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While the author(s) of the Epistles of the New Testament are disputed, a more compelling interest in the Biblical books is their contrasting view of a woman’s role in society. In fact, works completed by Paul polarize Christian denominations to this day, due to disputes of the extent of power a woman can hold. In the First Letter to the Corinthians and Timothy, Paul approaches a woman’s role liberally, but moderates his suggestions to conform to his cultural norms. This contrasts his blunt, coarse messages in Galatians. Paul’s letters offer very complex guidelines of gender relations, because of his varying approaches in identifying a woman’s place.
In the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Paul approaches the church’s affairs and concerns progressively, within limits. Paul immediately addresses the church in Corinth as his “brothers and sisters”, (1:10), an inclusion of both sexes for the purpose of unifying his message. He continues to do so for the next fifteen chapters, a detail overlooked if not paid close attention. Yet, the significance of Paul’s word choice pales in comparison to his actual message. Between the first three chapters, Paul explains to the church that God should be the common denominator between him and his audience, and the route to spiritual enlightenment is not as important as the spirituality itself. Paul says “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power”(1:15). In this verse, Paul emphasizes that he is not nearly as important as the God he serves, and the wisdom that he has serves no purpose in his ambitions of spreading the Gospel.
A few of Paul’s notable messages which exclude gender relations come in chapters five and six. Paul uses sexual immorality as shameful sin in Chapter 5, saying “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons- not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name brother or sister who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber…God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’”(5:9-11,13). Paul explains that it would be irrational to distance yourself from every sinner in the world, but it is very important to cast away a fellow Christian who chooses to live life sinfully. This passage also can be used as a guideline for a Christian’s own moral code. Paul explains that this moral code is compromised once a Christian brings another person into court. He logically explains that a Christian cannot win a lawsuit in Chapter 6 when he explains “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer that goes to court against a believer and before unbelievers at that? In face, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”(6:6-7). Paul’s disapproval of using the legal system to settle disputes comes from modesty and logic; nobody is wise enough besides God to solve a quarrel between believers.
Chapter 7 of First Corinthians provides substantial “divinely inspired” information which Christians refer to today as a road map for marriage. This is the first sense of balance and equality we receive from Paul’s writing, as he says “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does”(7:4-5) Paul makes it clear that a relationship based on equal standing between man and wife is not only recommended, but necessary. A significant detail to note is the injection of his own opinion. Paul says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry” (7:8-9). Paul immediately backtracks from the egalitarian standpoint which he just provided and implies that those who act upon their sexual desires should marry because of their lack of self-control. Self-control is a virtue which God holds to high regard, and for Paul to say that one should get married because they do not have self-control is questionable. Another controversial statement Paul makes is in his assessment of children through an unblessed marriage. Paul states that children of a union between an unbeliever and a believer are “unclean”, to which they have no control over. Paul makes one last comment regarding relationships in his assessment of virginity. Paul states “it is well for you to remain as you are”(7:26), which implies that Paul is neither elated nor dissatisfied with the idea of marriage, but only views it as a product of necessity. Paul does not acknowledge the love of a spouse in this chapter.
After speaking about the significance of full devotion to God in Chapters 8-10, he continues to make somewhat unreasonable propositions in Chapter 11. Paul stated that male and female have control over themselves and each other, but completely contradicts this in the beginning of this chapter. Paul says “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ”(11:3). This is likely included for moderation of his work, because of the neutral stances Paul made in aforementioned chapters. While the inclusion of this clearly hierarchical statement is a cornerstone for many Protestant and Catholic churches in this century, it overshadows many egalitarian remarks Paul mentioned earlier. In fact, holding this specific portion of Paul’s letters to high regard makes little sense; because immediately after this passage Paul instructs women to wear a veil or shave her head. To add insult to injury, Paul states that “Indeed, the man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was the man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (11:9). It seems very out of the ordinary for Paul to include this borderline misogynistic attitude when he clearly had no opinion to offer on other topics. It makes little sense for Paul to have a disinterested attitude of marriage, but a strong opinion of a woman shaving her head. This sharp contrast in writing offers two hypotheses: Paul was writing to heavily balance out his “progressive” attitude to marriage previously noted, or this was not Paul’s writing at all.
