Here’s why Paul is not a male chauvinist pig

January 15, 2013
Of course you recognize this Gamorrean Guard from Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi.

Of course you recognize this adorable guy from Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi.

In my sermon on Sunday, I made an argument that the apostle Paul is neither a male chauvinist pig nor a helpless victim of a patriarchal culture who unconsciously reflects its oppressive values. I made this case by pointing to other parts of Paul’s letters that contradict this idea—especially his words in Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 11, and Galatians 3:28. How can we, the church, argue that women shouldn’t serve in leadership roles in the church based on Paul’s words (in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, for example), when Paul himself, in other places, indicates that they are and should?

As I said Sunday, Paul can’t mean that all women at all times and in all places should remain silent in worship in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 when, in the very same letter, 11:4-5, he assumes that women aren’t silent (“but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled…”), nor should they be.

As always, we have to interpret difficult passages of scripture first in light of scripture that’s clearer and easier to understand. Therefore, whatever we think Paul means in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, he can’t mean that all Christian women at all times and in all places are prohibited from participating fully in church leadership. He must be saying something else.

My favorite theologian and Bible scholar, N.T. Wright, makes the same argument in the following video clip—except with an English accent, so you know it must be true.

Notice he refers the listener to his commentary, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, for his argument about Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, which in my view are among the most difficult to understand in all of the Bible.

His argument takes up several pages in his commentary. Let me try to represent it as succinctly as possible. First, the key to the passage is to understand what Paul is getting at in this passage: Women must be allowed to learn and study God’s word, every bit as much as men. Women should do, for example, what Martha’s sister Mary does in Luke 10:38-42. In the culture of the Ancient Near East, that Jesus permitted Mary to sit at his feet alongside the men was a radical gesture; Paul’s words are in that same spirit. Therefore, his words about “full submission” in v. 11 describe a woman’s attitude as a fellow learner: in submission not to men, but to God.

Verse 12, however, is more controversial. Of this verse, Wright says,

Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man’ (the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years). It can equally mean: ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’ Why might Paul need to say this?

There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion—the biggest temple, the most famous shrine—was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area. As befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.[1]

So in a pagan religious milieu in which women held great power over men, Paul wants to make sure that these Ephesian Christians don’t get the wrong idea: “I’m not saying that Christian worship in Ephesus should mirror pagan worship, in that women now get to dictate to men; only that they should be encouraged to learn alongside them.”

We’re not out of the woods, though: What do we make of this weird part about Adam and Eve? We know that Paul can’t be blaming Eve for Adam’s sin—in which case we’d have to throw out large chunks of his argument in Romans! He’s referring instead to the nature of Eve’s sin: ignorance. Unlike Adam, who deliberately sinned by breaking God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit, Eve sinned because she failed to understand the command, which was given to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17. Seriously: read these verses in the context of the entire chapter.

Now read 1 Timothy 2:13-14 again: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve…” Paul doesn’t say this in order to establish an ontological hierarchy: “See, men are superior to women.” Rather, he’s reminding Timothy that when God gave the command to Adam, Eve wasn’t yet created! Eve was created some time later, in Genesis 2:21ff. So Eve had to learn about God’s command concerning the forbidden fruit later—and she failed to learn it well, obviously. For all we know, Adam failed to teach it to her properly. As a result, she fell into sin.

Adam sinned too, of course, but the nature of his sin was different—and in some ways worse, at least based on an Old Testament accounting of sin.

So Paul is using this illustration from Genesis 2-3 to stress the importance that everyone—both men and women—be given the opportunity to learn the word of God.

Finally, what about v. 15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Unless we imagine that Paul has forgotten about salvation by grace through faith, we know he can’t be saying that women are saved as a result of their ability to give birth. That’s preposterous! Since the Creation story of Genesis 2-3 is still in view, Paul has in mind Eve’s punishment for her sin, described in Genesis 3:16 (“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children). Eve’s punishment doesn’t cut women off from salvation: for women, like men, will be saved through faith, love, and holiness.

I’ll leave you with Wright’s words again:

What about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers an assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful and dangerous, often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men alike, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness and prudence. And that includes those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing.[2]

1. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 25.

