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Was Paul a Misogynist? (2)

A misogynist dislikes or is prejudiced against women. Is there evidence that Paul accepts or even promotes a hierarchy with women ranked below men? Does Paul confirm or promote patriarchy as God's design? This is part 2 of a 4-part series on the Apostle Paul.

Classic painting shows Paul bald and holding a book
The Acts of Paul describes Paul as short and bald. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Paul_the_Apostle,_St._Paul_the_Apostle_Orthodox_Church,_Dayton,_Ohio.jpg

Many people agree with Paul and are not hurt by his perceived messages. However, others are personally impacted, with hands tied and voices silenced, and may disagree with Paul. Some disagree so strongly that they reject Jesus and the church because of Paul and what is taught by those loyal to Paul. If these objections to Paul are left unaddressed, people may reject Jesus and the Bible.


In this post, I'll be talking about why many people don't like Paul. We will look at what might make them perceive him as sexist or misogynist. Try not to get upset! Here I take the role of the devil's advocate criticizing Paul. In the next post, I address these criticisms and share how I have come to see Paul in a more positive light.


Today I will look at five reasons people may not like Paul:

  1. Prejudicial views against women, slaves, and homosexuals, promoted male hierarchy

  2. Paul was muddled in his thinking, unclear and countering his own words

  3. Perceived arrogance, overconfidence

  4. Preaching a different message from Jesus's closest disciples

  5. Practices and teachings counter to Jesus


1. Prejudiced against women?

Did Paul show he dislikes women or is prejudiced against them? That is the definition of a misogynist. Did Paul show opinions about women based on preconceived notions rather than reason or experience? That's the definition of prejudice. Did his words or actions show that he believed women do not have equal rights or freedoms? It is easy to find passages that seem to show Paul believed women are inferior to men and should rank below men, or that seem to put down women, slaves, or anyone outside the norm. For example:


a) Wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5)

b) Slaves, obey your human masters, serve them though you were serving the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-7, Colossians 3:22-23, Titus 2:9)

c) Those who are sexually immoral or impure won't inherit the kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:5, Galatians 5:19-21, Colossians 3:5-8, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

d) Women should keep silent and not speak in church, but learn quietly and submissively; a woman must not be permitted to teach or have authority over a man (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-12); a man is a woman's head (1 Corinthians 11:3); overseers, bishops, elders and deacons must be male (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:6).


Church leaders through the centuries have followed Paul's apparent view that women have a subordinate role and must be subject to males. Even if the passages in Timothy and Titus restricting women were not written by Paul, but by a follower of Paul, they still are part of the Bible. Church structures support male hierarchy, also called patriarchy. The group that coined the term complementarian in the church (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) defines complementarian as the same as patriarchy.


If unity and peace rely on some people being subject to authoritarian or autocratic leaders who decide whether or not the subjected person may speak or act, it is not unity or peace, it is a dictatorship. A person in authority can love a pet dog, while still keeping it on a leash and controlling its freedoms. A boss can love an employee while controlling their actions. Church leaders claim they value women, and at the same time restrict women's freedoms. They may also restrict men's freedoms to be gentle, patient, kind and self-disciplined. This can lead some people to resent and reject the church.


However, Jesus lifted up those who were oppressed. Jesus treated women as people and showed the kind of respect that generates peace and unity. Most women do not want to be loved like a pet dog, a bird in a gilded cage, or a porcelain doll. The Bible tells a husband to love his wife as he loves his own body, masters to treat their slaves as they would treat themselves, and all of us to love one another, not judge. The sexual immorality Paul refers to may not be a reference to homosexuality at all, but a lesson for all people, regardless of orientation, to stop abusive or exploitative relations. Loving a person means listening to them, accepting them and respecting their choices. It means being vulnerable, sharing your secrets or your faults and trusting they will still love you. This kind of love only works if both parties love the same way in return. To love as you would like to be loved means giving others the freedoms you would like to have.


2. Paul had muddled thinking, countering his own words

We know Paul was academically brilliant, advancing in his education faster than his peers (Galatians 1:14). Paul talks about how he could put confidence in the law if he chose, being circumcized on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a zealous Pharisee (Philippians 3:4-7). Paul could read and write in several languages, studied under a famous teacher, Gamaliel, was thoroughly trained in the Scriptures and the oral law, and had the advantages of being a Roman citizen (Acts 22:2-3, 27-28).


