The role of women in church as laid out by the Apostle Paul has always been controversial. There are those who say that Paul hated women and created restrictive, secondary roles for them in the church because of it. Others, however, maintain that Paul loved women and that the roles he created for them in the Christian church were very liberating for them. Still others acknowledge that the roles for women that Paul created for the Christian church are somewhat restrictive and secondary, but say that this is because of the status of women in society at that time, not because Paul hated women. The role of women in the Christian church as ordered by Paul continues to be controversial and a matter of scholarly interpretation and study today. This paper takes a look at the role of women in the Christian church as ordered by the Apostle Paul.
The Issue of Women Speaking in Church
Probably the passage in the Bible referred to most frequently when citing how Paul hated women is the passage in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 14 which states that women must be silent in the church. This passage also states that Paul will not allow a woman to teach in church, as man was put on earth to be the head of the woman. This passage has raised the ire of more than one feminist, and is frequently pointed to as positive proof that Paul had no use for women. It certainly seems that way on just a cursory glance. Paul wants women in church to be silent. This is almost akin to saying that women should be seen and not heard, much like the old saying about children. One gets the impression that whatever women might have to say, Paul did not think it was important. There is also the implied meaning that Paul thought women were somehow unclean, tainted by the sin of Eve, and therefore allowing them to speak in church would somehow defile the sanctity of the church. With these impressions so readily accessible through a simple reading of the passage, it is no wonder that many people continue to hold the impression that Paul hated women.
However, there is another interpretation to this passage. The role of women in the overall culture of the time in which the Bible was written most certainly played a large part in Paul's placing of them in the church. Women were culturally subservient to men during this time, and were officially and legally second-class citizens, with no rights on their own. Unmarried women had to have a guardian to see to their affairs, while married women were subject entirely to their husbands. For women to speak in church would have seemed not only inappropriate, but also blatantly disrespectful of their male superiors. In other words, it would have been presumptuous. As for women teaching in the church, many interpret this as Paul making a straight doctrinal decision based on precedent, not on his own personal feelings. Older scriptures that Paul had access to at the time did state that God created man to be the head of the woman. As such, and considering the place of women in society at the time, it probably made sense to Paul to not allow women to teach in church, as that would have been allowing them to overstep their God-appointed place in the world. This decision would have been made through no inherent hatred of women. In fact, Paul was very progressive concerning women in other ways. After all, it was also Paul who said that there was no male or female in Christ -- a truly revolutionary statement for the time.
This particular Biblical passage has been used throughout the centuries as the justification for keeping women out of the ministry. It is argued that if women are not allowed to speak or teach in church, then they are not able to be ministers in the church. The Catholic church still uses this rationalization to keep women out of the priesthood, often quoting 1 Corinthians, Chapter 14 when explaining why it will not allow it. However, not everyone believes that this passage means that women are disqualified from the ministry. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis gives the beliefs of those who advocate this position a voice in her book Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality. In her book, Groothuis goes to great lengths to explain that Christianity is, in fact, a liberating religion for both women and men in that it makes them both equal in the eyes of Christ. She also points out that both men and women are encouraged to work with their strengths for Christ. If a woman's strength is in ministering, Groothuis states, then there is no specific Biblical passages that forbids them from doing so. To Groothuis, Paul's missive in 1 Corinthians is too vague to be held up as some absolute standard.
The Issue of Women Covering Their Heads
Another Biblical passage that often causes controversy concerning women is the passage in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11 which states that women should always wear head coverings. Paul states that a woman's hair is her glory, and that for her to expose it is to her shame. Paul also uses this passage to explain again that Christ is the head of man, while man is the head of woman. Paul says that because Christ is the head of man, that for a man to cover his head would be shameful, while it is just the opposite for a woman, since man is her head. This is a passage that is often referred to by people when they are giving proof that men are in charge of women and that women are to be meek and modest and to basically have no outside existence except through men. While most Christian women in the Western world do not cover their heads, the head covering order is taken to still have metaphorical meaning,
However, as numerous Christian theorists have pointed out, Jesus's relationships with women were truly revolutionary for their day. In fact, the relationships that Jesus had with women were often in stark contrast to the way that Paul said women should be treated in church. Ben Witherington points out in his book, Women and the Genesis of Christianity that women were allowed to be disciples of Jesus during his ministry, a truly revolutionary allowance. Witherington states that there is no evidence in past Jewish tradition that women were ever allowed to be disciples of a great teacher before Jesus. Witherington also points out that women were allowed to openly give their testimony about Jesus to others, something that was akin to preaching, whereas before, Jewish women were only allowed to teach children. It is true that in some passages of the New Testament, Jesus's male disiples expressed surprise and even bewilderment at how Jesus treated women as equal to men. Women, then, while Jesus was giving his ministry, were allowed a greater status of equality with men and given more freedoms than they ever had been before.
So why, then, was Paul so concerned with women maintaining a subservient position to men in the church when Jesus had treated them with equality? The answer probably lies in Paul's focus on the conventions of the day. Again, women did hold a secondary place in society in these times, and Paul was likely concerned about being able to win over many converts to Christianity if women were given too many freedoms within the church; such a position would have made the church seem even more radical than it already was. When Paul said that there was no male and no female within Christ, he was acknowledging that Jesus viewed men and women equally and that in Heaven they would be equal. However, on earth, he was aware that the conventions of the day would just not allow it. Even Paul, though, acknowledged that there were certain, particular roles for women in the church, and even though he would not allow women to speak in church, he never in any way suggested that the roles for women were in any way inferior to those of men (D'Angelo, 36).
Women as Missionaries and Disciples
In fact, there are numerous examples throughout the New Testament of women performing functions and roles that would have been denied to them under Jewish law. For example, women were witnesses to the empty tomb of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Christ. That the testimony of these women was later allowed among the male disciples is evidence that they did not hold with the traditional Jewish law that forbade women from being witnesses in court (D'Angelo, 36). The Samaritan woman whom Jesus ministers to then goes out and tells others all about him and what he did, and proclaims him as Christ. This is something that women would not…