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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Paul Helped Elevate the Status of Women

Few people, outside of Jesus, are more celebrated, dissected, and scoffed at than the Apostle Paul. When it comes to gender roles in the church, this is especially true. Historian Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, notes many of her students often say, “I hate Paul!”[1] because of how Christians have understood his take on women. 

But what if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman? What if he didn’t seek to restrict women, but free them? What if he didn’t seek to silence them but to empower them to speak the wonders of the gospel? What if he partnered with them, as he did with men, to get to the gospel to the ends of the earth? 

This post begins a series of posts on Paul and specific texts he wrote that deal with women. In the first two posts, I’ll give an overview of how Paul viewed and interacted with women. This post will look at the environment Paul ministered in and how two elements of his theology elevated women. The next will highlight several of the women we meet in Paul’s ministry and letters.

The goal is to help us see that Paul was not universally restrictive of women, contrary to what most complementarian theologians teach. In certain places, it sure seems like Paul was quite hard on women! I will address those texts specifically. But when we look at the bigger picture of Paul’s theology and ministry we’ll see a different story.

What if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman?

Let’s start with a glance at Paul’s environment and its view of women. 

An Open Door for the Liberation of Women

Paul lived in the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century AD. Roman culture and its philosophy was “thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Greek philosophy.”[2] Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers. 

In Politics, he suggests a sociological structure for the state. And he has quite a bit to say about women. In one place, he writes, “[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” A bit later, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

It’s impossible to know if Aristotle’s words were floating around in the minds of the average Roman citizen in the first century. But his influence goes without saying. It’s more than likely that these degrading ideas about women permeated Roman thought. 

As a friend of mine (a PhD in philosophy) commented recently, “Greek philosophy, in general, was in the drinking water of the [Roman] culture.”

Even with this Greek influence, a woman’s place in the Roman world was a mixed bag. Yes, they were often mistreated, abused, and given in marriage far too young (and without choice).[4] To the Romans, a woman’s role was to support her husband, birth babies, and manage the home.[5] 

But there were positive developments. Roman women had much more freedom than Greek women. They were not meant to be invisible and completely relegated to the domestic sphere (like in Greece).[6] They could own property or a business, inherit an estate, make a will, and even buy and sell slaves. 

By God’s sovereign design, this subtle, positive shift served as a launching pad for the church to give prominence and authority to women unlike anything before.

Two Key Values that Elevated Women 

The Roman context opened up the door for the church to elevate women. In this section, let’s focus on two key elements in Paul’s theology that set women free and give them equal status with men. To use a modern category, you can think of these elements as Paul’s ministry “values.”

In Christ: The Gospel Levels the Playing Field

I’ll call the first value “in Christ.” Anyone who has read Paul understands that this is one of his favorite phrases. The reality of being “in Christ” for Paul is foundational to everything else. Life, virtue, ministry, and anything good flows from being “in Christ.” 

What does it have to do with women in ministry?

One passage that egalitarians are quick to point to is Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarians argue that the context is about salvation. I agree, and so do egalitarians. But does Galatians 3:28 have any sociological implications?[7]

There are two other passages that use the “in Christ” phrase that look and sound a lot like Galatians 3:28. 

  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).
  • “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There’s also Ephesians 2:15, which is similar: 

  • “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace…”

These three passages are representative of each other and probably interchangeable.[8] Paul is looking at areas of social inequality and showing how the gospel brings a new identity “in Christ” that levels the social playing field. In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens.[9]

If Christianity were to spread across the globe, the Jew-Gentile problem was especially important to address. Jews needed to embrace Gentiles and vice versa. Otherwise, the news of Jesus would not have left Jerusalem!

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

This is part of Paul’s genius. Yes, he was a deeply spiritual missionary. But he was also strategic. That’s why he tackled the ethnicity problem in almost all his letters. 

The church eventually “caught sight of the social ramifications of the Jew-Gentile equality”[10]. The proof is that Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire. 

Later, Christians saw equality for slaves and worked out the implications over the course of church history. William Wilberforce in England is the most famous example of an abolitionist who believed slavery was at odds with the gospel.

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

To me, the issue here is urgency. In his short lifetime, what would Paul choose to focus on? He had a holy sense of urgency to get the Jew-Gentile problem corrected because of his desire to get to gospel to the entire known world. 

He chose not to press the women and slaves issue. Looking back on history, it’s easy to see how social/practical (not spiritual) liberation for these groups would have actually hurt the spread of the gospel. Society, as a whole, wasn’t ready for it yet, even if Christians were.[11]

But Paul still cared about women being elevated and valued in the church. His approach to this wasn’t as explicit as the gender issue. It was more subversive. His understanding and application of spiritual gifts help us see this.