However, some of Paul's thinking seems muddled and unclear because Paul seems to contradict his own words.

  • His apparent instructions by gender, status and rank seem to contradict where he says there is no more dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14-16); for those in Christ, there is no longer differentiation by slave/citizen, Jew/Gentile, or male/female (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11)

  • Paul teaches that circumcision will alienate you from Christ (Galatians 5:3-4) and he does not circumcize Titus (Galatians 2:3-5), yet he circumcizes Timothy (Acts 16:3)

  • In contrast to his instructions for one-way female submitting to male, Paul writes all believers should submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 16:15-16); Men are not independent of women, nor women of men (1 Corinthians 11:11); Wives are to fulfil duties to husbands and likewise husbands to wives (1 Corinthians 7:3). Jesus also taught all his believers to serve one another (John 13:12-17)

  • First, he gives one-way instruction for slaves to submit to masters, then he tells masters likewise treat their slaves as brothers in Christ since you share the same Master in heaven and God shows no favouritism (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1)

  • Saying those who act or speak immorally won't be saved seems to contrast with Paul's teaching that we are saved by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 5:1) and all we have to do is to believe in Jesus and we will be saved (Acts 16:30-31, Romans 3:28, Romans 10:9).

  • Saying women should keep silent and not speak in church conflicts with his instructions in the same chapter telling women how to behave when speaking, prophesying, and praying aloud in church (1 Corinthians 11)

  • Saying men are to be overseers or church leaders with authority seems to conflict with Paul's actions in authorizing women to lead in many churches. Paul credits many women as co-workers, giving women and men the same descriptors as deacons, apostles, overseers, and church leaders. He called Phoebe a deacon and overseer (Romans 16:1), Priscilla a co-worker and teacher (Romans 16:3-4, Acts 18:26), Junia an apostle (Romans 16:7), Lydia, Euodia, and Syntyche his coworkers who serve the church (Acts 16:13-16, Philippians 4:2), just as Timothy serves (Philippians 2:22) and he asks all of them to be likeminded with Paul (Philippians 4:2) as Timothy is (Philippians 2:20).

Theologians have sought out ways of understanding these differences. Some may say Paul's pragmatic concerns about cultural appearances (1 Corinthians 11) override his principles of equality (Galatians 3:28).

"Whether we see these two sections juxtaposed as evidence of Paul's pragmatism, his muddleheadedness, his latent misogyny, or the gentle patriarchy he is unable to relinquish, we still have to find some way of reconciling two different accounts of the relations..." (Lucy Peppiatt, page 60, Women and Worship at Corinth, ©2015, Cascade Books).
"Paul's vacillating approach is part of his overall strategy of mediation in 1 Corinthians... It is also likely due to his own ambiguous position" (Margaret M. Mitchell, page 476, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, ©2000 Houghton Mifflin Company).

Where there are differences, Bible readers may choose preferred passages and interpret other passages accordingly. Bible commentaries and creeds may start with their view that women are subordinate and massage or emphasize other passages based on that. Mark Ward defended how the English Standard Version (ESV) translators modified certain ambiguous passages to match complementarian views, saying, "You should try to fit what you read in the Bible in with your existing tradition."


3. Perceived Arrogance

Paul intimates that he can speak for God, claiming he got his message and commission directly and personally from God (1 Galatians 1:12) and does not need human approval. Paul did not go to the pillars of the church in Jerusalem, James, Peter, and John, for their approval, but to meet them, have fellowship, and let them know what he is doing with the Gentiles (Galatians 1:11-19). Paul seems to say he knows how God will judge, who will not inherit the kingdom, and who deserves death (Romans 1:29-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Galatians 5:19-21). Paul seemed so certain that his way was the right way that he told people to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16, 1 Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 3:17).


Paul openly brags about not taking his living from preaching the Gospel, pointing out that he is entitled to money but does not use that right (1 Corinthians 9:14-18). He manipulates his readers to give money or to accept his teaching, telling them that they owe a debt either to him or to the believers in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10, Philemon 1:17-20).


Paul could be harsh in criticizing those who disagreed with him, calling Galatians foolish for believing other teachers (Galatians 3:1). Paul visually exaggerates his opposition to his opponents, saying he wishes those who want circumcision so much would castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12), or that if a woman is going to shame herself by uncovering her head, she should go all the way and get her head shaved (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul insults false teachers, by calling them super-apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5). Even the people of Paul's day said that Paul's letters were severe and forceful (2 Corinthians 10:10) and Paul frets that he may have to boss them around if they think other than Paul thinks (2 Corinthians 10:1-2).


