Paul: Now about Those Pesky Women…


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.


Paul: Judge Each Other

Montagna’s Saint Paul via wikimedia commons

So if Paul really isn’t as judgmental as he is sometimes made out to be, if he is really so zealous about extending the tent pegs to include varied cultures under the banner of Christ, then why does he speak of believers needing to judge?

This comes, primarily, from a dialogue Paul has with the church in Corinth.  Evidently, some gentleman (in its most liberal usage) in the Corinthian church has begun sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1).  Ew!  Moreover, his brothers and sisters in Christ are really quite proud of him (1 Cor 5:2).  Come on!

How does this happen in a Christian church?  I suppose it could have happened a couple different ways.  It could be that the church in Corinth took to heart the message of freedom from the law (We can do anything we want!) without heeding the idea that the Spirit they received was the Spirit of Christ (We are empowered to look and act like Jesus!).

Or I suppose they could have been boasting of their super gracious and accepting attitude toward anyone and everyone.  Look at us, we accept everyone, no matter who they are or what they do!  We’re so enlightened!  This second alternative sounds familiar to me.

Anyway, Paul comes down hard on the Corinthians, advising them to pass judgment on the gross believer who’s sleeping with his stepmom and banish him from the community.  This is so intolerant, we holler.

But think about it this way.  If this “liberated” fellow claims to be a part of the body of Christ, if he has claimed to align himself with the spotless Lamb, then carries the responsibility to be actively moving toward Christlikeness.  That is, once a person swears allegiance to Jesus, they have put on themselves the obligation to intentionally become the kind of person who resembles their Lord.  This Corinthian Casanova is clearly making no effort in this regard.

The same goes for the entire community.  They are, collectively, the body of Christ and they ought to look like it.  That’s not to say that the church in Corinth must be perfect in every regard, but they ought to be deliberately moving toward Jesus.  An outsider ought to be able to observe their community as a whole and remark to themselves, “You know, this gang actually acts like Jesus.”  And Jesus didn’t cavort with his stepmother.

Now, this is different from suggesting that the Corinthian believers ought to also be judging every non-Christian they see on the street.  Paul is not suggesting that they point fingers at the heathens outside the church.  Not at all.  Their obligation for judgment is among themselves alone because they have all voluntarily set for themselves the standard of Christ.  They have that responsibility to each other.

To those outside the community, their responsibility is to resemble Jesus–to heal the sick, to cleanse the leprous outcasts, to raise the dead, and to proclaim the great work the Creator has done to redeem the creation.

Don’t Judge Me, Brah!

Flemalle’s Conversion de Saint Paul via wikimedia commons

I can still recall my frazzled shock when my good friend and fellow (at the time) seminarian told me, “You know, we’re called to judge people.”  Though I was internally thrown by his statement, I did my best to keep from giving away my astonishment.

“But Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, lest you be judged,'” I replied, citing Matthew 7:1.

“Sure,” he said, “but Paul says differently.”  He gave, as his proof, 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul instructs the congregation to judge one of their own who has been acting so egregiously that he cannot remain part of the community of Christ.

If you’ve ever had a bone to pick with Paul, this is likely one of them.  On this point in particular, he seems to pronounce a way of life completely contrary with what we see in Jesus.  On the one hand, we have Jesus, the one who ate and drank with sinners, while on the other we’ve got mean old Paul scrambling about making sure everybody’s got their doctrine right.  Jesus spurns judgement; Paul relishes in it.

It’s here JR Daniel Kirk reminds us we’ve got it wrong on both ends.  Jesus, he reminds us, is all about judgement.  Paul, on the other hand, is eager to throw wide the doors of salvation.

Briefly, the Jesus side of the argument.  To put it bluntly, Jesus’ entire life was about judgement.  His life itself was a judgement.  Again and again, his actions, his parables and his instructions say one thing: the central gathering point for the people of God is me.  If you’re with me, you’re in.  If you’re against me, you’re out.

It just so happens that the ones who came running to rally around Jesus and his message were those cast out by first century Jewish society.  That probably shouldn’t surprise us, though.

Anyway, on to Paul.  Was he really so welcoming?  Well, of course, you don’t have to look too deeply into his story to realize that his outlook was exceptionally generous.

Chief among Paul’s concerns were the social barriers he recognized throughout the Roman Empire: Jews reviled Gentiles and vice-versa; social classes were more distinctly felt than today (they had real live slavery); gender wars raged (and we thought these were new problems).  Into this milieu Paul has a single pronouncement: Jesus is Lord over all.  In other words, the only thing that really matters is Jesus and a person’s allegiance to him.

