The issue is complex because Paul is establishing our human relationship to both Jesus and to God. Sometimes these two relationships are described in hierarchy to each other (1Cor 15:28) while at other times they are almost interchangeable (Rom 8:9-11). Paul also has something to say about a metaphysical and pre-cultural hierachy between men and women. At other times he addresses all humanity without distinction. It is possible to identify six different “places” in the text –Christ, God, human, Christian, male and female. Often they are conflated – Christ with God, Christ with Christian, human with Christian, male with female.
As Paul moves through describing these relationships in different ways this reader faces a problem. Faith-based scriptural criticism assumes a unitary message of scripture. Therefore if Paul says something in one place it is to be “faithfully” interpreted by his other comments on the topic – and by the rest of the bible. Even without the presumptions of faith the reader is inclined to synthesise what they read of Paul into one coherent philosophy. This is despite the fact that this particular reader, myself, would be betrayed by one of my own letters held against another. Sometimes I don’t even notice my own inconsistencies. So how much is Paul’s consistency a false reality? Analysing Paul myself I feel like I’m re-producing an orthodoxy rather than being knocked over by one singular possible reading.
Additionally if we strive for consistency we still have to decide which texts inform and which are informed. And this decision can radically change our end product. Consider 1 Cor 11:2-16 where man vis a vis woman is paralleled with Christs relationship to God this can be interpreted in the light of Collossians 1:13-20 which by describing Jesus and God in equitable terms means that Paul is suggesting a similar different-but-equal relationship between men and women. Alternatively we can inform the passage in light of 1 Cor 15:28 where Christ is clearly subordinated to God (at least in my translation). It’s not long before this process leads into a treasure hunt for passages which support one thesis or another. In Tim 1:17 Christ is again given a description possibly equal to God while in Tim6:14-16 God is unapproachable and alone possesses immortality; Lord of Lords while Christ is Lord. In Ephesians 1: 15-16 Jesus is elevated but clearly by God who is above him (even “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ”). And on it goes with axe to grind in hand. Who reads like this? Who wants to? And what of 1 Cor 8: 4-6 where “God, the Father”is “from whom all being comes” while the Lord, Jesus Christ is “through whom all things came to be” – could this be the real template of male and female in Pauls eyes? And what does it mean for our question?
Then there are our attempts to infer from Paul’s bigger picture what he means in the particular. How fanciful are these? For example Paul is vigorously opposed to symbolic distinctions between Jew and Gentile amongst Christians while he proscribes distinctions for men and women in the church. This can be given great meaning given that Paul talks of Christian life as being a substantially different one to that which preceded conversion, suggesting that the life post-baptism is already or at least foreshadows the life after death. Christians are renewed internally and Christian life is a life of the spirit rather than the body which perishes. Paul is adamant that distinctions relevant to the life of flesh are irrelevant to Christians – (though he is no breatharian of course). Paul even creates a people of Abraham who are based in faith rather than natural lineage. This redefines Gods people in a way that divides the spiritual from the physical even before Christs incarnation. Gender however remains intact as a real division from the very beginning of humanity through to the present spiritual life of Christians. So from all this we could infer that for Paul the differences between men and women unlike the differences between Jew and gentile are a) spiritual not just physical and b) will endure after death and resurrection as they do after baptism.
The above argument is compelling to me but it’s worth realising that now we have wandered some distance from the direct text. With a cause and a similar approach its possible Paul could espouse almost anything. If you combine wild inferences with interpreting passages in the light of each other and especially if like myself you have little other data to work with then at some point you know it’s you not Paul making the “Ouija board” of scripture speak. Paul is writing letters and this means he is in a conversation where he addresses particular points. Generalising from his comments to one audience regarding one point to produce a theology for all time is unlikely to be fair. This is borne out by the inconsistencies which must be silenced to create such consensus.
Just to make a call though I think Paul does include women in an equal way with men in salvation. My basis for this view is Galatians 3:26-24. This is the singularly clearest definition of Pauls term the Son of God that I can find. Here he almost seems to be specifically writing to answer my question, “Are women Sons of God?”.