Church leaders through the centuries have imitated Paul's arrogance, insisting they be treated like they are Lord or Master of the home or church, taking God's role in judging who's in and who's out, being certain that their interpretations of Scripture are the only correct ones, harshly criticizing and publicly shaming those who have other views.


4. Preaching a different message from Jesus's closest disciples

Paul disputed with other apostles and they did not believe Paul was really a follower of Jesus until Barnabas reassured them (Acts 9:26-27). Paul taught a message that was different from Jesus's closest disciples.

  • Peter, perhaps Jesus's closest disciple, the one to whom Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:17-20) preached that men and women were both filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking as a fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 2:17); Peter encouraged all to repent and be baptized. Peter's wife was a co-labourer with him in evangelism (1 Corinthians 9:5); Did Paul teach that women could be filled with the Holy Spirit but not speak or preach? Did Paul teach that women could only evangelize and baptize other women? Did Paul teach that women could accompany their husbands but needed to remain silent?

  • James, the brother of John and a close disciple, advised Paul to follow some of the Jewish laws and purify himself after mixing with Gentiles (Acts 21:20-26). Did Paul teach that circumcision was not necessary, and believers did not need to follow the law of Moses?

  • John, the brother of James and a close disciple said that loving one another defines whether or not you know God (1 John 4: 7-11). John says to show your love through serving one another (John 13:4-17, Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:25-28). Did Paul teach that moral living was more important than showing love? Did Paul teach that male hierarchy and female subordination were more important than love?

  • James, the brother of Jesus, was not one of the twelve disciples (John 7:5) but became a pillar of the early church (Acts 1:14, Acts 15:13, Galatians 2:9). James said to show your faith by how you live (James 2:14-17) and that you are justified by your works, not by faith alone (James 2:24). Paul said that you are justified by faith alone (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-9).

Peter already knew that Jews do not need to eat separately from Gentiles, having had a vision from God to confirm it (Acts 10:9-34). In fact, the Jews from Jerusalem had already criticized Peter for teaching that Jews and Gentiles could eat together (Acts 11:1-2). The Jews from Jerusalem were pleased when Herod killed James (son of Zebedee) and jailed Peter (Acts 12:2-3). Peter was miraculously freed (Acts 12:6-11) and fled to Antioch, where he mixed freely and ate with both Jew and Gentile until the Jews from Jerusalem came to observe him. Peter was intimidated by them and separated and followed their rules while being watched.


Paul opposed Peter to his face, in front of everyone (Galatians 2:11-16). Paul did not follow Jesus's instructions to point out a brother's faults respectfully, in private, or to take one or two others along to correct the person in the wrong as Jesus advised (Matthew 18:15-17). Paul did not even follow his own instructions to restore a person gently (Galatians 6:1). At the risk of publicly humiliating the apostle Peter, Paul thought it was important to tell everyone that Peter was a hypocrite, not acting consistently with the Gospel. Theologians justify Paul's actions because Paul was correcting doctrine and the crowds needed to know the correct doctrine.


However, Paul himself seems like a hypocrite, circumcizing Timothy but not Titus. While Paul criticizes Peter for becoming like the believers from Jerusalem, Paul himself said that he became like a Jew to win the Jews, that he became like one under the law to those under the law, and became like one not under the law when with those not having the law (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).


James, one of the pillars of the Christian Jewish believers in Jerusalem, may also have been in Antioch on the day when Paul criticized Peter. Since James lives in Jerusalem, he was constantly dealing with pressure from the traditional Jews who are upset that the followers of Jesus are teaching the Jews who live among Gentiles that they do not have to follow the law. James advised Paul to purify himself after being with the Gentiles and before going to the Temple in Jerusalem, and Paul agreed, even though Paul it was not consistent with Paul's preaching (Acts 21:20-26). In all likelihood, James gave similar advice to Peter, saying not to give the appearance of breaking Jewish law when the established Jewish leaders are watching. Did Paul's criticism go against James as well as Peter?


Church leaders have been selective about which laws of Moses to follow and which to ignore, and they often put a higher priority on the apostle Paul's letters over those written by Peter, James, or John.


