Was Paul a Feminist?

Contributed by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Romans 16:1-7

Of course, Paul was not a feminist as that term is strictly employed today. Prior to the very recent period, no one was. But in a broader sense, the women who founded Ewha (would not count as feminists by rigorous contemporary standards either. Yet, I do believe that they) were feminists. (in terms of the most basic concerns of feminists, even today.) And I believe the same was true of Paul.

(Broadly speaking,) In the days when patriarchy ruled the world without challenge, to be a feminist was to affirm the leadership roles of women; (it was) to emphasize mutuality in male-female relations, (including marriage, it was) to oppose the physical and mental abuse of women, and to make sure that all of them were protected and cared for. We can find those concerns in Paul

This morning I am selecting for emphasis the matter of women’s leadership roles in Paul’s movement. But let me first respond to one strong objection to my claim that Paul was a feminist. There are passages purporting to be written by Paul that directly oppose women’s leadership. Some are found in the Pastoral Epistles, that is, I and II Timothy and Titus. Most scholars today recognize that these were written by church leaders in the next generation, when males were pushing females out of leadership positions in the church. These leaders claimed Paul’s authority, but, on this topic, they did not reflect Paul’s own views.

In the unquestionably authentic letters of Paul, the most disturbing passage is I Cor. 14:34-36. Here women are told to be silent in church in a context that states that this is the practice in all the churches. Obviously, that is a direct attack on women’s leadership. But in other parts of the Corinthians correspondence Paul assumes that women are speaking in church. These verses express a different view in a different style. The text reads smoothly, indeed, more smoothly when these verses are excised. Many scholars now regard them as an interpolation by a Christian of the later generation reflected in the Pastoral Epistles, when women wee being subordinated and silenced. Some Christian leader recognized that Paul’s writings, as they stood, did not support the silencing of women. He could not rewrite the letters as a whole, but he could interpolate a passage directly affirming the later patriarchal take-over. For these reasons, in the New Revised Standard Version it has been placed in parentheses. (It is not a good guide to Paul’s own views of the role of women.)

Paul’s letters are addressed to all the believers in the churches (to which he writes, clearly including women along with men. He did not emphasize this; he just took it for granted.) Many churches, no doubt, included both slaves and their masters, but Paul ignored those distinctions also.) For him, within the church, the(se) distinctions of male and female, slave and master, were not important.

Paul’s failure by contemporary feminist standards lies in the fact that he did not try to reform the larger society. He did not encourage marriage, but if Christians participated in this social institution, he assumed they would accept its hierarchical form. (That form was hierarchical.) Women were subordinate to the men who were heads of households. Paul (did not challenge that deeply established social convention. He) admonished wives to obey their husbands.

(At the same time, it is important to recognize that) But Paul spent more time telling the husbands to love their wives and treat them as their own bodies. His language goes as far as one could go toward balance and mutuality without directly rejecting the role and meaning of marriage in the world of that day. (Marriage was a patriarchal institution. The husband was responsible to society for his family. To exercise that responsibility he had to have authority. Paul did not challenge that. But) And he did not carry the patriarchy of the external world into his understanding of the church as the body of Christ. The church was a foretaste of a world that was free from all the hierarchies of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for Paul’s openness to women in all roles of leadership comes from a source that I used to think was very boring indeed. It is the greetings of individuals who were in Rome, which comes near the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. (In confirmation of the fact that Paul’s letters address men and women without distinction, one can note that women and men are mixed together in this list. If Paul were committed to male dominance in the churches, he could have listed the men first and then added that they should greet the women also. But nothing of his sort is to be found.

(Indeed) The list begins with a woman, Phoebe, who may have carried Paul’s letter to Rome. In the New Revised Standard Version, she is called a “deacon” and a “benefactor.” This is a considerable advance over earlier translations. The King James Version translated these words as “servant” and “succourer.” The American translation offers “helper” and “protection.” The New English Bible translates as one “who serves” and “a good friend.” Even the NRSV hesitates to translate these terms about Phoebe the way it would probably have translated them had they been references to a man: “minister” and “patron,” or even “president.” In all probability Phoebe was not simply one of the leaders of the church in Cenchrae but also its patron, that is, the one on whom the whole church depended financially and in other practical ways, and also the one who presided at meetings.

