What did St Paul say about women?

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

  • Published
St Paul: Charlecote church, WarwickshireImage source, ASP Religion / Alamy

Can two sides in a debate - both composed of sincere, intelligent people - look at precisely the same set of evidence and reach precisely opposite verdicts?

With the Church of England's first women bishops to be named soon following the final seal of approval for legislation allowing them, that is exactly the case.

Supporters of women bishops say St Paul was part of an early Christian world in which some Church leaders were women. Opponents believe he forbade women to exercise power in church.

As an authority on life in the earliest Christian communities, Paul is unsurpassed. He was a key figure in the first Churches spreading outside the Holy Land.

His letters to early Christians were reverently collected to form a major part of the New Testament - though they are preoccupied with local disputes and organisational matters and often angry.

Jimmy Dunn, former professor of divinity at Durham and author of the Cambridge companion to St Paul, and Dr Lee Gatiss, director of the evangelical Church Society, and opponent of women bishops, examine some of the texts.

The clearest passages?

Image source, Jupiterimages

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says." First letter to the Corinthians

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." First letter to Timothy .

Some observers question the validity of both these key "anti-women" texts. Many modern scholars think I Timothy is not by Paul, but by a later writer familiar with his thinking.

Gatiss says the text has circulated with other epistles of Paul "since the very earliest days". He says "there is no external or manuscript evidence whatsoever to indicate that it is not a genuine letter by the person it claims to be from."

Its restrictions on women are "especially pertinent, as it is in a context where Paul is discussing the precise issue of leadership in the Church", he says.

Dunn does not think I Timothy should be disregarded. But he thinks it may date from a second generation when the expected second coming of Jesus had not happened and the Church had to be "organised for an indeterminate future".

No-one doubts that Paul wrote I Corinthians. But some commentators claim verse 14:34 must have been added later, because it appears to contradict an earlier verse in the same letter which says women should have their heads covered when they prophesy.

Surely if they prophesy they cannot keep silent - and therefore 14:34 can be discarded?

Dunn does not go so far, but he insists that texts must be seen in their historical context: "I think Paul would have been appalled that so many of his letters set in particular situations… are being generalised 19 centuries later and people say, 'This is the rule for ever and a day'."

He says the Church in Corinth seems to have been "pretty chaotic... and we can't generalise for the Churches that are well-ordered".

The I Corinthians passage perhaps concerns "women who are too keen to take part and are asking questions and raising issues and so on, and the worship is being disrupted", Dunn says.

Gatiss agrees that in the Bible "we expect to find historical details and cultural peculiarities and even teaching which applies to the immediate hearers but not to others".

But, he says, "all our earliest manuscripts of I Corinthians support the versions of the text as they appear in the standard translations", and its message is clear.

Why are women in a list of important early Christians?

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
Priscilla is named by Paul as one of nearly 30 active Christians

Supporters of giving women power in the Church most frequently cite the letter to the Romans, Chapter 16. In its list of nearly 30 active early Christians, at least eight are women.

Some commentators stress the fact that one, Priscilla (Prisca in the original Greek), is named before her husband Aquila.

Another couple, Junia and Andronicus, are said to be "eminent among the apostles".

Some have doubted Junia was a woman at all. As late as the 1960s the New English Bible described her as Junias, a man.

More recently, the dispute has been over whether the phrase means the pair were apostles themselves, or simply well known to them.

"It's that they are among the apostles and it's the most natural way to take it. Junia is one of the apostles, and among that group of apostles she is eminent," insists Dunn.

Gatiss says women "rightly had an honoured role within the early Church" but that nothing in Romans 16 suggests that the women Paul names had the authority of bishops or presbyters/elders.

"Junia may be a woman. She may be called an apostle. But this has too often been assumed to contradict the traditional reading of I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 without proper logic or careful argumentation."

Different message for different people?

Both sides in the debate say Bible passages must be taken in their historical context. Both say the obvious meaning of a passage should not be ignored because it does not seem to confirm our views.

Both say there is a line to be drawn between what is for the occasion when it was written, and what is a message for all believers and all time.

But it is unlikely that either side will be able to convince the other of its own interpretations any time soon.

This would not surprise Paul. Throughout his writings he wrestled with disputes among Christians.

And often he advised that if someone insists on a principle another thinks unimportant, that person should go along with them, rather than alienate them.

He famously wrote: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews... To those not having the [Jewish] law I became like one not having the law...

"I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."

St Paul the Apostle

  • A Greek-speaking Jew thought to have been born about 5 AD at Tarsus in Cilicia (now southern Turkey).
  • Had been a persecutor of Christians before becoming a leader and teacher of Christian communities in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome
  • Details of his life come from his letters, and the later Acts of the Apostles
  • Acts says he was a tentmaker, that his Jewish name was Saul, and that he was a Roman citizen - his other name Paulos could be Roman
  • Later tradition says he was martyred in the same place as St Peter (Rome) and on the same date (29 June) - but not necessarily in the same year. Perhaps in 67AD.

All the Bible quotations here are taken from the New International Version.

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