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Paul’s Radical Egalitarianism

 

Equality in Christ

In The First Paul, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan pose a question that gets to the heart of the radical egalitarianism of Paul.

Why, they ask, was it only after Onesimus’s conversion to Christianity that Philemon’s duty was to liberate him by manumission?  … Why are Christian women and men, wives and husbands equal with one another?  Why must Christians be equal with one another? (from The First Paul, page 110)

Baptism, a pre-condition for equality.  For Paul, baptism is the pre-condition for equality.  Simply put, when we are baptized into Christ, there is no inequality.  This is true for all relationships, both inside and outside the assembly.  For Paul, this was a non-negotiable affirmation that he expected his churches to adhere to.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
            There is no longer Jew or Greek,
            there is no longer slave or free,
            there is no longer male or female;
            for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
            And if you belong to Christ … .   (Galatians 3:27-29a)

It was precisely such a declaration of equality that was at the core of the radical transformation that marked Christian baptism.

For Paul, life in Christ is the same as life in the Spirit.  Both suggest a life transformed and committed to the justice of equality.  This was a cornerstone of Paul’s gospel.

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body
            –Jews or Greeks,
            slaves or free–
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  (1 Corinthians 12:13)

The baptismal formula reassures the baptized person that when you come into the Christian community–as Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female–you are equal to everyone else in the community.  There are no distinctions.  Hierarchical distinctions outside the community are invalid inside the community.  Christians are not equal and unequal to one another in Christ.  When persons have been baptized into the community, they are equal to one another, both inside the community and outside. 

Equality between men and women

Within the family.  Paul’s views on patriarchy are revealed in 1 Corinthians 7 where he
emphasizes the importance of equality and reciprocity in relations between men and women.  On male/female, husband/wife issues, Paul is radically egalitarian.  Check out
Paul here on husband/wife sexual relations:

… each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, 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). 

Paul was not opposed to men and women enjoying mutually healthy sexual relations.  He understood that for many, if not most, a healthy sexuality was an important part of their lives.  In part, what this was about was the appeal, to some, of an ascetic lifestyle. 

On the question of divorce, Paul, generally, is forbidding of divorce.  However, again, note the equality/reciprocity in his comments on divorce. 

To the married I give this command … that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). 

Within the assembly and the apostolate.  Although at times it is complicated and messy, for Paul, there is gender equality, both in the assembly and in the apostolate.  The main evidence for this claim is Romans 16:1-16.  In departure from his other letters, in his final, personal appeal in Romans 16, Paul mentions a long list of twenty-seven names, ten of which are women.

Interestingly, in these final greetings in Romans, Paul gives us a glimpse into the lives of some of the more prominent women leaders in the Jesus movement.  To begin with, there is Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.  Phoebe, it turns out, is the leader Paul chose to carry his letter to Rome where she would read it (and, perhaps, interpret it) to the different house churches there.  To be hand-picked for this role, Phoebe must have had considerable church experience, as well as being sufficiently well versed in Paul’s theology and teachings. 

Secondly, there are Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish couple who had been expelled from Rome under the order of Claudius (49 CE), but who have returned to Rome where they now host a house church.  Paul had lived with them in Corinth.  Like Paul, Aquila was a tent maker.  Curiously, Priscilla (sometime listed as Prisca), is mentioned first in the citing of this married couple, suggesting that, perhaps, she had a more prominent role in church leadership. 

And thirdly, there are Andronicus and Junia, another Jewish couple, who had “come to Christ” before Paul.  Paul had grown close to them over the years, even sharing imprisonment time with them, perhaps in Ephesus.  Compellingly, according to the original Greek, Andronicus and Junia are “prominent among the apostles.”  In other words, they were–and Junia no less than Andronicus–apostles.  Imagine that: Junia, a woman, was an apostle!

In the assembly and in the apostolate, we see both the presence and the prominence of women.  Gender equality in Paul’s churches was normative.  Consistent with Paul’s radical egalitarianism, it was the common practice in the early decades of the Jesus movement. 

 

About the Author
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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