Mutual Participation: Everyone Contributes in the Church

The second value is “mutual participation” in the church through spiritual gifts. Paul taught that everyone in the church has a part to play—even women. All who are “in Christ” share in the Spirit. This means everyone has spiritual gifts to contribute to the church’s well-being (see 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16).[12]

The point here is that spiritual gifts are not “gendered.” Instead, the Spirit gives gifts to each person as he desires (1 Cor 12:11). And when everyone does their part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph 4:16). Everyone in the body is now an “ambassador,” speaking for Christ wherever they go (2 Cor. 5:20).[13] 

The unique thing about first-century churches is that they met in homes. Churches were more informal and participatory than our churches today. Gathering to hear one man speak for 45-50 minutes was unheard of.[14] 

Paul expected each person to show up to a church meeting with something to minister to others. People weren’t to only consume. They were to contribute. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 when Paul says, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

When Paul corrected the Corinthians in this same chapter about their worship gathering, he didn’t chide women for using a particular gift or even leading. We actually see women prophesying (a leadership activity) back in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, he’s worried about the manner of how the gifts were being used.

The value of mutual participation is also seen in the “one another” references sprinkled throughout his letters. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Correct one another. And so on.

Paul expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

Consider Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (my emphasis).

This is about living in community together. But these things would happen within a worship service context. It begs the question. Why would Paul tell the whole church to “teach and admonish one another” if women could not teach men?

It seems obvious to me that he expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

One more thought. Paul says that the word of Christ will dwell in us when we teach and admonish through “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Paul knew then what science proved much later: music is a powerful medium for memory.[15]

My wife (the musician in our family) has said that most Christians learn more theology through songs than sermons. I agree.

If songs can teach in a way that helps the message of Jesus get into the hearts and minds of Christians, why would Paul encourage women to sing, if they were not allowed to teach? 

Consider the implications for us today. Taken to the extreme, the restriction “women cannot teach men” (from 1 Tim 2:12) would mean that a woman cannot lead musical worship. It would also imply that all women cannot sing out loud during a congregational meeting, since, in Paul’s mind, singing is a communal activity for mutual edification.[16] 

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender. It makes the most sense that Paul encouraged and expected women, like men, to use their spiritual gifts, including teaching, for the benefit of everyone in the early house churches.[17] 

Summing It Up

Paul lived during a major turning point in history. While still falling short of what we’d hope for today, female Roman citizens enjoyed more rights than previous cultures. This opened a unique opportunity for the Church to elevate women to an equal status with men. Paul’s teaching on being “in Christ” and the mutual participation of believers through spiritual gifts were foundational for the Church to treat everyone equally, including women.

The next post will show how Paul lived this out, as we do a brief fly over of his ministry relationships with women.

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender.


Notes

Feature photo: “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne (c. 1618-20).

[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 39.

[2] See “Roman Philosophy,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Girls were often betrothed by age 10 and married in the late adolescent or early teen years, although some girls were married by 10 or 11. Mary Beard writes that Atticus sought out a potential husband for his daughter when she was only 6 years old. See Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright & Company, 2015), 311.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 307. 

[7] The general idea for this section comes from William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 85-87.  

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 48.

[10] Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 86.

[11] When I have more time, I’d like to research how the Roman Empire and the Jewish Diaspora paved the way for a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem. In AD 70, when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it forced the entire population of that city to find new meaning and identity as a displaced people. But even earlier than that, in Acts 2, we saw that Jews were living all over the known world and would come back to Jerusalem for feasts. The Roman Empire was sympathetic to other religions—as long as they didn’t revolt. (That’s why Jerusalem was burned down!) The Roman road system also allowed for “interstate travel” (as we’d call it today). People were continually crossing paths with others who were different from them. In a nutshell, the Empire was a step toward a more global, multi-ethnic community. While advances were made for women, it was nothing in comparison to this. Women were still second-class citizens (with slaves beneath them).

[12] Spiritual gifts are ministries, activities, functions, etc. that edify and build up others people in the church. See 1 Cor 12:4-6.

[13] The word “ambassador” is connected to the idea of “image and likeness” from Genesis. An ambassador is someone who represents a greater authority, just like an “image” did in the ancient world. Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Paul’s building an argument to help the Corinthians see that the ministry of Spirit is to transform believers into the image of Jesus and, therefore, serve as his ambassadors. It is a “new creation refresh” on the original creation account. Women share in this equally with men.

[14] Even in the Jewish synagogue context, one man would not lecture for the entire meeting. Instead, synagogue meetings were much more interactive and discussion-oriented. Consider the scene in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, read from Isaiah, made a very brief comment and sat down. Then the discussion continued (about him, of course!). The goal was communal learning and experience, not top-down communication. 

[15] On my blog and in sermons I’ve shared about the Psalms being what I call “felt theology.” In other words, the Psalms make the truth about God and life come alive in the emotions of the human heart. This is what Paul’s getting at in Colossians 3:16. 

[16] There are some traditions that do not permit women to lead musical worship. I hardly think any would forbid all women from singing out loud.

[17] Craig Blomberg (in a lecture I could not locate if I tried) talked about the importance of song for the oral transmission of the Gospels. Because singing helps humans memorize easily, Blomberg suggested that much of the oral tradition was passed down through song. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. Particularly because several scholars believe two of the most famous passages in the New Testament about Jesus (Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11) were actually hymns.