(This post is an update of an article originally published in The Banner, March 2004, pp. 34-36. )
“The Bible is a sexist book and oppressive to women.” That is a message Christian students often hear repeated in the classrooms of secular universities. I once had a non-Christian female student ask me why the Bible is so patriarchal and even misogynist. Almost inevitably, such accusations point to the apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament about women’s roles in marriage and the church as evidence of the Bible’s anti-woman stance.
I often counter by suggesting that the Bible is not anti-woman but is rather affirmative of women (and of men!). The idea that Scripture is misogynist often stems from readings that fail to take into account historical contexts. For instance, there’s a big difference between claiming that the Old Testament sanctions patriarchy (male dominated society) from that it reveals God’s workings within a patriarchal society.
For this article, I will narrow my focus on the apostle Paul. Are Paul’s writings anti-women? I believe Paul’s writings affirm women as spiritual and social equals with men before God. But what about some of Paul’s statements that sound so offensive to our modern ears? We need to understand these statements in their proper historical context. Due to space limitations, we can look at only a few of Paul’s controversial statements.
In Titus 2:4-5, Paul encourages the younger women “to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” [emphasis mine] (NIV). Similarly, in verses 6-8, young men are encouraged to do “what is good” so that “those who oppose [Christians] may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (verse 8). And slaves are to subject themselves to their masters in order to “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (verse 10). These three instructions all have one motivational reason – to ensure a good reputation for the gospel among non-Christians.
Paul’s concern is justified considering the Roman Empire’s record of swift, violent punishment to religious groups that offends its morals and social stability. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Paul, documented that the emperor Tiberius banished the entire Jewish community from Rome simply because one Jewish man, on religious pretenses, tricked a wealthy Roman woman of her money. Josephus also noted that the Roman Empire destroyed the temple of Isis and crucified all its priests just because one Isis priest was guilty of a sexual offense on a virtuous Roman woman. Note how these two cases are linked by offenses to women. (See Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews Book XVIII, Chapter 3, sections 4-5.)
Although the Roman Empire allowed different religions to flourish in its domain, it was very suspicious and intolerant of what it perceives to be immoral religious cults that subvert Rome’s authority and its social structures. As a former persecutor of Christianity himself, and as Jewish religious authorities were already persecuting Christians, Paul knows that the gospel’s spread will be hindered if Christians cause unnecessary offense to the current social norms. It is this context that must inform our readings of Paul’s writings about women.
Women in the Home
Let’s look at Ephesians 5:21-31, for instance. These “household codes”, as they are known (also in Colossians 3:18-4:1), are not unique or original to Paul. Many other Greco-Roman and Jewish ethical or religious thinkers wrote similar household instructions on wives, children, and slaves. Ever since Aristotle, these three household relations – the wife-husband, child-parent, and slave-master relations – are seen as the building blocks of society. Aristotle, interestingly enough, discussed these three relationships in his book on Politics (Book 1, Parts 3, 12 & 13). Thus, to talk about these household relations during this era is not to talk simply of private, home matters but to touch on the foundations of social and political structures. Hence, a religion’s teachings on these relationships will be one of the first places that the Roman authorities will look to determine if that religion is subversive of Roman social values.
Paul and many others are well aware of this. Many other religions would use these household codes to show that they uphold Roman values and that they are not a threat to Roman society. Josephus, for example, also speaks of the household codes in his defense of Judaism. (See his Against Apion, Book II, especially sections 15 & 25.) Therefore, in this context, it is not surprising that Paul sounds very conservative and upholds the status quo of patriarchy in the household codes. It would be surprising if he did not!
However, a closer look will show that there are seeds of change, or hidden “codes” within the household codes, as it were, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. In Ephesians 5:22, for instance, Paul uses wifely submission to husbands as an example of mutual submission of Christians. This is especially so since the verb, submit, does not occur in the (most accurate) original Greek texts of verse 22. In Greek, verse 22 borrows the verb, submit, from verse 21. Hence, in Greek, it literally reads: “Submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ; wives, [likewise] to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
Nobody can complain that Paul is subverting Roman values when he asks wives to submit to their husbands. But by placing wifely submission as an example of mutual Christian submission, Paul is really suggesting that husbands and wives should be mutually submitting to each other (since verse 21 is a command to all Christians). This makes sense in the way Paul describes the husband’s love for the wife – imitating Christ’s self-sacrificial, nourishing love. Such self-sacrificial love clearly fits the image of mutual submission better than that of a rigid hierarchy. Mutual submission and mutual love suggests equality, not hierarchy.
There are more that can be said but my point is that Paul is not putting wives down in this text. Rather, he is cleverly covering up principles of equality in the language of status quo values. To apply this text correctly as modern Christians, we should not implement the hierarchical values of an ancient culture but implement the Christian principle of mutual submission and love.
Some might argue here that I am neglecting the commands to children. Is the hierarchy between children and parents to be dismissed as well? Obviously not. Then, why do I take the wife-husband hierarchy as cultural while the child-parent hierarchy is universal? Because Paul himself makes a distinction between them.
