About Jesus  -  Steve Sweetman

Home Page

Paul And Women


1 - The Culture Of Paul's Day


Many historians view the Apostle Paul to be a significant influence in shaping western civilization.  He, due to the gospel of Jesus, was ahead of his time concerning many social and cultural issues that the western world has cherished over the years.  One such issue concerns women's rights, something most ultra-feminists overlook in their unfair criticism of him.   


To understand how Paul was ahead of his time concerning women we must consider the Greco-Roman culture in which he lived.  The Roman Empire was vast and diverse.  Women's issues varied from region to region, depending on the cultural heritage of the region.  That being said, the geographical setting in which Paul and those to whom he wrote lived was the Greco-Roman world of modern day Turkey, Greese, Italy, the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. 


Many women in this cultural and geographic setting had more freedom than women in other parts of the empire.  Although some women were in business, most were uneducated.  Women were viewed by men as being in a lower social class.  In many respects they were looked upon as baby machines in a male dominated world.  They were so designated because homosexuality, and in some cases polygamy, were the cultural norm for men.  Even if men were orientated towards homosexuality, they still had wives, not for companionship, but to carry on their family lineage; thus my term "baby machine." 


When you compare Paul's teaching with the culture of his day, you'll soon realize that he was indeed ahead of his time concerning women's issues.  Let's see what he had to say about women.  I'll work my way through his letters in the chronology in which they are found in the New Testament.  All quotes are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, 1984 edition. 


2 - Romans 16


Paul's letter to the Romans is a systematic theological study in God's will for humanity.  He ends his study with the acknowledgment of people he viewed as important among those in the community of Christ.  Of the 26 people mentioned in Romans 16, 9 are women.  This fact alone tells me that Paul's esteem for women goes beyond the cultural norm of his day.


The first person Paul acknowledged in his closing remarks is Phoebe.  "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, as a servant of the church in Cenchrea.  I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people including me (Romans 16:1 - 2)."  I think I can safely say that Paul had great respect for this woman of God.    


Due to the words "I commend to you our sister Phoebe" in Romans 16:1 the general consensus among Bible commentators is that Paul chose Phoebe to deliver this document to the believers in Rome .  Understanding the importance of this letter to the Christian world, and also understanding the male dominated world of the day, Paul's choice of Phoebe for this task was a bold move on his part.  Trusting a woman as Paul did in this instance would not have boosted his popularity among men in the pagan world.           


In Romans 16:3 Paul greets Priscilla and Aquila.  This couple is mentioned several times in the book of Acts and Priscilla's name always appears first.  In the Greco-Roman world this signified Priscilla's importance.  As seen in Acts, this couple, especially Priscilla, taught the believers in Rome and elsewhere.  We cannot overlook the fact that Priscilla was considered a capable teacher of God's Word by Christendom's most influential teacher in history.  Of course, she taught alongside her husband, but that does not lessen her significance in the early community of believers.


3 - 1 Corinthians 7:1 - 7


In 1 Corinthians 7:1 to 7 Paul addressed the sanctity of marriage.  In verses 2 and 3 he taught that sexual intimacy between a husband and wife shouldn't be denied by either spouse.  This instruction was meant to discourage adulterous relationships, something the men of Paul's day accepted as normal pagan practice.  If both parties were sexually satisfied within the context of marriage there would be no need to look elsewhere.


It should be noted that central to the lives of men in Corinth was the Temple of Aphrodite.  Aphrodite was the goddess of love.  Men from around the region would routinely visit the temple and its hundreds of female and male prostitutes who served the sexual desires of these men as an act of worship to the goddess of love.  Such sexuality was simply a part of pagan worship.  Leaving this form of worship would have been a struggle for a newly converted Christian man, thus one reason for Paul's instruction.   


Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians 7:1 to 7 were meant to uphold the Biblical ideal of marriage, but they also upheld the sanctity of women.  A wife would find security in knowing she was respected by a faithful husband.     


