Lesson 19: Women Drivers

My apologies to the Sunday School class at Good Shepherd for reusing a session I thought covered the topic. My apologies to the rest of you for making a longer than usual post. I think the subject warrants it.

Whenever Paul is mentioned at mainline churches in the past 30 years, someone expresses distaste. He is considered anti-woman, a misogynist. At the same time, fundamentalist churches use him to identify their supposedly counter-cultural identity.

For instance, every time I helped preside at a wedding in a Fundamentalist church the pastor asked me to read a passage that spoke of the wife being subject to the husband. Once the pastor then turned to the man, who happened to be a rancher, and remarked, “That doesn’t mean you can treat your wife badly. You should care for her as well as you care for your cattle.” The women from my parish spent the whole reception bleating, “Moo! Moo!” and falling off their seats in laughter.

I think both positions give Paul a bum rap. We can’t credit or blame him for the Church’s teaching on women. Let’s look at the Gospels, the undisputed Pauline letters, the disputed ones, and then some early post-biblical history.

Before doing remember we scan not judge people living 2000 years ago by recent standards. Our nation did not give the vote to women until 1920. When predictions about the next decade were made in 1970, none foresaw the women’s movement that came in just two years. We have all been slow to give women their due.

We should also acknowledge women did a lot better in the church than they did in other parts of first century society. In Roman society, women, children, and slaves were the property of men. Sex outside of marriage and divorce were easy for men, not for women. Lists of household duties were written as statements of men’s rights. In Jewish society, women were not the property of men, but men did control much of their action. The woman was to be sexually available to the husband for his pleasure and the reproduction of his line. Man could easily divorcé, not women. Women were regarded as ritually unclean because of menstruation. There were many rules about not trespassing on a man’s rights over a woman, such as speaking to women in public or private. Men would transfer women from their authority to another, somewhat like we used to do in the marriage ceremony with “Who gives this woman to this man?”

Against this background the Jesus of the Gospels is pretty free. In the first three 1) he allows a Syro-Phoenican woman to instruct him, in fact, to persuade him to broaden his ministry toward the outcast (Mark 7: 24-30), 2) he speaks to women in public and private, 3) a woman anoints him as messiah, 4) women not men are at the cross, burial , and resurrection (Mark 15: 40, 41, 47, 16:1), women travel in his group and support him with their private means (Luke 8:1-3). We should note these are described as women of high standing, such as the wife of Herod’s steward. We hear the same in Acts 17: 4 and 12. So, too, Lydia is an independent woman running her own business. The early church obviously attracted this kind of women.

The fourth Gospel goes even further: 1) The Samaritan woman at the well is called to be first evangelist (John 4: 27-30, 39-42), 2) Martha makes the critical confession instead of Peter (John 11: 27), 3) Jesus stops the stoning of an adulterous woman, apparently asking why the woman and not the man (John 8: 1-12), and 4) Mary Magdalene’s experience as first witness to the Easter resurrection is greatly expanded.

No wonder the church’s entrance rite was baptism not circumcision and her quorum was 2 or 3 people not 10 men. In a critical way, the foundations of the faith recognized women’s equality.Men soon put an end to it, and sadly many today still do, rationalizing all the way.

So what about Paul who writes at least 20 years earlier? Keep in mind 1) Paul expected an early end of this age and so saw no need for marriage and children, 2) his letters were usually coauthored, so we can not be sure the written views are his, and 3) he did not think he was writing for a Bible, so his remarks in a letter might be directed at the situation in one congregation.

In Galatians 3:27-29 he claims there is no longer male or female in Christ, a pretty good start. But then he drops this part of the formula in later writing. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t.

I Corinthians 7: 1-40 addresses the question about how to handle sex, if the end of the age is fast approaching. Celibacy is recommended, so can people can concentrate on faith issues. However if this upsets the passionate ones, they should go ahead, get married, and have sex. The refreshing parts are 1) he gives the same right to the woman as the man. Neither is to refuse sex to the other and neither has a right to divorce the other, and 2) He makes plain this is only his opinion. This is certainly a big step forward from men having the right to do as they please with women.

We also find good stuff in Romans 16: 1-16 where at least 9 of the 30 people cited are women, some of whom are office holders, such as deacons, leaders of house churches, and even an apostle. This seems to fly in the face of any charge that accuses him of withholding leadership from women.

Of special interest is labeling Junia an apostle. Somewhere along the line, people messed with the text, changing her name to a masculine form, obviously for their political purposes. In fact, many of you probably have Bibles which still have the male name. Scholars assure us the original was female. An apostle is as high as it goes in Christian leadership.

