Monday, August 1, 2011

The Apostle Paul and the Sisters of Christ

Writing down my thoughts about the theology outlined in Paul Romans 1-8 I encountered a problem. Paul’s central thesis is that the Jew and gentile alike, by putting their faith in redemption through Christ rather than through completion of the law or status of their birth, can die to sin and become a Son of God. This “Christian” is by virtue of their status as a Son of God, co-heirs with Christ, even in one passage Christs younger brothers. My problem is should I repeat Pauls masculinist language of brothers and sons? Could I assume that he was simply using masculine gendered defaults to stand for all genders? Or would I in fact be obliterating something of Pauls theology if I “fixed” his gendered terms in my discussion?

The issue is important because I am not concerned with what Paul suggests as practical solutions for his time. These can be arguably left behind. Instead I am concerned with whether Paul is preaching a gendered hierachy that extends to the organisation of eternal splendour. Does Paul believe that women and men occupy the same place in paradise?

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[1].

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.

[1] 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.


  1. Dear Tony, you make so many points in this blog, it's very difficult to respond to all of them, but I must take issue with three points.

    1. To call both Christian women and men "sons of God", is not a comment on gender but a comment on their privileges and security in God's family. In that culture, sons gained the inheritance of the estate and sons did not get married off to another family as women were. Paul is not commenting on the legitimacy of this gender based system, but he is using it as an analogy for his readers. In the same way he talks about Jesus being the "firstborn". He is using a cultural analogy to express a spiritual truth. To be called a "son of God" means that you will share in the blessing of God's family and you will always be secure. It is a wonderful truth for both men and women who follow Christ.

    2. Just because something is set up before the fall, does not make it a truth for all time into eternity. God's plan for the new creation was there at the beginning and he can set up something in the created order (like marriage and roles within marriage) that won't be relevant or necessary in the new creation. The garden of Eden pre-fall is not the best there is. God is still in some ways distant, Satan and evil is still present, sin is still possible, the sun is still necessary etc. Each of these things are done away with in the new creation - God presence will be right there, Satan and evil will be gone, our hearts will be made new and even the sun won't be necessary (Rev 21:22-27). So you can't make the argument that if something is in the pre-fall creation, it is a "spiritual" truth rather than a temporary physical truth.

    3. Lastly, your use of Ephesians 5 to say that Paul thinks that the relationship of Christ and the Church is an analogy for gender is incorrect. It is an analogy for marriage. Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church, not men should love women in this way. Likewise, wives should respect and submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ, not all women submitting to all men. As mentioned in my previous point, marriage is created by God but is not for all time (Jesus clearly teaches this in Mark 12:25). Ephesians 5 shows us that part of God's purpose in creating marriage is to have a potent example and analogy of his relationship with his people. God uses this analogy all throughout scripture and that is why theses roles in marriage are important. They do not speak of any form of spiritual hierarchy. They are for a specific purpose and a specific time period. They point to a future reality and when Jesus returns and that reality is revealed, both marriage and the roles within will be made redundant.

    In the eternal scheme of things, I think gender will most likely be made redundant when Jesus returns. In the present, we experience that in the way that all people, both men and women, are equally in need of a Saviour and can equally experience the joy of relationship with God. But also, for the present, distinctions and roles within the genders are important for what God is is doing in the church and in marriage, until he returns.

    Simon Camilleri

  2. Hi Simon,
    To respond to your points in turn;
    1. I think we agree here. I come to the conclusion that this is what Paul means. It just takes me longer and in fact is what the essay is about. :)
    2. Good point. However the real question for this essay is whether Paul means for the gendered nature of Genesis accounts to be a "proof" of Gender having place in our salvation. He certainly means for it to be a model for post-baptism life. Again I ultimately come to the same conclusion but see more source of ambiguity.
    3. I think its hard to see how gender roles within Marriage aren't a comment on gender outside of Marriage. Marriage is not a rare arrangement - in fact no "outside of Marriage" exists for Adam and Eve. In closing you also mention that there are also akin gendered roles in the church. Given that the church is the welfare and education departments, collectiviser of wealth and court system of the early church and marriage dominates "private life" whats left? It seems to me we are really just talking about gender universally. Or atleast there's a "bleed through".

    Regarding your closing comments (that gender is important to what God is doing) I think there are facinating parallels between Christian patriarchy and christian slavery. Most Christians no longer see biblical comnments on slavery as prescriptive but instead see them as saying slavery is not THE issue of Christ (in Pauls gospel especially). They merely describe Christianity while slavery exists.
    Only by a special theology of a (pre-fall to post-baptism) spiritual basis for gender has patriachy in the church endured for 2000+ yrs where slavery hasn't. That theology draws on Paul and his use of genesis. But was that really his intention, given that he anticipated a speedy return of Christ?

    Tony Camilleri

  3. To answer your response to point 3. For me it is not hard to distinguish roles within marriage and roles outside of marriage. Whenever I directed a play that my best friend Daniel was acting in, he would happily and willingly support and "submit" to my leadership. That was for the context and time period of the play and outside of that we related with absolutely no sense of structure or role. And when Daniel was directing, he happily and willingly took on the role as leader and I submitted to him. This did not affect our friendship and it definitely didn't affect how we viewed our relationship with God.

    Sure, you can point to Adam & Eve and say the line is blurry, and for many people that is true. They point to Genesis 2 as an establishment of male leadership for all humanity. I see the argument but believe that the rest of Scripture does not support that view. Ephesians 5, for example, is clearly supportive of the structure, but is also clearly speaking exclusively about husbands and wives. There are also many other passages that speak of submission and leadership in regard to children and parents, citizens and the government, congregations to church elders, slaves and masters and wives and husbands, but never all women to all men. Ultimately, the greatest focus is always the submission/leadership roles that exsist between humanity and God's king Jesus, and that I guess if you fundamentally don't believe in that relationship then I guess none of the others will make much sense either.

    As you picked up in my point, I do believe that gender roles do extend to the church, although I want to be clear that this does not mean that women are not to be trained, or to preach or to lead or to be extensively involved in a vast array of church matters and ministry (like welfare, education, wealth and court systems etc.). Christian women are commanded by scripture to think, to study and to be able to teach and defend the faith. The issue lies when one role effects or supersedes another. A christian husband has a role as a spiritual guide, leader, protector and provider, to demonstrate and display the self-sacrificial way in which Christ has this role in regard to the church. A church elder has (or should have) this same role in regard to their congregation. This is why I think scripture teaches that men are to take on this role. Not because they are better or smarter or more capable, but to support roles within marriage and to avoid conflict between theses roles.

    In regard to any area that does not involve a sense of spiritual provision and leadership, there is no problem with godly women taking on roles of power, influence and responsibility. And outside the church, it's even looser! There is no problem in my mind, that our country's leader is a women. Women can and should take on leadership roles in government, business, military, education, police, medicine and all other areas that call on someone to lead and assume authority. I know not all Christians have shared my opinion in this throughout history, but I find no basis in scripture for the argument for universal male authority.

    The issue with marriage and the church is whether these roles support or diminish what God is doing in displaying Jesus to the world. Christians believe that God has revealed the best way to do this in Sripture, and because we are called to submit to his leadership, then until he returns and makes all gender roles redundant, then as a male, that is what I will do... submit.