Women in Paul

Probably the most forceful statement in all of Scripture regarding the equality of women and men in the Christian church is found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Paul clearly proclaims that, by baptism into Christ, there is a new creation in which all distinctions are erased between women and men; he insists that women are entirely equal to men in terms of membership and identity in Christ.

Yet, on the practical level, the Pauline corpus (including Paul’s authentic letters as well as those that are not recognized as authentically Pauline) insists that women should be subordinate to men. There are four citations in the Pauline corpus that counsel women/wives to be subordinate to men:

1 Cor 14:34-35: “[W]omen should keep silent in the churches. . .but should be subordinate. . .[to men].”

Eph 5:22-24: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife. . . .”

Col 2:11-15: “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. . . .”

Clearly there is tension between these two positions in the Pauline corpus. That is, Paul maintains strict equality between women and men in the Christian Church, while the non-authentic Pauline letters maintain that women must be subordinate to men in the church. How can we deal with these contrary positions? What does contemporary scriptural exegesis tell us about this conflict? Must our Christian faith regard those quotes that urge women to be subordinate to men as true or normative? If Scripture is the inspired word of God, how can Christianity be seen as a religion that does not denigrate women? Modern Scripture scholars offer various possible solutions for the status of women and men in Christianity.

Doubtfully Genuine

Notice first that two of these citations are from Ephesians and Colossians. The majority of Scripture scholars today consider both of these letters as only doubtfully genuine letters of Paul; that is, Paul is probably not the author of those letters. And they agree even more strongly that the First Letter to Timothy is pseudonymous. Finally, while the First Letter to the Corinthians is certainly authentic, the passage in Chapter 14:34-35 is commonly considered a later insertion by another author: “These verses are. . .a post-Pauline interpolation. . . . Not only is the appeal to the law (possibly Gn 3:16) unPauline, but the verses contradict [what we have seen in the rest of 1 Corinthians].”

Accordingly, the first possible solution to the problem of Paul versus women is to deny that any of these four citations is authentically Pauline and so does not reflect his personal opinion. In other words, there is no quote from Paul’s authentic writings, which denigrate women. This solution exonerates Paul from subordinating women to men, so that his forceful statement in Galatians truly reflects his opinion that women are entirely equal to men in our Christian faith.

This is a valid conclusion regarding Paul’s authentic writings, but it would not solve all the problems with the four citations that are so offensive to women. For though these four quotes are not authentically Pauline, they are still canonical and therefore are normative for Christianity.

Culture of the Time

The second solution offers an honest answer according to modern exegesis. It is based on our understanding of Greco–Roman culture of the time. For the common pattern of wives being subject to their husbands is in keeping with Greek, Roman and Jewish culture of the time. Examples are found in Xenophon, Aristotle, Josephus, Philo and Juvenal. Such teaching about husbands and wives followed the similar teaching regarding masters and servants as well as parents and children.

Greco–Roman and rabbinical social order required subordinates to obey their superiors. Such order within households became known as quite universal domestic codes. So, when Paul and those who wrote in his name proposed norms for husbands and wives, they followed the practical norms of the prevalent domestic codes. Possibly, other New Testament writers were aware of Paul’s insistence that men and women are equal in Christ regarding their status as members of His body. If so, they did not find this practical domestic norm as contradicting their fundamental Christian equality. This solution is quite simple and perhaps satisfactory for some, but it does not clearly resolve how both positions could be compatible.

A third solution tries to weaken the force of the practical norms. It points out that the author of 1 Timothy is merely expressing a practical norm or personal opinion for Christians to live in accord with the prevalent culture of the time. That is, the entire passage of 1 Timothy, 2:8-15 is introduced by “It is my wish. . .” (1 Tm 2:8). That implies that he is not imposing a rule intrinsic to the Good News, but offering a simple practical norm, according to the culture of the time. This solution would certainly weaken the strength of the practical norm, but it would still leave in place a norm that has led to terrible prejudice, harm and violence to women.

The fourth solution faces the conflict head on. It approaches the problem by distinguishing two categories of teachings found throughout the new Testament. For centuries, Catholics knew that Scripture was not inspired or inerrant with respect to matters of science or history. The authors of all the books of Scripture had human limitations regarding facts of science or details of history; they made many mistakes about such matters. Also, not everything they taught was presented as the Word of God; sometimes they even indicated that a certain norm was merely their own counsel for practical living. Paul himself indicated as much regarding norms for proper expressions of charisms in church, for deciding to marry or not marry, and for eating forbidden foods.

Vatican II recognized all these scriptural limitations regarding matters of science, facts of history and cultural norms. The council affirmed such findings and formally taught that there is only qualitative inerrancy to Scripture. That is, all of Scripture is inerrant only to the extent that it serves the purpose for which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation. To quote Dei Verbum: “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” That means the quality of inerrancy was guaranteed only for those teachings that were essential for our salvation.

Raymond Brown explained: “[Many interpreters today] accept inspiration. . .but they do not think that God’s role [is] as an author removed from human limitations. . . .Those who wrote down the Christian record were time-conditioned people of the first and early second century, addressing audiences of their era in the worldwide view of that period.” This solution resolves the conflict by affirming Paul’s supreme norm of the equality of all men and women in Christ and yet letting stand the practical domestic codes. Such codes are not inerrant, for they are not divine, inspired truths essential for our salvation.

Of these four solutions, the second and the fourth are the most satisfactory. The second solution answers simply that the non-authentic writings of Paul were expressing norms according to the orientation of the Greco–Roman culture of his day. They were offering practical counsel according to the prevailing domestic codes of the day, not imposing something as the inspired word of God. This uncomplicated solution might well satisfy many people. It offers the most adequate answer by referring to Vatican Council II, which states that only those truths that essentially relate to God’s eternal plan of salvation in Christ are inspired, inerrant and necessary for us to believe.

This fourth solution is an honest and exegetically correct solution to the problems that such scriptural passages have created in our Christian Church. Such passages were sometimes used to support patriarchal power arrangements, to suppress the leadership of women, and to justify the abuse of women. Such offensive actions need to be acknowledged candidly and disavowed emphatically.

Finally, we can correctly critique the Pauline corpus of scriptural writings regarding women. One way of summarizing that position involves two ideas. 1) “[T]here is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For baptism in Christ we all form a new creation in which gender distinctions are erased, and women are entirely equal to men in terms of membership and identity in Christ. 2) In the four quotes found in the Pauline corpus, Christians were to told to follow some of the practical domestic codes of the prevalent Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures. Such counsels were not part of God’s inspired word, either then or now. And in most of our contemporary world, such domestic codes are offensive to all Christians who recognize the most fundamental Christian truth: “[Y]ou are all one in Christ Jesus.”

FATHER KINN, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, retired in 2002 after 19 years as pastor of Santa Maria del Popolo Parish in Mundelein, Ill. He has written several books, including Teach, Delight, Persuade.