For many years, I have been very uncomfortable with some aspects of St. Paul’s teaching on women, but had no idea how to write about this issue.
Then, just as I began to pray a few days ago, I suddenly understood a significant difference between Jesus’ attitude towards women in the Gospels, and that of Saint Paul in his letters.
Jesus: timeless and universal
Jesus’ teaching is timeless, universal and eternal. I can’t think of anything he taught that related solely to the times and the society in which he was living. Nor did he teach different rules for women and for men. Rather, he treated everyone in the same way, whilst not one word of his teaching discriminated between the sexes. This fits with the absolute equality of the first creation story in Genesis:
“God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them” (Genesis 1:27-8; NLT).
Paul: time and context
Much of Paul’s teaching, on the other hand, related specifically to the social customs and context of his times. This is particularly true in relation to his attitudes towards women, and his instructions about how Christian women should behave.
In his letters, Paul often addressed particular issues arising in specific churches. This is particularly true of his opinions about the roles and behaviour he expected of women. It is therefore important not to apply his pronouncements to all women generally, everywhere and at all times.
A male perspective
Furthermore, Paul wrote from an essentially male perspective, as is often shown by his choice of words. For example, when addressing the church at Corinth, he wrote:
“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34; NKJV; my emphasis).
The phrase “your women” is particularly significant here. Essentially, perhaps unconsciously, his letter is addressing only the male members of the congregation. This is further emphasised by his next sentence:
“And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (ibid, v35).
I don’t know which “law” Paul was referring to, for Jesus never said, or in any way implied, that women should be silent in religious settings, that they should be submissive towards men, or that it was shameful for them to speak at spiritual gatherings.
A glimpse of equality
Despite these significant differences between the teachings of Jesus and Paul, I don’t reject Paul’s teaching as a whole. This is because at his very best he was sometimes able to rise far above his social context and to grasp the essential truth of human equality. So, despite the quotations discussed above, he was also able to state:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28; BSB).
Sadly, he was unable to hold on to this profound truth, or to apply it more generally during his ministry. Perhaps he was simply unable to square his own contradictory beliefs.
A final comparison
For his times, Paul was an amazing, brave, insightful, and often inspired, teacher, but Jesus consistently saw much further and deeper than he ever could. As the gospels repeatedly show, everything Jesus taught applied to women and men equally, as people.
Paul’s teaching, on the other hand, was very different. He accepted the imbalance of power in a highly patriarchal society, where women had very little status, independence, choice, or freedom. He did not challenge this, but, perhaps unconsciously, seemed to take it for granted as the way things had always been, and therefore the way they should continue to be.
Writing this article has made me appreciate even more just how revolutionary Jesus’ attitudes to women were. I unhesitatingly accept his teaching as applying to me. However, I cannot see Paul’s pronouncements in quite the same way. His letters can be helpful, insightful and even revelatory, but his teaching was deeply rooted in the conventional social context and attitudes of his times, and therefore cannot reasonably be applied to women everywhere, and at all times, as some might claim.
My conclusion is that whilst Paul was often inspired, he wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t Jesus. For me, this is the essential difference between his teaching, and that of Christ.