Thursday, April 13, 2017

How Jesus Liberates Women: Does St. Paul lock them up again?

Image result for st paul priscilla
Friend of the Ladies?  
Over the past several years, I have been arguing in this forum that "Jesus Liberates Women."  My initial posts in this series came in response to posts by John Loftus claiming that Christianity has imprisoned women, and that that is his chief reason for now rejecting the faith he once preached.

The notion that Christianity is bad for "the laidees" is one of the standard hits against Christianity these days, not only among atheists, but also among New Agers and in the general culture.   It has become an "article of faith."  Weren't three quarters of those persecuted as "witches" female, after all?  Weren't women denied the vote in traditional America?  Doesn't Saint Paul tell women to shut up and ask their husbands what the pastor was yammering about after the service?

My response has been, "Look at the big picture."  described how an encounter with forced prostitution in Thailand, and with the words of the prophets, precipitated my own involvement in trying to liberate women I analyzed a United Nations survey   which shows that the status of women is much higher in countries influenced by Christianity than elsewhere.  I surveyed historical evidence which demonstrates the connection between Christian faith and the liberation of women.  I then analyzed passages in the gospels which demonstrate that the words and acts of Jesus are a highly credible source for those changes.  I also analyzed the Acts of the Apostles, and found that while the early Church may not have fully lived up to Jesus' remarkable example, his influence can nevertheless be traced pretty clearly in a way that boded well for women in later Christian society.

In other posts, I also answered most of my critics, of which there have been many, and carefully analyzed rival religious scriptures, showing that most of them were not liberating at all, as the gospels clearly are.   Those posts are linked to from here.  (Some texts have yet to be analyzed, however.)

Or misogenistic fiend? Four of six Bible verses in
 this  woman's dungeon (or creature's,
she hardly seems human)  are from St. Paul
Now it is time to answer the popular response, "But wasn't St. Paul a misogynistic pig who told women to keep their mouths shut in church?"   Four of the six Bible verses which festoon the dungeon cell in which the representative (if worm-like) woman in Loftus' original post was kept, are from the traditionally-ascribed writings of St. Paul.

So in this post, we will analyze what all those letters say to or about women, and their place in society.

But note the limits to which our analysis must be held.  I have already shown that Jesus himself adopted a remarkably revolutionary, kindly, generous, but never merely sentimental or naïve, attitude towards women.  As Paul himself pointed out, Jesus is the head of the church, not Paul.  Jesus is the one Christians are to follow, Paul only in a secondary sense "as I follow Christ."  If we are forced to choose between the two men, it is called Christianity not Paulianity, so priority is clear.  Even if Paul does live down to his reputation among skeptics (though don't worry, this won't happen), at most that would cast doubt on his own divine inspiration or moral authority.  I suppose that might seem a worthwhile goal for skeptics to shoot for -- Paul is a big fish, after all.

Given the clear fact that (as the UN survey I cited shows) women enjoy a far higher status in countries deeply influenced by the Gospel, and that zealous Christian missionaries have been involved in reforms that have helped billions of women in tangible ways, all we need to explain those changes is a credible cause in the life and teachings of Jesus.  We have already done that.  We do not need to show that the whole Bible is uniformly pro-female. 

My claim is historical, not theological.  I claim that Jesus has liberated billions of women around the world in profound ways. 

How do we judge such an historical claim?  How can we know if A really did cause B?  As I explained in an earlier post, we began with four simple rules:

First, A must precede B . . . For instance, Christians did not invent marriage, since people were getting married long before Christ was born.  Christianity may conceivably have made monogamy more popular, though, since polygamy was accepted in most societies around the world when Jesus was born.

Second, immediate influences seem more likely than distant influences . . .  

Third, something in the alleged cause should explain its supposed effect . . .

Fourth, causation is also clearer if the change moves "uphill against human nature." Why would any man want to have sex with more than one woman? The answer is too obvious, to men, to need stating.  Lust and philandering need no explanation, nor do rape, polygamy, or the enslavement of the weak.  But loving those who belong to out-groups is contrary to our strongest instincts, and therefore requires more of an explanation.