At a number of other places Paul speaks of women in leadership positions: as heads of house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2, Nymphet in Colossians 4: 15, Chloe in I Corinthians 1: 10-17), as members of husband and wife missionary teams, sometimes with the woman significantly listed first (Romans 16:3, I Corinthians 16:19, II Timothy 4:19), as prophets (throughout I Corinthians, Acts 21: 9,), outstanding women leaders as Lydia (Acts 16: 14-19) and Euodia and Synthche who “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 4: 2, 3)

The one other passage that comes from an undisputed Pauline text is I Corinthians 11: 2-16 where he argues women should wear head coverings, because they are inferior to men. We modern people have to shudder when we read this; yet Paul seems to back off immediately acknowledging we can not really say this if we believe everything comes from God. In the end he seems to be embarrassed or perhaps unsure of what he has said and counsels us to judge for ourselves. Remember he is dictating a letter.

That still leaves the more troubling texts. Many scholars do not believe Paul wrote any of these himself. However, they are still in the Bible. Two of these difficult ones command women to be silent in church, (I Corinthians 14: 33b-36 and I Timothy 2: 8-15). 90% of scholars do not think Paul wrote the second letter. Many question whether he wrote the first passage as well. It seems to be a later insertion into his letter. It just does not fit into the context (I Corinthians 14: 26-40). Paul is making an argument about prophets and tongue speakers creating disorder in worship and then suddenly this outburst about women appears from nowhere. Another possible explanation is the coauthor of the letter, Rabbi Sosthemes, threw in his comment totally out of context. At any rate, even this is evidence that women were already speaking and leading.

Three tell women to be submissive to their husbands (Colossians 3: 18-25 disputed by 60% of scholars, Ephesians 5: 21-33 disputed by 70% and Titus 2: 3-5 disputed by 90%). Although these seem again to claim women are inferior to men, many scholars believe Paul is trying to do just the opposite. He is rewriting the household duties of the day which justify men’s rights to do anything they please with women. In doing so he keeps the “submissive” terms but then comes right back with how men are to treat women with love. Many schoalrs claim this is simply saying in another way that men should be submissive to women as well.

Obviously a good case can be made that Paul did not write these harder- to- take texts. However, they are still in the canon, so we have to deal with them. Recent finds of other non-canonical gospels make clear some Christian groups were more women-friendly than others. Some speak of Mary Magdalene as “apostle to the apostles” and have Peter ask why Jesus loves her more than him. The less women-friendly groups obviously later got control and had their way, declaring the opposition heretical. It appears the group responsible for certifying the canon in the 4th century diminished the claims of other groups that wanted a higher place for women.

Shortly thereafter, the hierarchy began to see women as a threat to their control of the clergy. The first known public debate about celibacy as a way for reforming the clergy took place in 309 A.D. at the Elvira Council. The Council of Carthage in 407 suggested clergy separate from their wives. This obviously did not work as some later popes applauded the role of clergy wives and even took wives themselves. Celibacy was finally proclaimed in the 11th and 12th century as part of the Gregorian Reform to centralize the church under the popes. The reasoning was unmarried clergy could give themselves entirely to God, be an eschatological sign of kingdom where there will be no marriage, and preserves ritual purity. Of course, many still make those arguments which have never proven their worth.

Just recently I heard one of the respected popular preachers claim we can only restore morality, if we return to true “biblical teaching”, such as women submitting to men. And then he pulled one of those neat tricks that I have witnessed over and over in my long life. He had his wife step forward to testify how wonderfully liberating it is for her to assume that role, unwittingly displaying in a myriad of ways that she in no way observed what that meant in the first century. For beginners, she would not have spoken in public. I hope to show in Lesson 20 that talking this way is as ridiculous as using a first century map of the Appian Way to travel 20th century roads from Rome to Paris. We no longer practice first century teachings about slavery, the economy, or politics. When we pretend we can do this with male-female relationships, we simply continue the male abuse of power. Thank God Paul and Jesus assure us the Holy Spirit still grants the faith and freedom to find new creative ways to love one another which support rather than abuse the other sex.

I am going to hold off publishing Lesson 20, “Use the GPS”, until next Tuesday. I’ll try to show how Paul is very helpful for 20th century Christian living if we practice his foundational principles rather than the particulars of his first century advice. The Holy Spirit still gives us the freedom to practice our faith in love.

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