Paul and Women

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Jan Lievens: Aposteln Paulus. NM 7087

In the minds of many, the apostle Paul’s version of the Good News has been nothing but bad news for women.
Two infamous texts stand out. 
The first is I Corinthians 14:34-35, where he asserts that “women should remain silent in the churches.  They are not allowed to speak, but must remain in submission.”  Then in I Timothy 2:11-15 Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 
For the better part of two millennia, these texts have functioned as Exhibit A and Exhibit B for males-only church leadership.  The Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity (which represent 50% and 15%, respectively, of the world’s Christian believers) have never wavered from that conviction. 
A few Protestant groups have empowered female leadership.  But the majority have declined to do so.  After all, Paul could not have been more clear.  He put a No Girls Allowed sign on the clubhouse of Christian ministry.
Case closed.  Right? 
Here we should pause to affirm that even church traditions that prohibit female ordination are enthusiastic about the contributions of women.  Historically, two-thirds of all missionaries have been female, not to mention at least three-quarters of all Sunday School teachers.  On any given weekend in North America there are far more women than men in church sanctuaries.  Women have always been on the leading edge when it comes to prayer, devotion, and practical care for those in need.
Over the centuries, therefore, pastors and theologians have insisted that women must be inferior on other grounds.  Their arguments have been astonishing.   
Because women have less physical strength than men, they must be incapable of leadership.  They are, of course, emotionally unstable (the word “hysterical” is etymologically derived from the Latin word for womb).  Because they cannot understand difficult subjects, they shouldn’t bother pursuing higher education.  Since Eve was tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, women are the moral ruination of men.  And the most painful assertion of all:  Because women aren’t men, they cannot accurately discern the voice and the will of God. 
One by one, such arguments have been demolished by examples of female leadership in secular culture over the past 75 years.  Women are clearly capable of listening, learning, and leading the way (not to mention the fact that men are quite capable of descending into moral ruin all by themselves).
When it comes to church leadership, however, myriads of people who “take the Bible seriously” remain unconvinced.  They would never in a million years smear dabs of White-Out on those Pauline texts, even if we wish they weren’t there.
But what if there are biblical reasons for embracing the spiritual leadership of women?  And what if they come from the pen of the apostle Paul himself?
If we’re willing to consider the contexts of I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 – acknowledging the likelihood that those verses are addressing specific crises that were relevant to those specific times and places – we can see that Paul’s actual leadership practices are surprisingly different from the “males-only” label he has long worn. 
That stands out dramatically at the end of Paul’s longest and most celebrated letter, his correspondence with the fledgling church in Rome.   
In Romans chapter 16, the apostle sends personal greetings to 29 church leaders.  Ten of them are women. 
The first name he mentions is Phoebe, who is identified as a deacon (vs. 1-2).  Paul asserts that she is entitled to the same kind of financial support as other Christian mission workers.  Many Bible scholars believe that Phoebe leads off Paul’s greetings because she is his emissary, having personally carried this letter to the Roman Christians. 
In verse 3 he writes, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.”  We know from other New Testament texts that Priscilla and Aquila are married and have played a key role in Paul’s missionary efforts around the Mediterranean.  What’s notable is that Priscilla’s name precedes her husband’s.  In the ancient world the key member of a partnership (not unlike modern law firms) typically came first – and that was rarely a woman. 
In verse 7 Paul greets a man named Andronicus and a woman named Junia.  They are Jewish believers who are “outstanding among the apostles.”  It’s amazing how little attention has been paid to the fact that Paul – the man so often accused of relegating women to second-class status – is here acknowledging a female apostle.
Apostles (apostoloi) are literally those who are “sent out” with the Good News.  In all four gospels, it is women (not men!) who discover that Jesus’ tomb is empty.  They are commissioned on the spot by the angel to go share what they have learned. 
Women were God’s very first sent-out ones.    
It may be that after twenty centuries, followers of Jesus are finally realizing just how true that still is.