So a religious explanation for a social change is more credible if the teaching precedes the social change, especially closely, if there is in that teaching a clear justification for the change, and especially if that teaching and the change it seems to bring work against our strongest instincts.

We have, I think, already proven all of that and more, to show that "Jesus liberates women."  Jesus' teachings and actions precede a number of important reforms to the status of women, which began (Stark in particular showed) already in the ancient Roman Empire.  Jesus clearly justified reform in his teachings and example, against the common practice of the time and what human nature generally supports -- the oppression of the weak by the strong.  Whatever may be found in the rest of the Bible, cannot undermine the clear evidence we have uncovered showing that "Jesus has liberated women" around the world, and down through the centuries. 

Still, Paul is author of a good chunk of the New Testament, and subject of some of the rest.   He is the most influential Christian theologian after Jesus, and its greatest missionary. 

So let's see what he has to say, and what it means for the relationship between the Gospel and the liberation of women. 

Some of Paul's letters are disputed, with their Pauline origin being denied by many scholars.  While of course people do change their minds over the course of their lives (Paul himself is an example of that, we know, while Martin Luther is known to have become harsher towards Jews as time went by), some suppose that the dramatically differing views we shall find expressed in Paul's letters are at least partly due to this cause.   Maybe someone else wrote those verses that seem to depict Paul as dealing harshly with women. 

I don't see this issue as essential to our study, however.   We want to know what the Bible says about women, "consulting the whole counsel of God," to see what the Bible as a whole has to say.  We shall not cut books or verses from the Bible, like Thomas Jefferson, to make it conform to our views.   Let's see what it says as a whole.  


7.2-3  "So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man."

Paul seems to assume monogamy, at least for women, and also that having lost their husbands to death, women have freedom to marry again if they like. 

13.9: "Do not commit adultery . . . Love your neighbor as yourself."  

13.13  "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy."

Paul does not differentiate between males and females in his sexual ethics, here. 

16.1-6  "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.  I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.  Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.  They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.   Greet also the church that meets at their house.  Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.  Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you."

Three of the first people Paul mentions in the close of his great letter to the Romans are women.  First, he commends a female leader of the church in Cenchreae, one of Corinth's port towns, in the warmest terms, instructing the Romans to recognize her many good works and to offer any help that she needs.  He greets "Princilla and Aquila," naming the woman first, as he does once else in the New Testament.  (Three times he names her husband first.)  He commends them for their bravery (of which putting him up in their home was surely part, as fellow tent-makers), and reminds his readers of their joint impact on the church.  No hint is given even of preference to the husband here.   Finally he mentions a hard-working woman named Mary.

Here, it seems, is how Paul acted towards women who worked or led in the church.  He developed warm and respectful friendships with many women.   I see no sign of patronizing or fear or "sexual energy" in anything he says here.  He is writing about respected and beloved colleagues who he recognizes have not only worked hard for their common cause, but courageously taken risks.  Furthermore, if they were not leaders in the church (which Priscilla and Phoebe clearly were), why would he mention them in his very first lines of personal commendation and greeting?  Why did he send Phoebe to Rome? 

Nor does it end there:

12-15: "Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.  Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.  Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.  Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them.  Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them."

Here Paul greets at least half a dozen more specific women.  

Paul is generous with praise of both "brothers" and "sisters" in the church, but seems to lavish even more praise on the sisters.  (And mothers.)   Women have been playing leading roles within the church, and Paul not only recognizes that fact, he shows strong respect for their integrity, courage, and hard work.

I Corinthians

1.11-15: "My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?   I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name."

Again, Paul's letters reflect a close working relationship with Christian women.  Chloe is referred to as the head of a home. 

I include parts of verses 12-15 to remind the reader that in Paul's view, the church should be following Jesus Christ, not Paul. 

5. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for putting up with an affair in the church between a man and his mother-in-law, which he says not even pagans would countenance.  Of course, in those days men often married much younger women, so it is quite possible that the woman involved was actually younger than her "step son." 

5.9  "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually-immoral people."