2. Ibid., 26-7.

8 Responses to “Here’s why Paul is not a male chauvinist pig”

  1. Susan Taylor Says:

    Well, thank you for setting this straight and in a “most excellent” manner. Now if only Christians could understand this we might be able to progress even further when it comes to female clergy. Once upon a time in my ignorance I thought of Paul as a “male chauvinist pig.” After seminary, I came to understand and appreciate Paul more fully. Well done, Brent!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I agree that men and women are “equal” in the sight of God as far as their relationship to God is concerned, and that women should, and should be able to, learn about God just as much as men (per Mary, as you mention–good point). However, I don’t think I can agree that there is no difference in “roles” between the two, or that such differences are irrelevant when it comes to public worship and teaching. “I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man” ties in with the rest of the total package of what Paul is saying there, and I don’t think that can be “escaped” by simply saying, “This was written to Ephesians.” Otherwise, why talk about Adam being created first, or not falling out of ignorance? As you say, we have to interpret scripture in light of scripture, so it seems quite unlikely that Paul is ultimately saying all women are always to keep silent in church. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between saying, “Women can talk,” and saying, “Women can be the ‘pastors’ of the church.” I think that looking at all Paul says here, and elsewhere, counsels against that. No difference in “standing”; some difference in “roles.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I realize you haven’t read my sermon yet, but in it I argue that Paul himself recognizes and commends women who are taking leadership roles in the church—see Wright’s discussion in the video. Being an apostle, as we know for sure Junia was, for example, not to mention Mary Magdalene, is at least as great a responsibility as being a pastor. Phoebe the deacon, who delivered and read aloud Paul’s letter to the Romans to the Roman house churches, would also have been responsible for answering questions about it on Paul’s behalf. That implies a teaching role, for both women and men.

      Is Paul contradicting himself? If we give him the benefit of the doubt that he isn’t, then that forces us to ask additional questions. The interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 accounts for all of these questions. It fits the known facts better than alternative interpretations, I believe.

      I’m hardly saying that the context of Ephesus (and worship at the Artemis temple) is the only thing that matters, but it does explain nicely everything else that follows.

      You write: “Otherwise, why talk about Adam being created first, or not falling out of ignorance?”

      As I said in the post, the main point of Paul’s words here is that women should be permitted to learn—to learn well and properly. Unlike Eve, Adam didn’t fall out of ignorance: he fell out of willful disobedience. Eve, by contrast, fell out of ignorance. Paul is using the illustration to say, “Let’s make sure that no one—neither a woman or man—will sin out of ignorance. Let’s make sure we teach them.”

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I will await your sermon, but I don’t think it follows from a woman being an “apostle” (which has more than one aspect or connotation) that she is therefore “qualified” to be a pastor. Again, it is a difference of roles and “gifts” of the Spirit, not a “higher” or “lower” thing. Children are supposed to obey their parents, for example–they are not “lower”; that is simply how God established the family to operate, with a “heirarchy” of roles to ensure smooth functioning. I don’t know of any reason why God could not have done the same with local church “organizations” when it comes to men and women.

  3. brentwhite Says:

    That’s fine, Tom, but I’ve heard opponents of women in ordained ministry say that Paul is establishing a hierarchy in 1 Peter 2: “See, Paul is saying here that men should be in charge because of the order of creation. Because men were created first, and Eve was deceived, men are therefore more qualified to be pastors.” As I argue in this post, that’s not at all what Paul is saying here. Eve was deceived, true. But Adam, knowing what God wanted him to do, willfully sinned—which is worse, biblically speaking. If you want to find a hierarchy, I don’t think you find it in this text.

    But there are other interpretations aside from the one I share that soften the traditional prohibition against women in ordained ministry. Paul’s use of indicative versus imperative language. “I don’t allow” isn’t the same as “Don’t permit.” Paul uses imperative language frequently when he issues a command. Why doesn’t he do that here? Even if you adhere to a traditional translation and interpretation of Paul’s words, how confident are you that the Holy Spirit intends these words as a once for all time in all places-type command?

    My sermon won’t convince you. I’m speaking as a United Methodist, after all. We believe in women’s ordination. In my sermon, I was speaking against the idea that Paul is a chauvinist, an issue that was raised in Rachel Held Evans’s book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”—a book that I found, at times, incredibly frustrating.

    We are in complete agreement that, regardless how we interpret these texts, Paul is not a male chauvinist pig.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Brent, one thing you say is of some interest to me. “I’m speaking as a United Methodist.” I’m a Baptist, but I disagree with what some Baptist churches teach about drinking, for example, and I disagree with my own pastor in particular on predestination and evolution of the universe. Hopefully without getting you in any trouble, do you feel it is necessary to agree with every tenet of the “national” church?

      • brentwhite Says:

        Good question!

        No, it’s not necessary for me to agree with every tenet of the UMC, but women in ordained ministry is such a large one that if I didn’t believe in it, I imagine as a matter of conscience that I should find another denomination in which to serve.

        If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t have gotten ordained—assuming I wasn’t lying through my teeth.

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