In Titus 2, Paul did not mention children but young women, young men, and slaves. This is a clue that Paul sees child-parent relationship differently than wife-husband and slave-master relations. Paul asks wives and slaves to behave in certain ways to help the spread of the gospel. But Paul asks children to obey their parents because he believes that is God’s command. That is probably why in Ephesians, the command to children is the only one where Paul quotes the Old Testament (the Ten Commandments) to support his injunction. Another clue is that while Paul calls children and slaves to obey, he asks wives to submit. “Obey” and “submit” are two different words in Greek. Although submission often implies obedience, it does not necessarily mean obedience. It could mean the equivalent of “respect”. The fact that Paul consistently never asked wives to “obey” their husbands sounds like another “code”. Furthermore, children naturally grow out of their subordinate positions into responsible adulthood. Wives and slaves don’t have that luxury.
Women in the Church
But you may argue that Paul does believe that wifely submission is divinely ordained. For example, Ephesians 5:23 says, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” and 1 Corinthians 11:3 says, “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”. Surely, Christ being head of the church still applies today, doesn’t it? Of course, Christ is the head of the church today, yesterday and tomorrow. But we are assuming that “head” always means being the “boss” and always means a hierarchy. The majority view of recent biblical scholarship, however, sees the Greek word kephale – used here for “head” – means “source” rather than “authority”.
Philip B. Payne, in Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Zondervan 2009), listed 15 solid reasons why the Greek kephale means “source” rather than “authority” or “leader” (pp. 117-137). Two of the most compelling reasons are: 1. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) used by the gospel writers and by the apostle Paul shows that most of its translators preferred to use kephale to translate the Hebrew literal meaning of “head” but rarely (only 6 out of 171 instances) did they choose to translate the Hebrew metaphorical use of “head” as “leader” with kephale. This shows that kephale as “leader” or “boss” is a rare usage. 2. The use of kephale as “source” is well established from ancient non-biblical texts. Ancient Greeks and even Jews who wrote in Greek, like Philo, used kephale as “source”, as in “the head (source) of the rivers”.
Furthermore, the immediate context of how a writer uses a word, plays, for me, the biggest role in determining its meaning. In Ephesians 5, “head” is clearly defined in the immediate context as self-sacrificial love. How is Christ head of the church? By being her savior, by loving her and giving himself up for her. Clearly, the emphasis here is not on hierarchy.
In 1 Corinthians 11, the context of the word “head” also suggests it means “source”. It makes sense in the context of verse 8: “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.” Therefore, verse 3 will read: “the source of every man is Christ, and the source of the woman (Eve) is man (Adam), and the source of Christ (as incarnated flesh) is God.” But Paul later qualifies or back-peddles from this “source” argument: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (verses 11-12). Again, we see the seeds of equality sown in the midst of hierarchical language.
The whole passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is controversial and difficult to interpret. I believe that the Corinthian church suffered from a clash of values between upper-class members and lower-class members. Wealthier women in Greco-Roman culture tend to imitate the fashionable hairstyles of the imperial court, while lower-class women tend to go veiled as a sign of modesty. Most Jewish and conservative groups would view unveiled women as potentially immodest and even immoral. Thus, when the wealthier women came to worship with their fashionable hairstyles in full show, tensions arose within the congregation. So, why didn’t any man just put these women in their place, and order them to cover up? Because the Christian gospel encourages equality, not patriarchy. Let me explain.
In verse 10 we read: “… the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head”. This verse is problematic due to poor translation. The original Greek literally reads: “Because of this ought the woman authority to have on the head …”. Most scholars today agree that the most natural, normal reading of the Greek is “the woman ought to have authority over her own head” (see the alternate translation in the margins of the New Revised Standard Version). But the traditional translation has inserted the words, “sign of”, to make it read that the woman should have a sign of authority on her head. If the natural reading is correct, then Paul is saying that women have authority to decide what happens to their own heads.
Therefore, nobody in the Corinthian church can order these women to cover up precisely because everyone recognizes that, in Christ, the women, just as the men, have control over their own heads! So, Paul is called in for help. Paul calls these women to forgo their rights and submit to the head coverings so as not to cause offense. This is consistent with the entire preceding context of surrendering one’s own “rights” to avoid causing others to lose faith in Christ (chapters 8-10). This is also why Paul has to muster up various different arguments (from male “headship”, created order, to social customs) to persuade these women. It explains why Paul didn’t simply say, this is the way God wills it, or simply quote a Scripture text to end the discussion. He keeps pulling up different arguments and even qualifies or back-peddles from them because he knows that these women have every right before God to go uncovered. But for the sake of the gospel and to prevent any social scandal, Paul persuades the women to “not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32).
Neither Male Nor Female
Much more can be said of these and other passages from Paul. But I hope that my point is made. For this article, I have relied heavily on Craig S. Keener’s Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (IVP, 1992). I recommend it, along with Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ, to you if you wish to explore further Paul’s statements on women. Finally, the clearest statement affirming women from Paul’s writings is Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is Paul’s call to the Christian community to break the divisions that divide among the races, classes and sexes.
Appendix: Headship & the Trinity
Those who see “head” as meaning “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 often see male headship as divinely patterned after the Trinity: just as Jesus is equal to God in essence, but subordinate to his “head”, the Father, in terms of his role, so women are equal to men spiritually but subordinate in their roles. Although this view of the Trinity is common today (even I myself used to hold it), it is contrary to the Athanasian Creed – “And in this Trinity … none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal together and coequal” – and to the Belgic Confession – “There is neither a first nor a last, for all three are one in truth and power, in goodness and mercy” (article 8). The historic Trinitarian doctrine opposes any kind of subordination among the three persons but affirms the equality of Father, Son and Spirit in essence and in roles. Their roles are different but equal. See The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate by Kevin Giles (IVP, 2002).