The "square" morality that Paul assumes and demands benefits women, I would argue.  Out-of-wedlock relationships produce children which the mothers usually end up raising, often on inadequate resources, and with little chance to marry again.  (Who wants to raise an ungrateful step-child?)  It has been demonstrated that children born out of wedlock are far more likely to abuse drugs, remain poor and uneducated, and fail in life by numerous other measures.  Aside from the burden of child-bearing and raising, illicit relations thus bring the woman involved far more grief than the man, who can (and often did) go merrily on to the next dalliance.  (Literature is filled with such stories, as is life.) 

6.16-18  "Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh.'  But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.  Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body."

One might add that loose sexuality results in the spread of diseases.   Paul's demand that Christians avoid chasing prostitutes and engaging in promiscuity is a defense of the body, so he is absolutely right here. 

7.2-14: "Now for the matters you wrote about: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.'  But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.  The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.  Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  I say this as a concession, not as a command.  I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.  Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.   But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.   But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.And a husband must not divorce his wife.  To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.   And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.   For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy."

Clearly, Paul favored his own bachelor lifestyle, and recommended it to others.  But he did not claim this was a divine commandment of any sort: better to get married than be riddled with sexual frustration and temptation.  Paul then adds some very good advice (not on his own) to prevent frustration within marriage: both parties should give the other sexual satisfaction.  He doesn't just say that to the woman, but assumes that ladies also have desires, and that gentlemen are obligated to consider their lovers fairly.  Nor should a Christian separate from his or her non-believing spouse: Paul either recognizes that children benefit from stable marriages (which they generally do), but also that a marriage of mixed religious affiliation is often transformed through the serious believer.  (Sociologist Rodney Stark points out that the more committed in the marriage relationship usually bends the uncommitted his or her way, eventually.) 

All this is wise on many levels, respectful to women, and valuable for children. 

One of the more harmful, but little-mentioned, injustices in modern marriage occurs when one partner contracts to the other partner for lifelong mutual commitment, but then breaks that contract not by having affairs, but by withdrawing sexually.  In a Christian marriage, this means, in effect, that a partner determined to be "moral" is forced into life-long celibacy and loneliness against his or her will.  Paul recognizes this evil.  The world would be a better place if these commands were followed. 

39-40: "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.  In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God."

Paul assumes that at least with her second marriage, women should be free to marry or not, "anyone she wishes."  (Though he elsewhere limits this to believers.)  Furthermore, his concern is not with "what is right" here, since both choices are legitimate, but with the woman's happiness. 

9. 5 "Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife with us on our travels as the other apostles do . . . "

Apparently it was the habit in the early church for couples to travel together to minister.   And Paul sees that as proper. 

11. 4-16: "Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.   But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.   A man ought not to cover his head,[ since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.  For man did not come from woman, but woman from man;  neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.   It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.  Nevertheless, in the Lord 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. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?   Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,  but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.  If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God."

Here we come to the first really problematic passage in the New Testament on women.   It's not so much that Paul thinks women should put on a scarf when they pray -- a rather trivial command, especially if you compare it to such practices as burning widows to death, crushing girls' feet, or running off on a girl you've knocked up who is about to have a baby!  Nor do I personally favor butch haircuts -- I understand Paul's preference for long hair among women! 

The difficulty is the theory behind those commands.   Man is the glory of God, but woman merely the glory of man?  Women's heads should be covered for the sake of the angels?  (What, are incorporal, non-human beings offended by the sight of female scalp?) 

Yet Paul brings this around, in the end, to equality: women are also from men, as men (in Genesis) from women.  They are mutually-dependent. 

Our goal here is not to resolve or explain difficulties, but merely to understand and evaluate what Paul says about women.  We shall keep these somewhat odd (to me, at least) verses in mind as we move towards a later synthesis. 

14.34: "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

This is, obviously, one of the most problematic passages in all of Scripture on this subject.   It is problematic intellectually as well as morally, in part because one thing the Law makes far clearer than that women should not be allowed to speak, is that female prophets and heroines were recognized repeatedly within the Law and Jewish historical writings.  In addition, not only did Paul himself repeatedly praise female leaders, Jesus himself encouraged his female followers to speak up, as we have seen. 

Yet 1 Corinthians is universally recognized as being from Paul's own hand. 

So it is legitimate to look for a "solution" that will reconcile this odd command with the larger context of Paul's own unrepentant practice, Jesus' friendly relations with outspoken ladies in his own entourage, and with Scripture in general.   Yet we will also not pretend this verse does not exist. 