4 - 1 Corinthians 11:3


"The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God."  I realize this verse is no longer culturally acceptable, but it's in the Bible so Christians have to deal with it.    


Think about it this way.  Each part of your physical body responds to the signal it receives from your head.  In other words, your body parts follow the lead of your head.  In like manner, Christ follows the lead of God, man follows the lead of Christ, and woman follows the lead of man.  In Biblical terms it's called headship.  


Paul balanced headship in verses 11 and 12.  "In the Lord, however, 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."  Man and woman were never created to live independently from each other or from God.  Even though woman was made from man, a man could not be born into the world without a woman.  Man, therefore, can't disregard woman, as was often the case in Paul's day.  Neither can woman disregard man, as is often the case in our day.  This unified equality tells me that headship must exist in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance of each other and God in order for it to work, something the pagans in Paul's day rejected.    


Biblical headship begins with Jesus and His Father.  Although they existed in a unified equality, Jesus chose to follow His Father's lead.  The same spirit of unified equality, a relationship based on mutual love and admiration, should exist between man and woman, especially husband and wife.  Only then can woman freely choose to follow the lead of man.  If there is no reciprocal love and acceptance between man and woman headship will not work.  If the man, the husband, is dictatorial, headship will not work.  If the woman, the wife, is overly independent, headship will not work.  If man and woman, husband and wife, don't follow the lead of Jesus, headship will not work.  Paul was clearly ahead of his time on this issue.  


5 - 1 Corinthians 14:34


Paul is often unfairly criticized when he said that women must remain silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34).  If you take this statement out of its textual and cultural context you will misunderstand it, as many do.


Bible historians tell us that due to the lack of education among many women in the first century Roman world women tended to interrupt the flow of meetings by asking questions.  We know Paul believed that all things must be done decently and in order as he said in verse 40.  I think it's safe to say that Paul didn't want any interruption of the flow of an orderly Holy Spirit led gathering, not by a woman or a man.  God is not the author of disorder as he said in verse 33. 


The context of Paul's statement concerning women being silent in the church goes back to 1 Corinthians 12:13 where he said that we all have been immersed into the Body of Christ.  All means all.  Both men and women are vital components in the community of Christ, a concept first century pagan men would have rejected.    


In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul said that everyone should come to the gathering with a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, and an interpretation.  Everyone includes women.  In verse 31 he said that all can prophesy.  All includes women.  Women were permitted to participate in meetings.  They just weren't permitted to disrupt the Holy Spirit led flow of a meeting, but neither were men.    


6 - Ephesians 5:22


Ephesians 5:22 has been abused by husbands and misunderstood by wives.  "Wives, submit to your husbands as unto the Lord."     


Throughout the New Testament our English word "submit" is translated from the Greek word "hypotasso".  This Greek word means to "rank under" as a soldier ranked under his superior.  In its general usage hypotasso was a harsh, cold hearted, dictatorial word.


In some cases the general usage of Greek words in Roman culture differs from that seen in the New Testament.  In Biblical terms hypotasso is a yielding to another based on love, respect, and a harmonious relationship.  The Bible softens the word from its common cultural usage.   It's not a harsh dictatorial submission as men in Paul's day would have understood it to be.  This is why Paul tells a husband to love his wife as Jesus loved us (verse 25).  When a husband lays down his life for his wife, his wife can freely follow his lead.  How culturally unacceptable this idea was in Paul's day.   


Something that is often overlooked in the discussion of this passage is that in verse 21 Paul admonished all believers to submit to one another.  I think all believers include husband and wife.  Mutual submission between a husband and a wife balances the fact that the wife is to submit to her husband.  The underlying premise in Paul's teaching on submission is the fact that both husband and wife hear each other out on all issues.          


As we saw in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23 speaks to the husband being head of the wife.  Again, headship only works when the husband lays down his life for his wife.  Headship only works when the wife yields to the lead of her husband.  Headship only works in an atmosphere of mutual submission, both to each other and to God, something sadly lacking in the first century Roman world.      


