Paul on Women: A Modern Obsession?

Mary Magdalene at the feet of Jesus; Notre Dame

On August 4, 2009, John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, and the well-known author of more than 50 books including his co-authored Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, answered this question on his podcast Desiring God: “Why don’t women ever read or pray in Bethlehem’s church services?” John Piper’s answer was very short. Reading scripture and offering congregational prayers is part of pastoral responsibility. Because the female sex, according to Piper, is disqualified from the pastoral office, it is not “appropriate” for women to exercise pastoral responsibilities. “A woman is that moment acting like a pastor or elder, and that’s what we don’t think is appropriate.” Although Piper does not quote scripture in this instance, his response is certainly based on his understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:33-37 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Just to remind us, these verses read, “women be silent,” and “I do not permit women to teach or exercise authority over men.”

On March 22, 2017, John Habib, a Coptic Orthodox Christian and writer, described his experience visiting an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was pleasantly surprised to find the service led by female chanters. As he writes, “instead of a bunch of young male children standing in the ‘Chorus’ section of the church leading the congregation in worship, women chanters stand there and lead.” Because the rite of deaconess is “deeply embedded” in the Ethiopian church tradition, deaconesses also publicly assist during church services. “Women,” Habib explains, “have a prominent role in the [Ethiopian Orthodox] service.”

Two modern churches. Two vastly different attitudes toward women. The obvious question is why?

I think if I polled the audience, we would come up with a lot of good responses. Certainly the historical practices of both churches matter. Certainly the historical context of both church traditions matter. And certainly the way each church tradition approaches scripture matters.It is on this last point I would like to focus. Indeed, my argument is that the emphasis (dare I say obsession?) in North American Christianity on certain Pauline texts—namely 1 Corinthians 11 & 14, Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 2—is a historically recent development.

If you will allow me a moment of anecdotal evidence, on January 28, 2018, I googled “women in the church.”  This was my list of top ten hits:

  1. The Role of Women Grace Community Church
  2. The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church Christian History
  3. Women in the Church: What Can They Do Or Not Do
  4. The New Testament Church–The Role of Women
  5. Role of Women in the Church–Neighborhood Church
  6. What is the Role of Women in the Church? The Austin Stone Community Church
  7. The Role of Women in the Church, in Society and in the Home CBE
  8. Women in the Church–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  9. God Assigned A Special Role for Women in the Church–
  10. The Role of Women in the Church–Deception in the Church

Let’s just look at these for a moment. Most of the articles argue for female submission, highlighting several scripture passages, but consistently including these four—1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5. Let me just give you a taste of these arguments.

The first hit is Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. John MacArthur is the “Pastor-Teacher”. Listen to how the church website begins the discussion on women’s roles in the church. “Although women have traditionally fulfilled supportive roles in serving the church and gained their greatest joy and sense of accomplishment from being wives and mothers, the feminist movement has successfully influenced many women to abandon these divinely ordained roles. Unfortunately this movement has made headway even in the church, creating chaos and confusion regarding the role of women both in ministry and in the home. Only in Scripture can God’s intended design for women be found.” The article walks through scripture from the Old Testament to the New, but how all these scriptures (from Genesis through the Gospels) are interpreted seems to hinge around the middle section of the article titled, “The Epistles and Women.”

Under the “Epistles and Women” section are categories for “The Family” and “The Church.” These sections explain that God divinely ordained men to be leaders and workers outside the home, while God divinely ordained women to manage the household and work inside the home. As the text reads, “While husbands and father have been given the primary responsibility for the leadership of their children, wives and mothers are urged to be ‘workers at home’, meaning managers of the household. their home and their children are to be their priority, In contrast to the world’s emphasis today on careers and fulltime jobs for women outside the home.” According to the article, biblical evidence that Jesus did not choose a female disciple, that only male kings ruled over Israel, and that Paul appointed only male leaders weaves a tight hierarchical tapestry of male leadership and female submission. The entirety of biblical evidence about male and female roles, the article claims, intersect neatly in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The website uses the English Standard Version, the ESV, which was translated mostly by complementarian pastors and seminary professors. As the ESV renders 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Let’s look at another hit. The third hit on the list is in Flagstaff  Christian Fellowship in Flagstaff, Arizona, pastored by Stephen J. Cole. At the very beginning of its discussion on women’s roles, the article explains that it has oriented its entire approach from the perspective of the Danvers Statement issued by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1988. For those of you not in the know, the Danvers Statement has become the foundational non-biblical text for the complementarian movement.

