By CATHERINE UPCHURCH, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published April 16, 2009
Would you be surprised to discover that Paul worked closely with women throughout his ministry as an apostle of Jesus Christ? If so, you’re not alone.
Many Christians are most familiar with a few passages in Paul’s letters that seem to denigrate women, keeping them in their place, and even silencing them. Perhaps we need to give these passages a fresh hearing, with special attention given to the original context.
In Paul’s first letter to Corinth, he writes about the worshipping assembly, emphasizing the appropriate attitudes and roles. In one particular passage he speaks of the need for women to cover their heads so as not to bring shame when praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:3-16). He further speaks about males being the image and glory of God, while women are the glory of men. What could this have meant?
Modern readers must first remember that for several centuries the Church gathered in homes to pray and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In public settings of the day, women were required to cover their hair, but in their own homes this may not have been necessary. When the home is used for a public gathering, existing social norms and etiquette would have to be reexamined. Perhaps in Corinth, there was confusion in this mix of public and personal space.
Secondly, Paul’s advice regarding headdress occurs in the middle of an explanation of the commonly accepted design of creation. God is the head of creation, with Jesus next in line, and then men, and finally women. While we might find this description of order disorienting or insulting, it would be unfair to expect 21st-century ideals to appear in a first-century text.
Nevertheless, even the modern reader will find a surprising note of equality in verse 11: “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord.” The tone of the entire passage is to remind both men and women that they are subservient to the God of all creation, and that their glory is found in the way they submit to the lordship of Jesus.
Furthermore, the passage in chapter 11 assumes that women are praying and prophesying. Here Paul does not limit what women can or cannot do in worship. Later in that same letter (1 Corinthians 14:34-36), however, we read “women are to keep silent in the churches for they are not allowed to speak … if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home.”
Here we come face to face with two realities: ancient cultural expectations about married women and women in general (history and anthropology demonstrate that women had limited status), as well as the particular circumstances Paul might have been responding to in Corinth.
Ancient Corinth was an economically vibrant city that served as a land and sea route connecting Europe to Asia. Its multicultural population could dip from the well of a number of religious influences; there are remains of temples to Aphrodite, Athena and Apollo to name a few, as well as evidence of an active Jewish population.
In addition, various philosophical systems would have been attractive. In such an environment, Paul was concerned that Christians remain united and strong in their faith. Whatever situation he might have heard of from leaders there caused him enough concern to respond.
Some biblical scholars point out that the first two verses could be read as the “complaint” given in the words of local leaders who condemn the input of women. If so, verse 36 would be Paul’s response: “Did the word of God go forth from you [men]? Or has it come to you alone?” Since we know from this same letter that women were free to prophesy in church, it would not make sense for Paul to command their silence. The implication is that Paul could be stretching the believers to think beyond their own conventional wisdom.
Paul did not develop a full theology about women. Instead his words are a product of his pastoral care for various communities. When writing the church in Galatia about baptism, he emphasized that in Christ, distinctions between people are no longer significant: neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Galatians 3:27-28).
Most importantly, perhaps, for all that Paul’s words might do to maintain gender restrictions, his actions demonstrated a collegiality with women. Phoebe, the deacon at Cenchreae (Romans 16:1), leaders of house churches such as Prisca and Aquila in Rome (Romans 16:3; Acts 18:2; 1 Corinthians 16:19), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)—these women were co-workers, whose leadership and experiences no doubt helped to shape the early Church and the great apostle Paul.
This is the eighth in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Year of St. Paul. This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, Jan. 24, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.