16.19: "The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.  All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss."

One wonders.  Did the sisters "here" send their greetings silently?  And here Priscilla is mentioned, again on a par with her husband, as leaders or at least hosts of a house church.  It is hard to imagine her attending church in her home as a church leader, sometimes mentioned first by Paul, and praised for her character and courage, without ever opening her mouth! 

Sometimes, one just has to recognize a mystery as such. 

II Corinthians

6.14: "Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers."

11.2-3: "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.  But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ."

Neither of these phrases carries particularly ground-breaking implications for our subject.  Christians should marry other Christians, so they're on the same page in life -- raising children, for instance.  Paul's analogy of Christ and the church as being like a bridegroom and his beloved echoes a common metaphor from the Old Testament.  It implies that the man takes a lead role in the relationship, but need not imply more than that.  The story of Eve's moral seduction, followed by that of Adam,


4.27-29: "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise."

Paul's point here is that all human beings are proven to be sinners thanks to the Law, but that through faith in Christ, we can all become recipients of all God's promises, regardless of race, status, or gender. 

Jesus certainly acted as if this were so.  He preached, healed, and loved across every kind of boundary that society had set up in the First Century: racial, cultural, economic, health-related, gender-related, even those barriers arising from past (but now repented) sins.  As an intellectual, Paul has generalized Jesus' liberating and universal practice of love into abstract and sweeping categories.

This is, as many have recognized, a revolutionary moment in world history. 

4. 26-27: "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.   For it is written:
'Be glad, barren woman,
    you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
    you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
    than of her who has a husband.'"

Paul's point again is theological, not moral.  God's kingdom is the "kingdom that is above," which is our mother.  We who believe in Christ receive a gift even without suffering labor pains -- the gift of God's grace. 


Sometimes in Paul, profound and joyous passages are succeeded quickly by difficult and troubling comments.  Chapter 5 instructs us to be "imitators of God as His beloved children." Paul warns against "low jesting" and greed, telling Christians to be full of thanksgiving.   "Live as children of the light."  Be intoxicated not with wine, but with the Spirit of God, "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing heartily and making your music to the Lord, giving thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Paul goes from that, to speak some difficult words about relationships:

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.   Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.   However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

Note that Paul begins by speaking of mutual submission.  This is a concept that is extremely practical and important.  There's an old joke about a private who was asked to take a group photo of a group of generals.   He said, "Everyone take one step backwards."  Then, "Now just half a step forwards."  Later his friend said, "You sure know how to do group portraits!"  "No," he replied, "I just wanted the chance to tell the brass what to do."

But they get that every day anyway, even those who are not married.  The cleaning woman with her mop, the traffic cop, the nurse, the basketball coach, the air traffic controller, each is a boss in his or her own field -- mutual submission is the basis of civilization.  Faith in God is thus the "basis" for something we need desperately. 

Wives should submit to their husbands "in everything."  Really?  What if he demands that she help him rob a bank?  Or sell her body in a brothel?  Well, no, let's face it, the Bible does sometimes make seemingly-sweeping statements which are, in practice, subject to reasonable conditions.  The Old Testament, as we shall see, contains stories in which wives are commended for not obeying their lumber-headed husbands.   And the New Testament, while containing fewer dramatic accounts of husband-wife relations, does tell of Pontius Pilate, who really should have listened to the wise advice of his wife and not executed Jesus.  

But notice the final paragraph.   Husbands are to act towards their wives not imperiously, but self-sacrificially, loving them as "their own bodies."  Paul cites the "mystery" contained in the Genesis story of creation: "the two shall become as one," which returns the standard implicitly to monogamy, and so happily transcends the tedious zero-sum game of the "war of the sexes" that we have miserably slipped into. 

And the wife should "respect" her husband in return.  That seems to be hard for many women to do, even when their husbands are not wholly despicable.  But it is music to the ears of men, and would solve many marital conflicts all by itself, if obeyed. 

This, by itself, offers a picture that far from imprisoning women, seems like liberation.  If men loved their wives self-sacrificially, and women respected their husbands and followed their lead, how much more happiness there would be in the world for everyone. 

