Paul: Misogynist or Mystic?

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” . . . 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

1 Corinthians 11

Psychologists sometimes use a technique called word association. The patient is given a word as a stimulus, and asked to say the first word that comes to mind in response. For example, if I say school, you might say, teacher, college, or homework. If I say police, you might say, car or station. If I say money, you might say, bags or cash. If I say freedom, you might say, liberty or speech.

What if I said, Paul?  If you have a close relative or friend named Paul, you might think of him. If I said “Paul” in the context of a church, the apostle Paul of the Bible might come to mind. In this spirit, I invite you now to reflect on the biblical Paul. Give free rein to your thoughts. What is the first word, thought, or emotion that comes to mind? Some of you may be thinking “misogynist” and “homophobe,” as well as more tempered replies such as “missionary journeys” and “Barnabas.”

When you take a step back from these reflexive, gut-level responses, what else do we know about Paul?  Next to Jesus, Paul has been one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity. Paul inspired many people, but also laid the groundwork — whether intentionally or not — for a reputation as a misogynist, someone who hates women. Much uproar has been made of the two passages that tell women to be silent, but those two verses are not the whole story (1 Cor 14:34; 1 Tim 2:11-12.).

Acts 16 records that Paul left Lydia, a rich woman who sold purple cloth, as the leader of a house-church in Philippi (Acts 16:14, 40).

Two chapters later, Priscilla, another woman, “took Apollos [a man] aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:2, 18, 26). And in Romans, Paul again mentions Priscilla as someone who risked her neck for him (Rom 16:3).

In Philippians, Paul writes from prison to request help for Euodia and Syntyche, two women, who “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil 4:2-3).

At the end of the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of women, including Mary (Romans 16:6), Julia, and Nereus’ sister (Rom 16:15). In particular, he calls the woman Junia, “prominent among the apostles” (Rom 16:7).

Even more significantly, he entrusts Phoebe, mentioned specifically as woman deacon, to deliver Romans, the greatest of his letters, to the church in Rome. He “commend[s]” her to the Roman church, and asks that she be “welcome[d] in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and helpe[d]…in whatever she may require…for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2).

These verses support a much more positive view of Paul towards women than you might presume if you only read the two passages telling women to be silent — passages that were likely meant only for a particular circumstance or which may be later additions to Paul’s original letters.

It seems that Paul’s often experienced women, who were far from silent. As we’ve seen, scripture records that in the first century, women led house churches, bankrolled Paul’s travels, explained theology to him, risked their neck to save him, struggled beside him in the work of the gospel, served as deacons and as prominent among the apostles, and helped circulate his letters. Studying the whole story of Paul’s complex attitude toward women helped change my mind about Paul. It helped convince me that Paul is not the misogynist he is sometimes made out to be. I confess that there was a time when I had no use for Paul whatsoever. If I had had the power — which I didn’t and don’t — I might well have cut Paul out of the Bible, and I would have thrown the proverbial baby right out with the bathwater.

However, what made a difference in my understanding of Paul, even more than studying in-depth his attitude towards women, was hearing a sermon entitled “The Newness of Life: How Grace Works” by Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest named by Baylor University as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language. She writes:

I always work very hard at Paul, who is a theological genius, and whose intricate arguments, frequently leave me with a dull ache behind my eyes. I’m pretty sure this is not Paul’s fault. I think it’s my fault for trying to read him like I read Schleiermacher or Barth. If you don’t know who those people are, it does not matter. They’re just hard to read.

Her revelation came when she was preparing to teach a class on Christian mysticism. The first chapter of the textbook covered many of the great Christian mystics: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi — and there, in the midst of these names, was Paul of Tarsus. Scales fell away from her eyes, and she found she could read Paul again, as if for the first time. In short, Paul is a mystic, who had a number of powerful first-hand experiences with God.

It’s all right there in his writing if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. Paul saw a blinding light on the Damascus Road, and heard a disembodied voice speak to him (Gal 1:13-17; Acts 9:1-9). He saw a vision of the diverse church as the unitive body of Christ. All of these experiences are classical signs of a mystical experience with God. And as if those weren’t  enough, he writes in 2 Corinthians of a seeming out-of-body experience: being “caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows…. [And was] caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor 12:1-4).  Mystics often find it difficult to communicate their experience to others because there is little common ground: I saw this light…. I heard a voice say…. I had this vision…. I felt deeply interconnected with all around me…I experienced myself as out-of-my-body. Barbara Brown Taylor is right that Paul should be shelved with Juliann of Norwich and St. John of the Cross, not with the systematic theologians like Schleiermacher and Barth. In the first-century — and even more so today — Paul is as valuable (or more valuable) for his mystical, sacramental insights as for his intellectual propositions.

There are admittedly ‘low points’ in Paul’s writing, which reflect the prejudices of his 2,000 year old historical context. But despite his imperfections, Paul tirelessly walked long, dusty roads and sailed over across great expanses of sea to minister to the fledgling churches in and around the Mediterranean. He sought to embody in his life that his profound vision of the body of Christ was more than a fleeting oasis. In his teaching and preaching, he challenged Christians to live such that,

the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12:22-26)

There is great wisdom in Paul’s writing. At the same time, Paul’s words have also been used as a club to wound many people and groups from women and racial minorities to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. I’ve tried to speak a good word for Paul, knowing that Paul’s words can both hurt and heal. He was not perfect, but despite the efforts of his worst interpreters Paul helped spread the word that God is waiting for us to have eyes to see a grace-filled world. At its best, Paul’s prose, rings out deep truth: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Rom 8:38-39).

Just as the body is one and has many members, so we — in all our diversity — are a deeply interdependent and interconnected body when seen through the penetrating truth of Paul’s mystical vision. For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body — male or female, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, gay or straight. We are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Together we share a communal life, shaped by faith, hope, and love; but in the end we know, in the words of that great mystic Paul of Tarsus, that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

For Further Study

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg

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