Today I conclude a two-part series of sermons on whether the gender of a person makes a difference (or ought to make a difference) in what they can and can’t do within a church community like ours, and within the wider church.
Last week, we went back to the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) and noted that the world of those days was, quite definitely, a man’s world. Gender did make a difference then. Women were very restricted in what they could do.
A word that is often used to describe that sort of world is patriarchal. In a patriarchal society men have ultimate power and authority, and it is considered fitting that they do. Israelite men, the men who wrote the Old Testament (and they would have all been men), would have just assumed the rightness of patriarchy.
Understandably; that was the world of that day.
In the Old Testament, this patriarchal view was enshrined in law. Women were considered the property of men. That was the paradigm used by lawmakers. A daughter, a wife had very few rights; had next to no power. Although the law did provide some protection for them, they were, nevertheless, largely at the mercy of their men-folk.
It was a man’s world.
You might be sitting there thinking, ‘It still is a man’s world!’ … and that might be true, but Jesus certainly had something to say about the sort of man’s world he grew up into.
Jesus, as we saw last week, was the ultimate subversive. He talked with women. He taught women. He included women among his disciples. He showed extraordinary tenderness and compassion for women.
He slammed the easy divorce of his day, and called people back to the first three chapters of Genesis with their amazingly high view of women and of marriage.
Would Jesus have assumed the rightness of patriarchy; of men having ultimate power in a marriage relationship (in the family)? It is hard to know.
What we can say is that the way Jesus treated each person he came across – whether it was a woman, a child, an outcast, a sinner – the way he treated all people with the same deep respect and love, had the power to at least modify patriarchy, if not destroy it altogether.
I want to come back to that.
This week, I want to look at St Paul, the apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles – and, in time, have a look at that challenging passage from 1 Timothy that I introduced last week.
Did Paul carry on his Master’s good work in the way he thought about and taught about women?
He did. He did. Paul has a reputation for being a woman-hater, but he was anything but. Very early in his ministry, Paul came to see that the coming of Jesus had brought about a radical change within Judaism; transforming it, fulfilling it – moving beyond it in many ways.
The old divisions that had been characteristic of Judaism; the Jew/Gentile division, the male/female division (there was court for women in the Temple and a court for men) collapsed with the coming of Jesus.
Paul could write, in Galatians 3:26: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.’ 1
Christian churches had men and women meeting together – not separated off as they were in Jewish synagogues, into the men on one side & the women the other.
We can only imagine how revolutionary that must have felt.
Paul happily taught women (as Jesus had). The church at Philippi was made up exclusively of women to start with. Paul believed that women were gifted by the Holy Spirit – for ministry – just as men were.
Paul worked with women in ministry – and makes special mention of women in his letters, describing them as valued co-workers in the work of the gospel.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, 9 out of the 18 people he mentions at the end of his letter (when he is sending greetings to various people) are women. The very first person he mentions is Phoebe a deacon from the church at Cenchrea. Women were office bearers in churches set up by Paul. One woman in this list he even describes as an apostle. Chapter 16, verse 7:
‘Greet Andronicus and Junia2, my relatives, who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles.’
Quite possibly, Junia was one of the first people to take the gospel to Rome – and Paul has the highest praise for her!
Paul was no woman-hater. He had a very positive attitude to women and to women’s ministry.
This high view of women is reflected in his teaching on marriage.
Patriarchy gives power to men – what a man says goes – but Paul, in a number of places in his letters, balances that power up. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 for example, Paul gives equal power to husbands and wives in the sexual area. He writes, verse 3:
‘The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent …’
That is an amazing example of power sharing from Paul.
Taken by itself, this would suggest that Paul was attacking patriarchy. It certainly is a denial of patriarchy in the bedroom!!
The opposite of patriarchy is egalitarianism, the idea that husband and wife share power – that there is no boss; no one person with ultimate power to make decisions.
Was Paul an egalitarian? In the bedroom yes, but not, I think, right across the board. Paul retained the patriarchal view of his age. It is what he had grown up with, like slavery.