And how hard it is to find such imprecations in Greek literature of the time.  (Though there seem to have been some happy marriages.)

6.2 "Honor your father and your mother."



4. 2-3: "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life."

Again, Paul mentions respected and beloved female co-workers.  One can even call them "heroic." As a realistic missionary, he has discovered that saints on the mission field sometimes quarrel, and appeals to other co-workers to try to bring peace to the warring factions.

Let me quote an apparently unrelated passage from Paul in this book, to give balance, and remind the reader of how Paul's gender-specific teaching fits within a larger and inspiring picture of Christian virtue which he commends to those of both :

4.8: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."


I begin, again, with a typically beautiful general statement of Paul's moral teachings:

Image result for my favorite things3.1-11: "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.   You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.  But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.  Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.   Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

As we survey Paul's teachings specific to sex and gender, we should not overlook the profound and undeniably healthy and life-changing perspective he sets before his charges on the whole of the Christian life.   We are now dead to sin, but alive to Christ, our new lives "hidden" in Christ, with the hope of future glory.   Yet we still need to "put to death" evil and idolatrous and malicious and dishonest desires of all sorts, speaking the truth, with no differentiations among human categories.

Again, I emphasize the practical consequences of such a morality, including sexual purity, on women as well as men.  No civilization ever fell because husbands and wives were too faithful to one another, I don't think.  The Roman Empire, on the contrary, was at this moment entering a demographic death due to low birth rate, exposure of infants, and an unwillingness of pagan men to get married. 

3.18-21: "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord."

Paul repeats commands he has given elsewhere.   Here "in everything" is applied to children, rather than to wives, and is directed at both parents, not just the pater familias. 

4. 14-15: "Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.  Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house."

Yet another church meeting in the house of a (no doubt successful) woman.  

I Thessalonians

4.3-6: "It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;  that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister."

It's a little hard to be sure exactly what Paul had in mind, here.  Reading Greek novels of the time in which men coolly compare having sex with young women or young men (slaves, no doubt), one can see that pagans often did, in fact, "take advantage of a brother or sister" through sexual passions that were less than holy or honorable.  And the abuse of the young by the slave-owning class was certainly a great evil which the whole tenor of Paul's teachings would tend to ameliorate.  ("There is neither slave nor free.") 

II Thessalonians

No directly relevant passages.  (Though many indirectly relevant and ennobling.) 

I Timothy

In his first letter to Timothy (which is disputed in many quarters), Paul offers his longest instructions on sexual and gender relations.  Some of his comments again seem hard or strange, in light of Paul's other teachings and practice.  Others, taken in the context of sexual abuse, forced abortions, sati, foot-binding, human sacrifice, and our own practice of making women raise children by themselves, are positively beautiful.

2.8-15: "Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.  I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes,  but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.  A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.   And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. "

This is the hardest passage.  There is nothing wrong with asking for good deeds, of course, or with modest dressing -- though the world can never have too much beauty, in my opinion.   But Paul explains the concept of submission not merely as a practical constitution in the family, but due to Eve's prior deception and sin.  And what does it mean that women should be saved "through childbirth?"  Barefoot and pregnant -- and quiet?  This does not look like a step forward for women!

But again, the context not only of Jesus' practice -- he didn't mind dramatic women who interrupted male conversation -- but of Paul's own practice, puts a big question mark by this command, or at least the idea that Paul meant it as generally as it seems.   We go on:

3.2-4: "Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness,not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect."

So a Christian leader shouldn't cheat on his wife.   In some translations this is "the husband of only one wife," as indeed the Greek literally reads.  

This, too, would seem a revolutionary step.  (Remember, historical causation looks for the novel and other than the norm to mark changes.)  While the Greeks were somewhat monogamous, most ancient cultures, including Jewish culture, allowed polygamy.  This despite the numerous stories in the Old Testament about the miseries brought on by polygamy -- the cases of Abraham's lost son, Joseph sold into slavery, and rape and murder in David's family leading to civil war, being only the most obvious.   Similar stories can be told in the Chinese context, for instance the sordid tale of the Empress Wu Zetian.  

This verse may mark the beginning of the end for that institution, first in Christendom, then around the world.  