Okay, back to Flagstaff Christian Fellowship. The website article is concerned mostly with leadership roles (women teaching Sunday school, serving as pastors or deacons, and even passing the offering plate). It allows more flexibility toward women than the statement from Grace Community Church. It is open to the possibility of female deacons (based on the model of Phoebe in Romans 16). But it also emphasizes the “natural” hierarchy of male leadership. The article cites several scripture passages– thirteen from the writings of Paul, nine of these from the usual suspects of Pauline texts: 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, and Colossians 3. In other words, instead of broadly drawing from the writings of Paul, and considering the significance of Paul’s maternal imagery (as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has recently done), the website draws primarily from the Pauline texts that seem to limit female authority. Like the approach taken by Grace Community Church, Flagstaff Christian Fellowship defers to 1 Corinthians 11:3 as the verse best explicating God’s ordained hierarchy: “God, Christ, man, woman, which applies both to the church and the home.”

I could continue, walking through each of the hits on my list. But I think the article from the Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) website summarizes matters well. It concludes that “traditional” interpretations of women’s roles in the church stem from the same 5 or 6 verses. Yes, you guessed it—verses from 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Ephesians 5. But then the Christians for Biblical Equality website says something less familiar. It states that “the Egalitarian View also takes these texts seriously, but it does not begin with these…if you leave these texts to the side until the end of the discussion, you will come out with a different conclusion.”

The article posted on the Christians for Biblical Equality site argues that the problem is not the biblical texts.

The problem is our focus, our very narrow focus, on a handful of texts through which we insist on seeing everything else.

If you will allow me one more modern example. My google survey suggests that the starting point for most discussions on women’s roles are specific texts from the Pauline epistles—namely 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Timothy 2. These texts dominate modern discussions about women in the church. I have a strikingly visual example of this for you. After running the google survey, I entered the five usual suspect verses into Google NGram Viewer on Google Books. For those of you unfamiliar with this tool, it is an online search engine that measures frequencies of words and word patterns appearing in books digitized in the Google Corpus (over five million books published up to 2008). It isn’t a perfect tool, but it does help get a sense of developing patterns. I ran the verses through the corpus for American English books.

In American English books (the graph is here), there is a very definite spike in the use of these verses after 1940, especially from the 1970s and 1980s. The graph suggests that there is a significantly higher usage of these verses in the post 1940 modern Church than previously. I suspect, that if we were able to narrow specifically on books produced by Christian presses (such as Lifeway and Eerdmans), the increase would be even more dramatic.

Paul’s writings on women have become a modern obsession.  

When we think about women and the church, we think about a handful of Pauline texts. We also think that this is the way it has always been.

For example, if I can return to John MacArthur’s church—Grace Community Church–this is what the website says. “Only in Scripture can God’s intended design for women be found.” It then proceeds to use our usual suspect verses to demonstrate what it implies has always been God’s “intended design for women”: to be subordinate to men. Even in my own field of medieval history, scholars have assumed that Pauline texts have been used to limit female authority throughout church history. Elizabeth Clark, for example, wrote in 1996 that the Pauline proscriptions and household codes had “serious consequences” for Christian women. As proof of this, she included in her famous sourcebook for women and religion a discussion of the Pauline Epistles. Likewise, Susan Wabuda stated in her monograph, Preaching During the English Reformation, that, “Women were bound by St. Paul’s strictures that prevented them from teaching men. Silence was one of womankind’s special legacies, passed down through all the generations from Eve.” Paul’s writings not only limit modern women, but—according to scholarship—have always limited women in Christian history.

Except they haven’t.

First, as I will demonstrate next time, scholars and pastors alike have been writing for years that we are getting Paul wrong. I polled several of my colleagues at Baylor to get a reading list of some of the best accessible scholarship to help you think more deeply at Paul and women. Stay tuned for this list (the promised longer reading list) for next time.

Second, as I am talking about today at the Baylor ISR Conference, when we expand our lens of Christian history both chronologically and geographically, when we reimagine the church outside of the modern North American perspective, we see something different. After the promised reading list, I will share with you some evidence from medieval England and medieval Africa about how recent our modern obsession is with the Pauline Proscriptions and household code passages.

Our problem is not the Bible. Our problem is that we have become so focused on a small handful of texts that we can no longer see beyond them. Are you willing to look at the bigger picture? Are you willing to reconsider your stance on Paul?



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