But what he does do is to regulate patriarchy, so much so that he almost regulates it to death, in my opinion.
In Ephesians, for example, Paul has this to say about wives and husbands, chapter 5, verse 22:
‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.’
Now that sounds like patriarchy, doesn’t it – the husband the head of the wife, the wife submitting to her husband?
It is patriarchy – or it assumes patriarchy. Paul was working within a custom – a universally accepted custom – but as with the Old Testament law makers, was regulating this custom, bringing it into line with higher principles, in this case gospel principles.
He goes on, in verse 25, to say:
‘Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself to her …’
It seems to me that if a husband loves his wife in the same sort of way that Christ loved the church, with the same self-giving sacrificial love, then issues of power become irrelevant.
Think about it: if I, as a husband, try to be Christ-like towards Judy, my wife, in being self-giving and thinking of her above myself, then I will want to see her gifts used; I will want to take full account of her opinions, her expertise, her training, her uncanny women’s intuition & sensitivity … her great wisdom which has been very important to me over the years. I will want to empower her to blossom as a person – to blossom as a woman!
If I do all that – and, presumably, she will want to do that for me too – then our relationship ceases to be one of power – me having more power than her. We both use what power and influence we have – for the other, and patriarchy all but vanishes.
Some would want to argue that there is some patriarchy left. The man still has ultimate responsibility for the relationship (and that his headship consists in that). Maybe, though I can’t see how, in practical terms, it makes any difference.
My point is that Paul’s regulation of patriarchy all but demolishes it. Especially in today’s world, where women are as educated, as skilful and as knowledgeable as men – I personally believe it is time to take the next logical step and abandon patriarchy altogether – and be egalitarian in the way we conduct our marriages and in the way that we operate as a church.
That is what I think, but we are still left with one or two problems – in our efforts to clear the way for full equality for women (in church as in life),3 and one of those is that passage from 1 Timothy chapter 2 which seems to reverse the trend of the rest of the New Testament. Verse 11 and following says this:
‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.’
What do we do with this passage which seems to say to women, ‘You can come this far, but no further!’? That is certainly how it is interpreted in some quarters.
It is important to say that this is the only passage in the whole of the New Testament that explicitly prevents women from engaging in a form of Christian ministry.4 There is nothing else quite like it in the New Testament. We have examples of women praying and prophesying, taking on the role of deacon, even apostle. The various gifts mentioned in the New Testament are not restricted to men.
This passage, because of what it comes straight out and says, has become the lynch-pin in efforts to prevent women from being pastors, preachers, rectors and bishops. And so, it is an important passage.
What are we to say about it? Is it that Paul (or the early church) suddenly lost its nerve? The emancipation of women had gone too far, was getting out of hand, and someone had to come along and re-assert male dominance?
Maybe. Just maybe! The place of women in the early church was revolutionary! It was one of the reasons that the church grew so fast in its early centuries.
I think there is something to be said for the idea that women (at least in Ephesus, where this letter was written to) were getting out of hand; were asserting themselves in ways that were unhelpful.
It is interesting what Paul prohibits women from doing. The word translated, ‘to have authority’ in the RSV and NIV is actually an unusual word (not used anywhere else in the New Testament). It is not the normal word for authority, but a word that in secular Greek meant ‘to dominate’ or ‘to domineer’ or to ‘take authority’. It was sometimes used to mean ‘to murder’. It is an aggressive sort of word.5
What this suggests is that there were women at Ephesus who were asserting themselves aggressively – insisting on their right to teach, perhaps.
We know that Paul was writing his letter to counteract a form of false teaching that had infiltrated the church there (or churches – people tended to meet in homes); and that among those affected by this teaching were women.
The reference to ‘braided hair and gold and pearls and expensive clothes’ in verse 9 suggests that some of these women were wealthy and maybe felt they had every right (as Christians) to be teachers – to have their say!!
There is every good reason to think that what Paul says here is for the situation in Ephesus (back then), and is not something to be generalized for all time.