After writing about the negative aspects of speaking in tongues, Paul strikes a sentimental note which also is important to Christian doctrine. Paul stresses the importance of love, saying “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” (13:3-5). While Paul never mentioned love previously except for the love of God, he writes thirteen verses of the importance of love in his life. This is not only oddly placed, but also oddly written. Paul mentions the word love less than ten times up until this chapter but makes it clear that a Christian cannot function or succeed without love. By doing so, Paul makes it clear that the love to which he strongly values is not between humans or of idols, but of God.
After mentioning the significance of love in a Christian’s life in depth, Paul switches gears to downplay a woman’s practical role in the church. He says “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Now, Paul references the law of the land when it is convenient to make a point. Yet, he lessened the authority of the law when speaking of court, as well as slavery. It can be assumed that Paul included this in his work to justify the treatment of women at the time, and to avoid reform of a woman’s role in the church. What Paul outlined was not new, nor was it radical. A woman keeping silent in the church was appropriate at the time, and he felt it was convenient to balance his enlightened ideals with rigid (yet consistent) practices. It just so happens that women are those who are constrained by Paul’s words.
Paul’s writing in the Galatians is a very rigid, egotistical, and pompous address to the Churches of Galatia. He speaks of those born in Christ as those of the “Free woman”, referencing Sarah; and those born of the flesh are those of the “slave”, referencing Hagar. While little gender relations are addressed in this passage, Paul does elaborate on the definition of freedom in Christ, and how it is attainable. This comparison is important to note because Hagar is portrayed as fearless Jezebel in Genesis, while she was doing all that Sarah commanded her to do. Further, Hagar was referred to as Sarah’s maidservant, not as her slave. Paul gave Hagar a negative connotation, calling her a slave, and comparing her to the sinful lifestyle that Christians must avoid. He says that “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). These are strong words for Paul to use, as they bear heavy, negative connotations which were not even associated with the maid-servant in the previous Biblical text.
Paul’s First Letter to Timothy also lacks significant instructions for gender in Christian communities but does provide guidelines for the advancement of Christian communities. Paul does mention that “the women should dress modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (2:9-11). This can be interpreted in two ways. While Paul was most likely speaking literally, saying that women in the time period should not draw attention to themselves in the church, this has been taken figuratively by many Christian communities. Paul’s underlying message is that good deeds in the church should not be done for the sake of drawing attention to the individual, whether the person is male or female. Paul made a spectacle of women’s “gold, pearls, [and] expensive pearls” because women were probably more likely to exude elegance. Paul further comments on women in Chapter 5, speaking of widows specifically:”Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once, she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way” (5:9-11). Paul’s description of a “holy widow” in this passage does not completely parallel what he wrote in 1 Corinthians, as he showed less of an impassioned admiration for a widow. The contrast comes mostly in the age of the widow, as Paul did not necessarily approve of a widow who was young, and had nothing to live for.
Paul’s writing in Timothy also provides guidelines for leaders in the church, which many denominations follow today. For example, he says “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way”, and “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (3:4-7). These are very important to the Christian faith’s churches today, and it is one of the only parts of the Bible which is fundamentally clear on what it expects from a follower, without any sort of ambiguity whatsoever.
Paul’s writing seems consistently progressive until he mentions a woman’s role. While he encourages Christians to stay out of lawsuits, and slaves to be content with their lives; he discourages women from participating in the church and even getting married. Paul’s views on marriage, widows, and virginity seem relatively neutral compared to his ideas of a woman’s role in an elevated position in ministry. To ignore the hypothesis that there were multiple writers of the Epistles would be foolish because the misogynistic dialogue Paul writes is in such stark contrast with many of his other works.
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