preference for understanding the context of a passage and seeing how it is consistent with other biblical passages. Where Paul seems to promote slavery or prejudice, we understand Paul was not writing to political leaders to change society; Paul was writing to individuals to change society one person at a time. Starting with a focus on the commandment to love God and love one another, we can interpret Paul's letters differently. In context, these passages seem to flatten the hierarchy and give men and women equal freedoms and responsibilities. The Bible consistently shows God's love for us and encourages us to love one another, serve one another, and build one another up. 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 Inconsistent: Paul endorses patriarchy while Jesus endorses mutual respect, service, and love. We hold in tension that Paul limits women's roles (1 Timothy) and that Paul commends women as co-workers (Romans 16) and mutuality in marriage (1 Corinthians 7). We believe two opposing ideas: women are equal (in substance) and women are subordinate (in functions). Some see the hierarchies as a harmonious division of responsibilities while others may feel restrained and unloved. Seeing the Bible as inconsistent may lead to: (a) Rejecting the Bible as today's guide for living; some portions are suitable only for a past audience. Bible writers were inspired by God but influenced by the culture and time in which they wrote and by their own male experience and frame of reference. The Bible reflects man's incomplete understanding of conflicts between God's justice and mercy, God's power and the world's suffering. (b) Prioritizing passages that seem to teach male authority and leadership over passages about love and mutual respect; understanding Jesus through the lens of passages that seem to subordinate women. The church has traditionally interpreted the passages on mutuality through an assumption of male authority, resulting in limitations based on gender. (c) Prioritizing passages about freedom, mutuality and love over passages on subordination; understanding Paul's letters through the lens of God's redeeming love. The church has often followed a Pauline Christianity that is very different from Jesus and his teachings and example. That is the topic of post 4 of 4: Did the Church Misconstrue Paul's Writing?


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

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