In any era, Galatians 3:28 is astonishing in its liberality, but especially in his own day: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In Paul’s world, this hits particularly close to home in the Jew-Gentile divide.  Since their inception, the Israelites had seen themselves as definitively separate from the nations that surrounded them.  An entire code of laws ensured their differences, from their person and place of worship, to the food they ate, to a particularly intimate mark placed on the men.  For 1500 years, the Jews knew they were the people of God because of the myriad details that demonstrated their difference from the pagan peoples around them.

Suddenly, the cross.  And Paul finds himself traveling throughout the cosmopolitan Mediterranean declaring that all are welcome in this family.  All have access to join these saved people of God.  But it has nothing whatsoever to do with where you worship or what you eat or whether a certain appendage has been altered.

If anyone fought to include wide and wild cultures in the rescued family of God, it was most certainly Paul.

Some Good News

The following has absolutely nothing to do with Paul, whom I’ve been writing about a lot lately.  Just the same, the following was exceptionally encouraging to me.  And so, it gets passed along to you.

A couple years ago I was invited to speak for a week at a Christian summer camp for teens.  I don’t often have the opportunity to connect with high school students any longer, but these are typically enjoyable experiences.  Students, when they catch a glimpse of the Lord can be so invigorating.  Their passion–for boon or bane–is unbridled.

Anyway, I looked to spend the five evenings talking through highlights in Jesus’ story–his baptism, his healing work, his death and, of course, his resurrection.  The goal, as always, was to give these young people a genuine encounter with Jesus himself.

By the way, this is what every generation of the church needs.  Long before we start talking about catchier music (We’re like a more overt Mumford!), hipper communications (Our pastors tweet!) and trendier civic engagement (Some of us are registered Democrats!), we need to set our focus on introducing people to the living Christ.  Let Jesus captivate us, and the rest falls where it should, in the style category, window dressing.

So on the second night of my time with the students, I taught through Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman and the official’s dying daughter (Mark 5).  As I concluded, I remarked that it would be a shame to tell this story and say, “Isn’t it nice that Jesus did this for these two desperate people?” or slightly more faith filled, “Isn’t it nice that Jesus could do this sort of thing?”

To me, Jesus is still alive.  We carry the same Spirit that empowered him.  So a story of Jesus healing a woman who was likely impoverished, in pain, and certainly a social outcast, should inspire us to faith to do the same for others.

So I invited students who were hurting physically to stand and for others to surround them with simple prayers.  I wanted them to simply invite Jesus to do the sorts of things he likes to do for people.  As they did so, we simply waited to see what God might do.  Many reported relief and substantial healing.  That was good news.

One of these students was a young man whose name wasn’t Bobby, though that’s what I’ll call him.  Bobby suffered from cerebral palsy, and I noticed when I met him at the beginning of the week that his right foot turned inward at about a 90 degree angle.  It was perpendicular to his left foot.  He also walked with a severe limp and reported constant pain.  I like Bobby.  He was a delightful kid.

Bobby told his counselors that night that he had been healed.  He looked the same.  He still limped a bit, but he claimed that all his pain was gone.  He was certain that the Lord had done something significant for him that evening.  Bobby was eager to call home and tell his parents.  His counselors were skeptical and refused.

I learned the next day that they weren’t the only ones who doubted.  Several other staffers had wondered at what I had attempted the previous night.  Few, it seemed, had encountered Christians who actually encouraged prayer for healing, let alone expected it.  They weren’t sure what to do with me or what to tell their campers.

As a result, I was asked to forego whatever teaching I had prepared for the next evening and explain what I had done.  Basically, I was being asked to backtrack in the politest way.

I was demoralized.  The rest of the week was flat.

Well, a week ago I ran into Bobby and his family for the first time since this incident.  They were so excited to see me.  Bobby is a couple years old and a lot taller (I hear that happens with teens).  Better than that, he and his parents report that everything is positive with Bobby’s health.

It’s been a journey for them, but Bobby’s feet are now straight, he walks without a limp, a bar has been removed from his torso, and Bobby remains pain-free.  Moreover, Bobby’s parents have had their faith encouraged throughout the process.  They continue to run into issues where they wonder at whether the Lord was really doing what they thought or hoped.  Yet each time God has proved faithful and thoroughly good.

I was encouraged.

The day after his cabin mates had prayed for Bobby, he didn’t look much different.  He still limped and his foot still turned drastically inward.  Though he said the pain had left him, there was no external evidence that he had changed.  But I still remember him asking me, “Why did you have to backtrack on having us pray for each other?”  “Well,” I said, “that was a new thing for some people.  I had to explain what was going on a bit.”  “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t think you had to.  God healed me.  I’m certain of it.”

Two years later, God continues to heal him.  That’s good news.