1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 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.
1 Timothy 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.
Was Paul A Sexist?
I Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Tim. 2:8-15
August 26, 2012
One summer in high school, one of my friends invited me to go with him and his family to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware for vacation. Before we left, my friend, who knew I had a fear of heights, pulled me aside and asked me, “Now, to get there, we’re going to have to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Are you OK with that?” I thought this was the strangest question I’ve ever heard. I’d done that a million times going between Jeffersonville and Louisville. What’s the big deal about crossing a bridge?
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is 4.3 miles long, and climbs to a height of 186 feet above the water. That’s more than 60 yards tall. Part of the bridge is grated, which means you can look right through the road to the water below. The day we crossed it there was a lot of vacation traffic, so we sat. And I started to look around. And I started to feel a little bit woozy. I made the mistake of looking down, and saw right through the floor to the water 186 feet below. I tried to point this out to my friend, but it’s hard to speak when you’ve swallowed your tongue. Then I decided it would be better to look up, and that’s when I saw how much the bridge was swaying in the wind. I don’t mean a little movement; I mean our car had been filled with the Holy Spirit 60 yards in the air. Before our trip, I thought it was funny when I heard they offer a service where you can pay someone to drive your car across the bridge for you while you lay down on the back seat. But at that moment, I would have paid one million dollars and crawled in the trunk to be off that bridge.
Dealing with these kinds of texts from Paul is like trying to cross a very long, treacherous bridge. On one side you have our modern world and culture; on the other side you have Paul’s very different world and culture. And in between us is this huge swaying bridge, spanning 20 centuries, across which must travel all our interpretations and understandings. Too often when we read the Bible what we do is try to drag Paul across the bridge into our world, and Paul’s words don’t often travel well. Instead, we have to be willing to do the hard work of traveling across the bridge to learn about his world in order to bring back our understanding and application.
We are separated from Paul by language, culture, and time, holding in our hands his words that were written and copied and recopied and translated and retranslated until they made it into our modern language. And then, with all of those obstacles blocking the bridge of understanding, we have to take something as problematic as today’s passage and try to make sense of it. To ask the question, “Is Paul a sexist?” is to apply a label to him that didn’t exist in his day. Instead of dragging him across the bridge into our world, we have to travel back to his and ask, “How would Paul’s attitude toward women have been perceived in his day?” What can we learn on Paul’s side of the bridge?
Paul lived in a time when women and children had a far lower status than today were not afforded opportunities or education and personal development. In our terms, Paul’s world was absolutely sexist and patriarchal. In light of this, the irony about Paul is that it’s not these troublesome comments that would have stirred the pot, but his progressive comments about women. His negative statements, as we perceive them, would have fit comfortably into the cultural norms of the time, but his comments that value women and lift up their place in the church would have gotten him in a lot of hot water, or at least kicked out of the Thursday night boys’ poker club.
For example, when he sends personal greetings in the last chapter of Romans, the first person Paul mentions is Phoebe, who delivered the letter to the Romans and helped them interpret it. He calls her a “deacon,” one of the highest positions in the church. In that same chapter, Paul calls Priscilla and Aquila his co-workers, a designation that shows Paul saw these women as his equal partners. Of the 27 people Paul commends at the end of Romans, nine of them, or one-third, are women. Of those 27 people, Paul calls four of them “hard-working” – and all four are women. As theologian Julia Foote says, “When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant they did more than serve tea.” Paul saw these women as his equals, working side-by-side with him. His model for equal relationships between men and women within the church would have been seen as quite subversive and counter-cultural. He very clearly states that women are equally saved, equally gifted, and equally sent to do God’s work. Far from being thought of as against women, in his day Paul would have very much been seen as a champion of women’s work in the church.
Even in our troubling passage from I Corinthians, Paul is making some assumptions about women in the church when he says, “and every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” Paul is assuming here that women do pray and prophesy in church. But doesn’t that seem to contradict what Paul says in I Timothy about women being silent in church? If we buy the fact that Paul was actually an ally of women, what do we do with these texts once we get them across the bridge?
The key to our understanding is context. Paul was not writing for future generations of believers like us, but was writing for a specific time to address a specific situation. When Paul started the Corinthian church, he preached to them the freedom they received through Jesus Christ, that they weren’t beholden to the Roman empire or the Jewish law. Some people in the church had taken this to mean they had no restrictions in worship. So they had begun embodying their exuberance, including some women who literally let down their hair. Long hair was considered to be sensually alluring to men, so this exercise in freedom of worship was a distraction and kept people – especially men – from focusing. It’s like if I wore a rainbow wig and a clown nose during worship and then said, “Don’t mind me, just listen to the sermon.” That would probably distract you from worshipping God. Paul was not restricting women from prophesying in Corinth, but he wanted to make sure that they add to the worship, not distract from it. That’s why Paul said what he said in I Corinthians. The idea that all women should always cover their heads in church is a gross misapplication of the text, and hardly any churches put these statements into practice.
Paul’s other comments about women being silent and not teaching can’t be so easily laughed off. But the same principle of context applies. Does Paul mean that all women in all churches at all times should keep silent? Absolutely not, and to apply this passage in such a universal way is an incredibly harmful misreading of Paul’s intentions. One of the church’s most damaging errors has been how the use of these passages to keep women from exercising their God-given gifts in church.
What Paul is addressing here is the issue of false teaching, which was a serious threat to the existence of the early church. Some female prophets in the church had been seduced by false teachings, and were using the forum of worship to spread these teachings. They were jumping up right in the middle of the sermon and contradicting what the preacher was saying. Can you imagine?!? Paul calls for their submission to the elders of the church for some corrective instructions, and until that time, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Paul is addressing a specific group of women in a specific situation.
Logic tells us that if we accept that women no longer should cover their heads because it doesn’t fit our modern context, then we should accept that women can and should teach and speak in our churches for the same reason. To remove Paul’s words from his context and try to apply them universally to our world today is not just an example of shaking the bridge; it’s burning it.
So what do we do with these texts? Three things: (1) We read them and acknowledge them as important teachings in Paul’s day. (2) We accept the larger truths they hold, that everything we do in worship should be to glorify God and help others do the same. (3) We admit that we don’t have to take every sentence in the Bible literally to be faithful followers of the word of God.
Was Paul a sexist? By our modern standards, it sure sounds like it. But remember something else Paul wrote, this from Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is the most revolutionary thing Paul could say on this subject. Regardless of our gender or social status or cultural boundaries, we are all made into one body through Christ. We all eat the same bread, share the same love, and worship the same God. We are all created in God’s image and called to us our gifts for the building up of the church. That is Paul’s timeless truth to us. That’s what we can bring back across the bridge with us, and we are all the more blessed because of it.