1 Timothy 2:11 - 14


Timothy was a young man whose mother Eunice and grandmother Lois guided him to faith in Jesus (2 Timothy 1:5).  The mere mention of these ladies by Paul tells me that he had no problem esteeming godly women in a public format.     


1 Timothy 2:11 to 14 is probably the most controversial of Paul's statements concerning women.  It's been hailed by some men and despised by some women.  "A woman should learn in quietness and in full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve."  Let's examine each phrase of this passage to see what Paul might be saying. 


"A woman must learn in quietness."  The verb "must learn" is a Greek present active imperative verb.  That means this was a command, not a suggestion.  As I've already stated, in the male dominated world of Paul's day the majority of women were less educated than men.  Historians tell us that Christian women tended to interrupt meetings by asking questions to clarify what was being said.  In order to not interrupt the flow of a meeting Paul instructed women to learn in a more quiet way.  For example, she could be educated at home by her husband, something pagan men back then were not interested in doing.      


Some women recoil at the words "in full submission" in this verse.  I've already commented on the Greek word "hypotasso" that's translated into our English New Testament as "submit", or in this case "submission."  This Greek word in its common street level usage was a cold hearted, harsh, dictatorial word.  It meant "to rank under," as a soldier ranked under his superior officer.  Although the New Testament still understands "hypotasso" as ranking under, it softens its meaning from its general usage.  In Biblical terms "hypotasso," or "submit," is a submission based on mutual love and respect for one another.  Paul was encouraging a woman to submit to her husband and to the elders of the church based on a mutual love and respect, both for each other and for Jesus.   


"I do not permit a woman to teach."  I've previously stated that Priscilla was a well known lady teacher in the book of Acts.  I've also stated that Paul admired her as seen in Romans 16:3.  How do we reconcile Paul's respect for this lady teacher when he told Timothy that women shouldn't teach?    


The next phrase helps answer the above question.  It reads, "Or to have authority over a man."  The Greek word "authenteo" is translated as "authority" in this phrase.  This word means "to exercise authority on one's own account."  What you miss in the NIV Bible is that Paul was not saying that a woman can't have any authority.  He was saying that a woman must not usurp, as the King James Bible better translates it, the authority from a man.  A woman must not take it upon herself to exercise authority and teach, and by so doing ignore the authority of the man. 


Priscilla was a teacher, but she didn't usurp her husband's authority.  Every time she is mentioned in the book of Acts it's always in conjunction with her husband.  Their names always appear together.  She taught alongside her husband as a co-worker in the service of the Lord.  Paul had no problem with a woman teaching as long as she didn't step beyond her authority in the local church.  


Paul addressed ecclesiastical authority in 1 Timothy 3:1 to 7.  He listed certain qualifications for elders or overseers, one being that he must be the husband of one wife.  In other words, he must be a man, and an older man at that since the Greek word "presbyteros" that's translated as elder means "older man." 


In verse 13 Paul backed up his teaching on submission by saying Adam was formed first, then Eve.  I realize this is no longer culturally acceptable in today's post modern evolution indoctrinated world, but for Christians, the Genesis account remains the historic fact.  God created Adam first.  He then created Eve to live alongside Adam, and not below, as I believe the Hebrew text implies in Genesis 2:20.


Without a serious study of 1 Timothy 2:11 to 14 you will misunderstand Paul.  His understanding of women's issues was not as cold hearted as many think it was.


Closing Remarks


Paul was clearly ahead of his day on women's issues.   His respect for women was culturally unacceptable by pagan men in his era.  He believed women should be educated.  He permitted women to teach as long as they didn't usurp the authority of a man.  He taught that women were significant participants in the Body of Christ that includes Junia that appears to be an apostle (Romans 16:7).  Apart from Paul's teaching on submission, I suggest that even the ultra-feminist should bring herself to recognize Paul's influence in western world culture on this issue.  The historians are right.  Paul had more impact on western civilization than most of us have given him credit for. 


Home Page