Among those issues in which Paul has generated a dangerous level of radiation is his (supposed) estimation of women in the Body of Christ. You really can’t get around it: Paul has some difficult things to say about women, at least on the surface.
I must confess, the entire Western Evangelical debate over women in the church, especially women in leadership roles, was lost on me growing up. First, I’m male. So, any impact was indirect. Second, I was raised in the northeast, where the cultural milieu was (1) egalitarian and (2) non-fundamentalist, at least. So, I don’t know that I ever assumed the Bible wasn’t culturally and contextually conditioned, even while I held it in the highest regard. Third, my own family was on the egalitarian side of the spectrum. I just assumed women could go wherever their gifts led them, because that’s pretty much what my mom did.
It was bewildering to me, then, that this was so contentious an issue when I landed at Messiah College and began taking Christian ministry classes with young men and women from much more conservative and more rigid backgrounds. It became a rite of each semester to have at least one class in which a classmate would break down in tears over the politely condescending remarks she was getting from otherwise kindhearted folks back home: “Oh, you’re studying Christian ministry? But what are you going to do when you get out? You know you can’t become a pastor.”
I never understood this, but enough of the caveats.
The fact remains that Paul said some tough stuff about how women should dress (plainly) and what they could and could not do (anything important) and how they should relate to their husbands (as a subordinate). Moreover, such remarks seem directly at odds with other liberating elements of both the gospels and other elements of Paul’s writing, in which he praises female coworkers and gives several women the lofty title of apostle (see, especially, Rom. 16).
As JR Daniel Kirk homes in on this subject, he does a good thing in setting out first the ways in which the gospel and Paul both elevate women in ways that their contemporary culture at large would never dream. For example, in the story of Mary and Martha’s squabble (Matthew 10), Mary sits a Rabbi Jesus’ feet, a place generally reserved for men only. For this she is commended.
Meanwhile, for Paul, we would do well to elevate his famous statement in Galatians 3:28 (echoed in 1 Cor 12:13 & Col 3:11): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Within the body of Christ, neither ethnic, socio-economic, nor gender boundaries count for anything. It cannot be missed: unity with one another in the body of Christ due to our unity with Christ is a major theme for Paul. We could even say it’s among the top five concerns of Paul’s ministry.
And for this reason, it ought to override statements from Paul that appear to contradict his incessant calls for unity. At the very least, clear passages like Galatians 3:28 should cause us to raise an eyebrow at something like 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul does not allow a woman to teach. Perhaps something else is going on in Timothy’s context that has caused Paul to write something so at odds with his overall platform and the Gospel at large.
Kirk himself raises a fine point from Paul’s own writing in the arguments against traditional gender hierarchies. Citing 1 Corinthians 11, and specifically verse 11 (“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman,” ESV.), Kirk highlights Paul’s modus operandi (more Latin?).
Mutual dependence turns out to be more ultimate than hierarchy. This is because the argument for hierarchy is based on creation, while mutual dependence derives more directly from the gospel story in which all are one because they are united to Christ. … New creation is more determinative of our life together than first creation (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 127).
I think he’s dead on. Well, mostly. I’d suggest that mutual dependence is inherent in the first marriage as well and the hierarchy comes after the Fall. Regardless, the point remains: For us as new creation people, we must reflect new creation realities in all our relationships. Men and women, women and men, together.