Sixteen years into the 21st century – despite the reality of women in the workplace, women in leadership positions in business and government, and the ordination of women in many Protestant denominations and in Judaism – we can still find preachers railing against the leadership of women in Christian organizations. (We will concentrate here on Christianity because of its widespread influence on our culture over the centuries.)
One argument against the ordination of women is that our culture, not Biblical scholarship, has pressured the churches into it. Preachers further appeal to science that shows differences between men and women – so only men are qualified to be priests.
Another line of argument appeals to the supposed words of St. Paul, some of which we will consider below. One contested passage is I Corinthians 14, which orders women to “keep silence in the church.” The “ladies,” in their terminology, cannot speak in the church service, and if they have a question, they must ask their husbands at home. “Learning time is silence time.”
While these preachers and their churches might appear to be fringe or small and possibly isolated, they are nevertheless influential and impact not only the lives of women and girls in general but also families, politics, and legislation. Reliance on these types of arguments have not only influenced church politics but also legislation around abortion, equal pay, women’s health and, in earlier times, women’s right to work outside the home, be educated, manage their own finances, and vote.
As we noted in an earlier blog, however, scholarship argues firmly against this bias. The truth is, Paul had strong women as colleagues in his ministry in the first century – the roots of Christianity include women in leadership positions. Here we will flesh out in more detail what we introduced earlier by looking at New Testament texts about the women around Paul.
Among the passages that purport to show Paul as opposing female leadership are Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, I Timothy 2:11-15 and Titus 2:5. Paul is supposedly commanding wives to submit to their husbands and to be silent in the churches. Modern scholarship has, however, largely determined that Paul most likely did not make these negative, anti-woman statements. Several of the letters attributed to him were actually written after his death. Scholarship over the past century posits that Paul did not write Ephesians, Colossians or the Timothy or Titus letters (see Resources below).
When we look at passages about women that Paul almost certainly did write, a much more positive picture of women emerges. (And this makes sense in the wider Graeco-Roman context, where women were definitely leaders in many pagan sects. It is hard to imagine women converting to Christianity if they were going to have to relinquish their leadership roles. Similarly, contrary to other longstanding assumptions, women also held leadership roles in Judaism, from which Christianity also emerged. See the Resource list below.)
One famous passage from a truly Pauline epistle (letter) is Galatians 3:28, which includes the powerful statement that “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Elsewhere, the evidence shows that Paul worked closely with a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila. They are mentioned in I Corinthians 16:20, authentically Pauline, and Acts of the Apostles 18:1-4, 18. Priscilla is obviously very important to the Christian mission.
In the letter to the Philippians (4:2-3), also an authentically Pauline letter, two women, Euodia and Syntyche, appear to be close associates of his and leaders at Philippi.
It is through a list of individuals in Romans 16 that we see most clearly Paul’s general high regard for women in the church.
- Phoebe serves as a deacon of the assembly at Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth. As such, she would have had the same responsibilities as a male deacon.
- Junia’s name has often been mistranslated as Junias, male, but she was almost certainly the wife of Andronicus. Paul describes the couple in verse 7 as having been prisoners with him, and they are both apostles.
- Also listed by Paul are:
- Mary, a hard worker;
- the mother of Rufus;
- the sister of Nereus.
- Tryphaena and Tryphosa may have been a missionary pair.
While we know little or nothing about these women, we can be certain that, for Paul to have mentioned them along with various male colleagues, these women played important roles in the emerging church.
Early Christian leaders who lived after Paul’s time felt that women should be reined in, perhaps in an effort to legitimize the faith in the face of persecution. Their arguments, however, put words in Paul’s “mouth” that were not there.
For many reasons, modern Americans and Westerners reject Christianity, which is understandable given its history of the oppression of Judaism, of the Inquisition, of imperialism, and of the sometime support for slavery. But the argument that the founder of Christianity opposed the leadership of women no longer holds water. Rejecting Christianity for Paul’s stance on women is thus unfounded. Right-wing Christian preachers who wish to continue to suppress women and deny them leadership roles cannot legitimately rely on Paul for evidence – it is just not warranted by the scholarly evidence.
Brooten, Bernadette J. “Junia.” In Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., Oxford Companion to the Bible, 405. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Brooten, Bernadette. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, Brown Judaic Studies no. 36. Chico, CA, 1982.
Brown, Raymond Edward. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997. “At the present moment about 60 percent of critical scholarship holds that Paul did not write” Colossians (p. 610).
D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women Partners in the New Testament,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6 (1990) 65-86.
Kirby, Peter. Early Christian Writings. Based on respected scholarship, Kirby dates Colossians to 50-80 CE; Ephesians to 80-100 CE; I and II Timothy and Titus to 100-150.