“For through faith you are all sons of God in union with Christ Jesus. Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ as a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. But if you thus belong to Christ, you are the “issue” of Abraham, and so heirs by promise. “
However to accept this as Pauls only belief in the matter I have to disregard the following;
· Paul sees a gendered hierarchy as springing from the created order before the fall. Gender is thus ascribed to a spiritual order rather than a natural one. Further a gender hierarchy of man above women is described as being exactly about men and women’s relationship to God with men as the image of God and women as the image of men. (1 Cor 11:2-16)
· Paul also sees gender as analogous to the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5) as well as God and Christ (1Cor11 12-16) – and both are enduring post-death distinctions.
· Paul thinks angels recognise gender and find the bare tops of women’s heads offensive. (1 Cor 10:10)
One thing to say in Pauls defence (sort of) is that he seems to have a very limited ability to see the multiple experiences of his statements. Pauls thinking seems much more analytic than empathic. My heart aches for those women who hear that they mustn’t address their congregation (1 Cor 14:34-35). Think of the life of a small faith community. By such decrees hearts are broken – and what a loud silence Paul’s sympathy makes.
Consider also 1 Timothy 5 where Paul effectively winds back welfare for widows (and then immediately after argues for a double stipend for preachers). Paul may well have the correct interpretation of scripture on his side (he certainly cites a fair bit of it) but where is his understanding of the effects of making women dependant on their brother-in-laws instead of entitled to community support. Paul makes no mention of the lost autonomy the women will experience.
Here is a man who held the clothes of people involved in stoning a Christian – and he seems to only recant the anti-christian part of it not stoning ones dissidents generally. Reflect seriously on the thud of stone on flesh and you might wonder if Paul has something missing in his makeup by today’s standards at least. Subsequently even if we would intuit from Paul’s statements that women are lesser in the eyes of God, Paul might be blithely unaware of such a conclusion. He can seem like he has the common sense of a boffin – quoting scripture to make one point without awareness of all its emotional impacts.
This brings me to the final problem regarding Paul’s opinion of his sisters in Christ – the weight of scripture. This problem is one which we are inside as Paul both comments on and is scripture. For me it is a given even if scripture was to say otherwise, that men and women are spiritual equals. By which I mean; if there was a God they wouldn’t be much chop if they didn’t value women and men equally. My authority for this is my relationships with women – possibly Pauls missing ingredient. Yet if I was to say that scripture holds men to be greater than women some people would read that as if I had said that such a hierarchy was right and true. And for many Christians Paul is scripture. As I have more interest in promoting feminism than accurate biblical understanding the whole merit of this essay is questionable. Why write it? Why give it to you to read it?
The answer is probably pride. Possibly also loneliness. Why do we reach out to others in writing anyway? Why did Paul? His letters come to us through centuries from the road, a boat, a prison cell. He misses his friends, he burns with purpose, and he bristles with hurt. While I’ve mentioned his insensitivity Pauls’ writings also include perhaps history’s finest clarifications of and call to love (1 Cor 13) and he teaches a tender mindfulness towards others (1 Cor 10:30-33). From these fragments can I ever really define him? Can I fairly prosecute him? Can I forgive him? This may seem a strange place to end up but I find to decide Paul excludes women from an equal salvation would be to condemn Paul and to condemn Paul is to somehow miss the whole point. Paul is in a way a conundrum of compassion for the world awoken in someone who seems terribly bad at it. Paul’s great message is that the spirit of Christ rather than the law is our justification before God. Yet this runs contrary to the busy bodying instructions he makes to communities about women’s hats, widow’s incomes and even aids for digestion (1 Tim 5:23). Just like Peter who is the cowardly Rock, Paul is a work in progress. Just like me. So please don’t hang me for this writing in 2000 years. And in turn I won’t hang Paul.
 This sentence is true with an important qualification. I’m talking about inconsistencies in Paul in response to the questions asked by this essay. Any fault lines drawn through Paul are created by our own purposes. It’s a very different claim to say that Paul is contradictory in and of himself. In fact to wax philosophical, read entirely in isolation it may be impossible for Paul to contradict himself. But that’s a question beyond this essay.