5. Practices and teachings counter to Jesus

My first biblical fiction, Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, is set in the time of the Gospels and it was easy to show how Jesus uplifted women and marginalized people. When I told a friend that Forgotten Apostles from Broken to Bold (book 2), will be set in the time of Acts and show how Paul uplifted women, he said it was an interesting choice and wished me luck.


Jesus uplifted women, encouraged them to learn as disciples, and empowered them to go out as apostles. Counter to the customs of the time, Jesus talked to, touched, and healed the sick, including women who were ceremonially unclean (Peter's mother-in-law (Matt 8:14–15; Mark 1:29–31; Luke 4:38–39); Jairus’s daughter, a woman with a flow of blood (Matt 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56), a woman with a crooked spine (Luke 13:11–17), a woman known to be a sinner (Luke 7:44-50), a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). Jesus accepted patronage from women (Luke 8:2-3), and encouraged Mary to sit at his feet and learn as a disciple (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus even commissions Mary Magdalene as a woman apostle telling the men about his resurrection (John 20:17-18). Forgotten Followers reveals 35 women in the Gospels. Jesus treated men and women equally and told us to serve one another (John 13:12-15) and to love one another (John 13:35).


It's not so easy to see Paul lifting up, encouraging and empowering women. Paul's apparent teaching that women must be subordinate is the opposite of Jesus's teaching to lift up the lowly. Male hierarchies seem to be in direct conflict with Jesus's actions and instructions. It is not loving to lord it over another person and take away their freedoms. Jesus delivered a message of love in action. Yet Paul wrote several passages that seem to inhibit us from loving one another or, in fact, encourage us towards hateful or harmful actions.

Some of these apparent differences are outlined by Davis Danizier in his blog and his book "Betrayal of Jesus". Don Samdahl states that the messages of Jesus and Paul were fundamentally different and lists the differences. Don Stewart, on the Blue Letter Bible site, also addresses the idea that Paul changed the teachings of Jesus and invented Christianity.

Jesus

Paul

I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Matthew 5:17

Jesus set aside the law and commandments and regulations and created in himself one new humanity, Jew and Gentile, reconciling both to God. Ephesians 2:14-16

Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not or a stroke will disappear from the Law until everything is fulfilled. Matthew 5:18

Christ is the end and the fulfillment of the law, for everyone who believes in Christ is made right with God Romans 10:4.Christians are not under the law of Moses. Believers are not under the law. Romans 6:14

If you want eternal life, obey the commandments (Matthew 19:17). If you love me, keep my commands (John 14:15).

No one can be made right with God by following the law. The law only shows us our sins. God makes people right by a new way, by their faith in Christ. Romans 3:19-22.

Salvation based on compassion and love: actions of the sheep and the goats Matthew 25:31-36, actions of the good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37, actions of generosity Mark 10:17-27

Salvation based on faith and belief without regard for actions or good deeds. Romans 3:27-28, Romans 4:6, 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16

The servant will be over the master, the least will be the greatest in my realm. Matthew 20:27, 23:11, Mark 9:35, 10:44

Paul does not oppose slavery, encourages slaves to obey their masters Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9-10

Jesus ensured women were highly involved as students/disciples (Luke 10:38-42), patrons (Luke 8:2-3), apostles (John 4:1-26), blessed for following God (Luke 11:27-28). Women were involved in the early church (Acts 1:14).

Paul tells women that they are blessed to marry and have children, must submit to their husbands in all things, be silent, listen, and obey. A woman must never teach or have authority over a man in church or in society, must show her rank below men's authority (Ephesians 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 11:7-10, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Titus 2:9-10).

Summary

This post has a lot of negativity. It shows the Bible verses typically used as weapons to justify prejudicial treatment of women, restricting women's activities, and promoting a male hierarchy. We have seen examples of Paul's apparent arrogance, muddled and mixed-up thinking. We see how the Bible may be viewed as inconsistent by contrasting Paul's letters with the messages of Jesus's closest disciples and even Jesus himself.


How could a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus Christ be preaching a message that is so counter to the message Jesus delivered?


Maybe he is not a misogynist who dislikes or puts women down. Maybe he has been misunderstood or misquoted. Please read my next post, about how I've come to appreciate Paul and his actions and influence. See Part 3 of 4: Was Paul Misquoted?



 

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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