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Paul, a First Century Feminist


Radical Paul.  Like Jesus, Paul was a radical egalitarian.  He was also, it turns out, a first century feminist.  In all the churches he helped found and nurture, he insisted on gender equality.  In all of the letters authentic to Paul (letters he actually wrote), there is a clear emphasis on equality and reciprocity in male-female relations.  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul tells the Corinthians:

… each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal right, and likewise the wife to her husband.  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.  (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)

Conservative and reactionary Paul.  These words to the Corinthians are known as radical Paul, or, the Paul of his authentic letters.  There is also conservative Paul and reactionary Paul.  Conservative Paul is the Paul of the “disputed” letters of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.  There is consensus among most scholars that these letters were not written by Paul, but, rather, by a member of the Pauline school (admirers of Paul who were deeply influenced by him).  These disputed letters were probably written fifteen to twenty years after Paul.  By this time, of course, the historical context had notably changed.  This was the period after the devastating war with Rome (66-70 CE), a time when many Christian leaders, understandably, were sensitive to the imperative of good relations with Rome. 

As Karen Armstrong reminds us in The Apostle We Love To Hate:

These posthumous epistles tried to rein Paul in and make his radical teachings more acceptable to the Greco-Roman world.  It was these writers who insisted that women be subservient to their husbands and that slaves must obey their masters.  (The Apostle We Love To Hate, page 13)

“Reining Paul in” is exactly what the authors of Ephesians and Colossians sought to do in their respective letters.  They didn’t want to promote a Christianity where the internal relationships between men and women were seen as “threatening” in any way to the stability and family values of Rome.  Check out these exhortations from Ephesians and Colossians:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church … .  (Ephesians 5:22-23)

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.  (Colossians 3:18-19)

Again, this is conservative Paul; note here how there is at least a hint of reciprocity (i.e., Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly, Colossians 3:19).  While they end up domesticating the passion of radical Paul to the normalcy of the Roman imperial world, there is at least some regard for women.  With reactionary Paul, which includes 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (probably written thirty to forty years after Paul and, distinctly, not Pauline), the language is still more harsh.  In these words from 1 Timothy, there is not a trace of reciprocity.

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

As we can see, both conservative Paul and reactionary Paul promote a pejorative image of women, where women are looked down on, condescended to, and disparaged.  This is, indeed, “what people hate about Paul.”  The problem is, of course, this is not Paul.  Clearly, the wider Church must do a better job of sorting out the different Pauls to where the authentic Paul receives a more just and fair hearing.  People need to be able to make distinctions between the letters attributed to Paul that are authentic and those that are not.

Beyond patriarchy in the Church.  The sting of a patriarchal system continues to be problematic for the modern Christian Church, particularly with Catholics, but also with conservative-evangelicals.  While the Catholic Church has stubbornly held to its patriarchal system from the outset, it has been at great cost to the quality of priestly care the church is able to offer the millions of Catholics around the world.  The problem, of course, is the church’s continued refusal to ordain women, both as priests and as deacons. 

In spite of the overwhelming shortage of priests in the Catholic Church, at present, regrettably, the church seems unyielding in its resistance to any change.  Approximately 54% of Catholics in the world are women.  In my experience, they are an abundantly talented and devoted group of faithful believers.  There are thousands of Catholic women who would welcome the opportunity to become ordained as priests or deacons.  Can we even imagine the quality of pastoral gifts and services this would offer parishioners in Catholic Churches around the world?  It would be immeasurable.  And yet, the rigidity of the Catholic hierarchy persists on this issue, to the incalculable detriment of the global church. 

Within Protestantism, still, most conservative-evangelical churches refuse to ordain women.  They hide behind weak arguments on literal interpretations of scripture and the precedent established by their particular domination over the years.  If both Catholics and conservative-evangelical Protestants would allow the practices of radical Paul to guide them, they would realize that Paul would have enthusiastically supported the ordination of women, both as priests and deacons.

In discussions on biblically inspired guidelines for ministry, authentic Paul should be given primary consideration over the other Pauls.  When this happens, we would discover how Paul was, indeed, a first century feminist. 


The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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