3.11-12: "In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.  A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well."
This second verse again seems to demand monogamy ("husband of one wife" in Greek).  Demanding that women be respectable, trustworthy, and kind in their conversation, does not seem harsh.  

4. 3-4: "They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.   For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving."
While Paul himself was single, here he recognizes the forbidding of marriage as a perversion, and sex in its proper function as a good thing that God has created, for which we should be thankful. 
4.7: "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly."
This may seem a bit insulting, but there is actually no reference to women in the Greek here.  
5.1-15: "Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers,  older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.  But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.  The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in Godand continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.   But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.   Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame.  Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.  No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds,such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.  As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry.  Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.   Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.   So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.   Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
"If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need."
Paul takes it for granted that the Church will be helping at least some of the destitute on a regular basis.  He suggests that they limit their regular support to older women who have "earned" that support through a lifetime of good works and hospitality.  Otherwise, he tells children and grandchildren in no-uncertain terms that it is up to them to take care of their own family members -- or they have denied the faith.  
One gets the feeling Paul would not look kindly on the Welfare Mother phenomena.  (Which, one need hardly point out, had devastated entire inner-city neighborhoods in America and other countries, resulting in a foul-mouthed generation of spoiled brats who sing about abusing women, play gangster, and shoot one another in crack houses, turning parts of St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago into something worse than Third World enclaves.)  
Paul is serious about love.  He is also serious about responsibility.  This is, I believe, a beautiful and redeeming balance that we have partly lost.  

II Timothy
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One of the worms Paul warned about.  
3.1-6: "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.   People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,  treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—  having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.  They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires."
Do cult leaders like those Paul is describing appeal more to "gullible women" than to men?  Rasputin, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson certainly had a field day.  In Paul's day, when the literacy rate was far lower for women, it would have been reasonable to recognize a greater danger among women.  His warning, then, is useful.  


2. 1-5: "You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine.  Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.   Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.  Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children,  to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."

Even to moderns, tired perhaps of stale PC cliches, this will likely sound refreshing, for the most part.  Paul's vision of the moral life is a beautiful thing, which has inspired billions of men and women.  

Temperance, respect, self-control, loving, enduring, kind, hard-working, not alcoholics or slanderers -- all that sounds very good.  

And then Paul sets older women up as teachers of younger women.  My Mom did that, and everyone seemed to benefit from the arrangement.  

"Subject to their husbands" is, again, the sticking point.  Even the most ardent feminist may be glad to see Paul doesn't, at least, tell women that theymust treat their husbands as gods, or that they will be born into the belly of a jackal in the next life if they remarry after he croaks.  


Jesus set in motion a great moral revolution.  One aspect of that, which has liberated literally billions of women around the world in profound ways, was his unique kindness and generous but honest respect for women.  We have seen that his teachings point that way, and that enough of his followers have followed that arrow to transform the world on behalf of billions of women. 

John Loftus (and others) quote a few verses from Paul to suggest that the Bible in general, and Paul in particular, halted that revolution.  (If they even acknowledge that it had ever begun.) 

I don't think so.  Paul's message is complex, with many facets to it.  Some of those facets appear, on the face of them, to set women at a lower level than men, to tar all women with the brush of our common mother Eve, even to deny their right to speak in church, while submitting to their husbands at home.  Yet in others, Paul praises and warmly greets female colleagues.  He says that in Christ, there is neither male or female.  (Not, of course, in the silly sense that Christians no longer come in distinct genders!)  He tells men to love women "as Christ loved the church," self-sacrificially.  He commands men and women to be considerate of one another's sexual needs.  He has no use for the double standard.  In Acts, he liberated a young woman who was being exploited by her owners to her own harm.  

Paul sets his sexual and family teachings within the matrix of what is, I must confess, the loveliest yet most challenging ethics (centered on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc) I have encountered in all my years of studying world religions, outside the words of Jesus himself.  (Epictetus might come next.)  He was a passionate man who inspired anger as well as love.  But we can see in his letters that he enjoyed dozens of warm and loving relations with both men and women, that he ached when someone he cared about suffered or set down the wrong path, that he was even willing to be damned to redeem his own people.  

He also set wise guidelines that, when followed, would bring more family and social happiness to the world, than we now experience.  