(In defense of the early translations, one can say that in the Christian context, a minister is one who serves and that the patron and president is certainly one who succors and protects and is a benefactor. But the choice of these other translations was unquestionably influenced by the assumption that women could not have been the top leaders of the church. That reflects later Christian ideas – not those of Paul.)

But this is just the beginning. Paul next greets a couple, Priscilla (or Prisca) and Aquilla. (He notes that they had risked their lives in order to save his.) Quite surprisingly, he names the wife first. (She is clearly not simply an appendage of her husband.) If anything she is the more important of the two. In Acts we are told that Priscilla and Aquilla took a visiting preacher aside to give him a more accurate understanding of the gospel. Priscilla’s name comes first there too. (We know that a church met in their home.)

(Of course, we do not know just how Priscilla and Aquila divided up responsibilities for the church. But there is no reason to think that the role of Priscilla was subordinate to that of Aquila or that Paul thought it should be.)

The most interesting case (with regard to the leadership of women in Paul’s churches and the reluctance of the later church to believe that Paul countenanced this leadership) is found in verse 7. Here Paul greets Andronicus and Junia. He calls them “apostles.” Junia is a woman’s name, but almost all translators have refused to believe that a woman could (possibly) be called an apostle. Accordingly, the translators over the centuries have transformed Junia into Junias, that is, a woman into a man. Even the Revised Standard Version reads: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” Only now in the NRSV do we read what the Greek original actually says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles(, and they were in Christ before me.)” At last it is acknowledged that in Paul’s view a woman was not only an apostle, but also prominent among the apostles.

(This does not mean, of course, that Junia was one of the twelve. At the time Paul wrote, the term “apostle” had not been restricted in meaning in that way. Nevertheless, it pointed to great authority in the church. Junia belonged to the highest rank of leadership, and Paul recognized this without hesitation or discomfort.)

Does this make any difference today? Perhaps not a great deal – but surely some. Even if Paul was as chauvinistic as (he is) sometimes thought to have been) suppose, we Christians could still call for equality between women and men(, especially in the church). But (we Christians do give special authority to) Paul. (He) remains the (greatest and) most authoritative theologian of the church.

If Paul, in the earliest days of the church, really taught that women should be silent and that all leadership positions should be in the hands of men, we would have to take that teaching quite seriously. (It might seem to be more than his simply acquiescing in the customs of his day. We might suppose that if this great Christian thinker and saint believed that even in Christ there was a hierarchical difference between men and women, those, today, who assert such a difference are the ones who are faithful.)

The discovery that this is not so, therefore, is an important one. No one questions that the list of greetings in Romans 16 is authentically Paul’s. The Greek original assigns to the women mentioned positions of major leadership in the churches. Translators have tried hard to obscure this fact. That they have rejected the plain meaning of the text up until quite recent times, shows how far males, even Christian males, will go to oppose Paul’s own views the role of women in the church. (It makes it easy to believe that an early Christian would interpolate a passage into Paul’s letter for this same purpose).

(If a time in which women were leaders in the churches was succeeded by patriarchal control, then we find in Gentile Christianity as a whole a pattern that has been common in the history of the church. Women play a prominent role, sometimes the central one, in bringing a new religious movement into being. In nineteenth century Protestant history in the United States, we have examples in Christian Science and Seventh-Day Adventism. But within a generation or two, the role of women is subordinated to that of men. This occurred in both of these movements. I have heard that similar developments are not uncommon elsewhere, as, for example, in the new religions in Japan.)

If the Gentile churches of which Paul was the principle architect were communities that enjoyed and welcomed women’s leadership, then, for us today to reconstitute that kind of church has Paul’s support. Opponents of this move have often cited spurious texts claiming to be the words of Paul. Let us now use Paul’s authentic words to bring into being a church that is truly for women and men alike.

You who study at one of the world’s great women’s universities have an opportunity and a calling to renew the original spirit of the churches by overthrowing the male domination that has obscured it so long.

May God be with you.