Paul versus Paul on family – the erosion of gender equality

January 6, 2011

Paul parted ways with Jesus when it came to the rules for community life and relations between the genders and between husband and wife, adopting mores about women’s subservience in the family and in the community that were closer to those prevailing in the more traditional Jewish and Greco-Roman communities of which he was a part.

Even so, Paul’s teachings on family in his early letters are not so misogynist as some of his words might suggest. In Galatians (probably his earliest letter), he uses a formula that was probably associated with baptism: “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 and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:24-25) This is a formula for equality.

Was this passage just metaphysical rhetoric, the language of the mystic, a formula for spiritual equality only? By the time Paul writes the first letter to the Corinthians, as we have seen, wives are submissive to their husbands. Has he changed? Is he adapting to the social circumstances of his followers?

There may be a drift here. In the later letters, or those attributed to him, notably Colossians and Ephesians, he invokes what is called the Greco-Roman “household code”:

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

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 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, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:21-24)

Paul repeatedly counsels women and slaves to accept their situation, “since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24), just as he urged his flock in Rome to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).

I suspect that Paul has not drifted much at all in these later epistles, but simply continued to refine his understanding of discipleship in terms of a spiritualized, mystical relationship with Christ. In this relationship, the lived material life was of little consequence, except as a source of temptation. Salvation was for the spiritual self in this life as a segue to fulfillment in the afterlife. In the meantime, one might as well accommodate the mainstream culture in which one lived, up to a point, since these things did not really matter.

With this spirit of concession to prevailing mores that we find in Paul’s letters, he seems to be trying to remove obstacles to faith for his followers. This was, after all, one of the main reasons he did not require circumcision or adherence to Jewish law, the signal characteristic of his Gentile mission. These were impediments to faith, and unnecessary to salvation in any case.

This leaves modern Christians who live in a culture that has been evolving steadily toward more gender equality with a choice: either accommodate our cultural trend toward equality, in the spirit that seems to have guided Paul in his ministry, or follow the letter of the ‘law’ we find in his letters, and subjugate women to their husbands—and slaves to their masters. Thus one picks and chooses, not just which passage to base your family ethic upon, but which approach you will use in reading scripture—a literalist reading of the letter of his letters, or an interpretive reading of the spirit of his teachings.

This has been true all along in our exploration of biblical testimony on marriage and family life. The various forms of marriage we find in the Bible have evolved in their outward forms, leaving us with mixed messages about God’s law, confounding a literalist approach to family values. But they also have evolved on another plane we might call spiritual, requiring repeated acts of interpretation as to God’s intentions. Why would God care whether a husband lived with his wife’s family, or she lived with his? Why would God care whether you married outside your group? Why would God through his son begin to dissolve inequalities between women and men, and then about face through one of his apostles?


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