In short, after a career of persecuting and even murdering Christians, Paul preached the greatest sermon on love ever, and practiced what he preached.  

So no, it would be simplistic indeed to say Paul imprisoned women.  At most, while fully recognizing their value as the daughters of God, he consigned women mainly to particular roles in the church and family, with men expected to take the primary leadership roles.  (Though women would also teach, host or begin churches, work in the ministry, travel, and in short, be anything but shut up in a dungeon.)  

I offered 19 criteria to evaluate the impact of a religion on women, arguing that Jesus had a positive impact in each case, while Mohammed's influence was generally baleful.  

In conclusion, let us see how those criteria apply to St. Paul's teaching.  

1. Female seclusion?  Paul says apostles should have the right to travel with their wives.  He sends women as representatives to churches.  

2. Gender roles?  Like Jesus, and like every other ancient civilization (and biology in general), Paul assumes that men and women are different, and that their roles in the church and family are also distinct.  Some moderns demur.  Let us not assume the moderns are right.  

3. Female ministry?  Just as Jesus had female disciples and supporters, so Paul deputized women, worked closely with married couples, met in houses led by females, and warmly addressed Christian leaders of the opposite gender.  

4.  Females are not limited to domestic functions.  Paul assumes that women do serve a central role in the household, and that they should serve it well.  But clearly, he is open to women working in other capacities as well, like his fellow tent-maker and church leader, Priscilla.  

5. Property ownership?  As in the gospels, female disciples own property, travel, and are proactive in spiritual matters.  

6. Education?  I don't know if Paul brings this up, specifically.  But since he often addresses women specifically in his letters, it seems unlikely he would object to their learning how to read and write!  A woman named Damaris is specifically mentioned as one of his converts following his highly intellectual sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, which clearly addressed Greeks educated in Stoic, Platonic, and / or Cynic philosophies.  

7. Dignity of volition?  Paul recognized the potential women had for great good and great evil, even both at the same time, such as his quarreling co-workers.  

8. Family life?  Like Jesus, Paul recognized that most women find their greatest fulfillment through marriage.  He made it clear, however, that he thought women who had suffered the loss of their husbands would find greater fulfillment (and freedom) in the single life -- though he left it up to them to choose.  

9.  Widows' rights?  Again, unlike the Law of Manu, in the epistles, widows are assumed to survive the death of their husbands without shame.   Paul also thinks of their happiness.  

10. Widow's welfare?  Rather than encouraging them to burn themselves to death, Paul institutes rules for ongoing support of deserving elderly widows, which the Church was clearly involved in already. He makes it clear, though, that the primary responsibility belongs to children and grandchildren, and that if they fail at this, they are no good as Christians.   

11. I don't think Paul ever raised a son on behalf of his mother, as Jesus did, however.  

12. Domesticity?  Again, like Jesus, Paul made it clear that while women should be hospitable and good mothers and wives, they should not limit themselves to domestic roles.  

13.  Care for women in need?  Like Jesus, Paul liberated women in need or sick, like the servant girl in Acts 16.  

14.  Sexual purity?  Paul also assumes that libertine activities are debasing "sins against the body." He emphasizes this much more than Jesus does, even, thus protecting women from diseases and from single motherhood, abortion, infanticide, and (in the pre-modern world) the slide into prostitution.  

15.  Paul also has no use for casual divorce.  Marriage is for a lifetime.  

16.  Polygamy?  Unlike many gurus, Paul does not seem to have kept a harem, or allowed his followers to keep them.  His commands on this subject mark the beginning of an important liberating trajectory that would empower women on every inhabited continent.  

17.  Harsh legal enforcement?  Paul was once all for stoning religious criminals to death.  After his conversion, he never seems to advise that again.  He does advice Christians to exclude those among them who are practicing extreme depravity, in the hopes that exclusion will bring repentance.  

18.  Women as oracles?  I don't know of any case in the epistles.  

19.  International reform?  Paul is the world's first great missionary.  Rodney Stark traces some of the reforms which the early Church, led by such missionaries, brought to ancient Rome.  Paul set an example, following Christ in that way, as in these others.  Will Durant also describes the transformation wrought by Christian missions in Christ and Caesar.   

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