He is telling women to shush up, although it is worth noting that the word ‘to be silent’ (vs. 12) literally means ‘to be calm’. Paul is not saying that women are not to speak in church – but that they are not to try to dominate or take over. They are not to use their new-found liberty as Christian women as an excuse to push men aside.
He goes on to give some reasons. Verse 13:
‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve.’
What Paul is doing here, I think, is to use the story of Adam and Eve as a relevant illustration of what was going wrong in Ephesus. At that stage in the history of that church, the only accredited teachers (with authority to teach from Paul and Timothy) were men. That situation has a parallel in the story of the creation of Adam who was created first and was also given instructions by God first – making Eve dependent on him to find out what God had said.
Adam’s creation order gave him a certain priority – perhaps this is an expression of patriarchy. At the very least, it affords him a position of respect. These Ephesian women were being very disrespectful – to those men who had been appointed by Paul and Timothy to be teachers in those congregations.
Paul says, ‘Learn (that is revolutionary) with a gentle spirit.’ Don’t go grabbing power. Note that teaching per se is not ruled out by this passage. It is teaching in a dominating way, or teaching in such a way as to dominate men. That is a pretty fair thing to prohibit!
Paul’s second reason for preventing women (at Ephesus) from teaching (or from grasping the teaching role), is, verse 14:
‘And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner’
Once again, what Paul is doing here (I think) is taking an example (the best known example of all) of a woman being deceived (Eve), and using it to warn the women of Ephesus, many of whom were in danger of being deceived – some of whom had been deceived.6
He is using the Eve story as his justification for preventing women at Ephesus from usurping, grabbing, grasping the teaching role.
What Paul said back then has relevance today. It is never good to grasp something that is not yours; to ride roughshod over other people, for women to do that to men, for men to do that to women, but what we have discovered in the New Testament (and this passage from 1 Timothy is no exception) is that Christian women, women who had become disciples of Jesus had come into remarkable freedom – where they were valued in the church like nowhere else.
SO revolutionary was this that, apparently, it did get out of hand from time to time. No woman had been permitted to teach in Greek and Jewish societies up until then. This passage in 1 Timothy could be seen as women trying to make up for lost time – but going too fast!
In a 21st century world, women have more than caught up (though of course there are still challenges). It is time that we are blessed in every way by your gifts, my sisters, by your wisdom, by your often distinctive feminine perspectives, by all that makes you you!
We Sydney Anglicans are a bit behind many other church communities around the world. It is about time we caught up!!
- Paul’s words contradicted the commonly said Jewish benediction: ‘Blessed be he who did not make me a Gentile, blessed be he who did not make me a boor [ie an ignorant peasant or slave], blessed be he who did not make me a woman.’
- The New International Version of the Bible has Junias (which is a man’s name), but it is actually Junia – a female name.
- One significant obstacle is the view that the relationship between men and women reflects an eternal relationship within God as Trinity. If this is the case, arguments around cultural relativity lose at least some of their force. There are, however, some good reasons to think that this view is misguided. For a brief, but helpful treatment of this and other relevant issues, see Graham A. Cole, ‘Women Teaching Men the Bible: What’s the problem?’ in Zadok Perspectives, No. 95, Winter 2007, 13-15.
- With the possible exception of 1 Corinthians 14, 34f where Paul asserts that women are to be silent and submissive in church. In context, this is not a blanket directive, since the assumption of an earlier chapter (chapter 11) is that women can pray and prophesy in church.
- Leland E Wilshire (EQ 65:1, 43-55), examines the use of the term authentein between the second century BC and the second century AD (400 years). Most of the citations have to do with ‘self-willed violence, criminal action or murder or with the person who does these actions. Some, though not many, have the meaning ‘to hold sway or to use power or to be dominant.’
- It is interesting to speculate on why Paul mentioned that Adam was not deceived. The Genesis story is hardly decisive one way or another. Adam, who is with Eve during her encounter with the serpent, doesn’t say a word. He simply takes the fruit she gives him. Perhaps there had been assertions of female superiority by some of the aggressively assertive women. Paul was able to counter such claims by drawing attention to Eve’s unquestionable deception.
Delivered at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2008