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New Testament Sexism?

The apostle Paul is one of the most striking figures in Biblical literature and much that is memorable and instructive flowed from his pen. No one wishing to understand Christianity can dispense with Paul. But what, in good conscience, can one do with a quote from one of his letters like this one? "As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." That remarkably sexist statement is from 1st Corinthians chapter 14: 34-36.

Right on the face of things we have just three choices:

1) all Christians must put down women,
2) all people of sensitivity and conscience must cease to call themselves Christian,
3) everyone must pretend it was never written.

Much effort has gone into how one may cope with Paul's apparent injury to good conscience. A number of modern scholars have shown to their own satisfaction that verses 34-36 may have been inserted into first Corinthians 14 by a later hand; this is impossible to prove. The kinds of personalities who like the anti-female sentiments in this quote aren't likely to care much about scholarship anyway. Even so, a good answer is possible.

Reading through the rest of Paul's letters we find that he also said this "What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence," [i.e.: about his strong credentials for a claim to apostleship] "I am saying not with the Lord's authority, but as a fool..." 2nd Corinthians 2:17. Here Paul admits that he does not always speak for God or Christ, but simply for himself. To further clarify this picture, notice that Paul was not always temperate in his choice of words. Like this quote: "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" Galatians 5:12.

Let's contrast this "Galatians 5" Paul with the same man when he speaks for his Deity within that same letter. "As many of you as were baptized in Christ have clothed yourself in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:27-28. The difference in tone and attitude is remarkable.

And doesn't Paul repudiate his own opinion at the end of Romans (16:1-2) declaring: "I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon (some translations say 'minister') of the church at Cenchreae ... she has been a benefactor of many and myself as well."? Of the 28 Roman churchgoers that Paul greeted by name in that letter, 10 were women. One, a female apostle, Junia, Paul hailed as "prominent" (some translations say "foremost") "among the apostles." (Romans 16:7)

So what does Christ say? A clear and powerful inference can be drawn from this passage from Matthew: "A woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head ..., when the disciples saw it, they were angry... 'why the waste?' But Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she had done will be told in remembrance of her.' " Close variations are in Mark (14:3-9) and John (12:1-8). In all three variations the implications are plain. This was a gathering of Jesus' elect, the precursor of the church. One woman takes bold, extravagant action and the men, Paul-like, take her to task. Jesus tell the men to come off it.

In John, Jesus meets a Samaritan (read that "outcast") woman at a village well. He engaged her in theological discussion, saw her become the first to proclaim him messiah, let her be his first missionary.

In Luke (10:38-42) we have: "Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha ... asked 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.' But the Lord answered her ... 'Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.' " The clear lesson is that there is a better place for a woman's attention than on the kitchen.

Martha appears again in John (11:21-27) where she proclaims her belief in Christ's power over death, and is in fact the first to declare her belief in his coming death and resurrection. A vital speaking part in the unfolding drama of Christ's mission for a player whose only role is to sit down and keep silent, don't you think? The theological silencing of women is not only unsupported here, but taken together with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, is shown as absurd.