Arguing about Paul

Published March 4, 2021

Over on the Book of Face, I happened on an article about St. Paul, who happens to be a fave of mine. In the course of the discussion, somebody made a characteristically postmodern remark about him. I say “characteristically postmodern” because it exhibits the curious inability folk in our time have for being able to be multicultural about cultures of the past and is filled with the boundless contempt and intolerance such folk have for any worldview they cannot patronize with their White Savior complex. The past, as has been famously said, is another country and postmoderns cannot, as a rule, cope with it. So they forever judge it by contemporary standards and refuse to cut any slack to denizens of the past for failing to have benefitted from insights and mores that it would take millennia for human beings to deduce. Why did ancients not just use microwaves and blenders like we do? Why could they not just see that the world was round? How come they kept slaves? Practiced Bronze Age warfare? Believed in divination? Weren’t democratic? Thought certain people were naturally inferior/ superior? They must have just been stoopid! Fortunately, we are just better people now and have nothing to learn from them. So a reader writes of St. Paul:

While on the subject of Paul, could someone ever address the obvious misogyny in most of his so-called ‘teachings’?

Actually, I can think of only a handful of times Paul speaks about women specifically in his letters and a number of these are remarks that, given their first century context, are surprisingly egalitarian, particularly when he hails women as fellow laborers in the gospel and declares that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female. I’m not sure what “so-called” teachings mean. He was, after all, an apostle.

really, have you forgotten the lines where he says women are meant to be submissive to their husbands, and where he says being married is a burden for a man who wants to live the godly life.. he was a fanatic, and a fundamentalist; and he merely shifted his focus from one set of teachings to another. As this article states, he did not ‘convert’ to Christianity. He was not an apostle – the title apostle was honorary, bestowed upon him; which in itself, means nothing.

In fact, he says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). His entire discussion of marriage is predicated on mutual humility in imitation of Christ. In first century Greco-Roman culture, women and wives had almost no rights. What Paul does is place the burden on husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (i.e. live as servants and die for them). The submission he calls wives to was basically the norm already expected in that culture. In other words, he asks nothing more of them than the norm, while demanding a radical revolution of husbands.

As to his preference for celibacy and his recommendation that others follow suit if possible, he is simply echoing the other great celibate of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, who likewise commended those who chose to be “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven”. He does not make it a law or a requirement. He simply says that it is less of a headache to remain single if you want to maintain an apostolic lifestyle. His view of marriage, as he makes clear in 1 Cor 6 is that it is not a sin to marry (indeed he rejects condemnation of marriage in his letter to Timothy) but notes that celibacy leaves people free to focus on ministry.

In short, Paul’s view is that marriage is good, but celibacy is better, a view conditioned by his work as an apostle and by the teaching of Jesus. Had he been a fanatic, he would have insisted on celibacy and condemned marriage as the true fanatics, the gnostics, often did. To be sure, Paul certainly has a will of iron about his duty to Christ. Meeting the risen Christ does that to a person. But “fanatic”? That tells us more about your hostility to Paul than about him.

Likewise, I have no idea what the meaningless epithet “fundamentalist” means in his case. What sticks out in Paul is not commitment to a rigid set of little rules and shibboleths, but a flexible multicultural approach that encompassed a wide range of cultural differences between different expressions of Judaism and different Gentile cultural, philosophical and religious norms.

Nor can I parse your disparagement of his apostleship. Of course it is a title, one given him by Christ, the other apostles, and the entire Church. But it’s not one he invented for himself. “Apostle” means “sent one”. Its root is where we get the term “Post office”. Paul was sent by the Church in Antioch in Acts 13, along with Barnabas, who laid hands on them both in the sacrament of ordination and sent them in the name of Jesus. It is nonsense to complain that he accepted the mission given him in the name of Jesus by his Church.

Paul accepts Jesus’ teaching about marriage (Matthew 19). He rather carefully distinguishes his own opinions from the apostolic tradition about Jesus’ teaching, insisting that “Not I, but the Lord” says X, while “I, not the Lord” say Y. This is characteristic, not of a fanatic or a fundamentalist (who tend to treat their own ipsi dixits as identical with the Will of God), but of a shepherd. Paul has his own notions of what might be a good idea. But he is cautious not to impose them as law, but only to recommend them as good ideas.

Does Paul hold distinctly premodern ideas? Of course, he’s premodern! What do you expect? He takes slavery for granted as a part of life. He doesn’t like it, and where possible, he recommends slaves getting their freedom. But he also tells slaves to be good slaves because he lives in a world where slavery is simply a fact of life. In the same way, he takes for granted the cultural norms that women were to be silent during worship, that woman was the first deceived by the serpent, and that women should cover their heads during worship. This is not “misogyny”, however, unless you want to drain language of meaning. “Misogyny” is hatred of women. There simply is no evidence that Paul hated women. On the contrary, Paul insists that women are as much made in the image of God as men, that men and women are fundamentally interdependent in Christ, and that it is as contrary to the gospel to regard women as inferior to men as it is to regard Gentiles as inferior to Jews.

23 Responses

  1. Paul supposedly saying that “your women” should keep silent in worship “in accordance with the Law” may equally read as saying believers’ wives (“woman” and “wife” being the same word in Greek) should not talk or chat during meetings (i.e. it is directed at those not participating in the worship itself) in accordance with the rules for orderly conduct of services which Paul himself was laying down in the same passage. Certainly the idea that women should not actively participate in worship does not accord with what we know of early Christian practice, and neither is it stated anywhere in Jewish law that women may not pray out loud or are forbidden to speak whilst in the Temple or a synagogue.

  2. “As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.”

  3. I basically give Paul a free pass. His grudges are dwarfed by his huge accomplishments. The man was rushing around trying to get everybody ready for the second coming, right? He would probably see the women talking about what he considered mindless banter when time was of the essence and he would judge them for it. He definitely crossed some lines. It’s a good thing he never married. Maybe he was mad at the women with the done up hair because he couldn’t have one.

    Let’s face it, men and women are fundamentally different. We declare war with the tongue and men do it with physical acts of violence. It’s still fresh in my mind. I sat for three hours last night while my husband binge watched Band of Brothers. Even though I knew it was just a movie set it still made me cry out, writhe in pain and cover my eyes. He sat there, transfixed. Men love gun battles and tanks. Women are fascinated by scandalous relationships (Big Little Lies, The Undoing…) That’s why Game of Thrones was so successful. Something for everyone.

    Paul just needed a good woman to keep it real.

  4. I realize that this is a fundamentalist I am about to write about, and this is a Catholic blog. Nevertheless, since we’re talking about Paul, it seems relevant.

    Paul said that if anybody delivered a gospel other than his, it was a false gospel, and that that person would be accursed, even were he an angel in heaven. Philippians? Colossians? I can never remember.

    So what are we to make of this?

    Right-wing pastor Shane Vaughn of Mississippi’s First Harvest Ministries, last seen claiming Donald Trump would absolutely be a two-term president because God never said it would be consecutive terms, still says Trump will make a comeback if Christians support the Republican Party’s attempts to restrict voting rights:

    We’ve got to prepare the way for him to return,” Vaughn said. “John the Baptist, the Bible said that he was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare for the way of the Lord.’ In other words, the Lord was soon to come, and John’s job was to prepare the way for his coming. Well, ladies and gentlemen, much like John the Baptist, we must prepare the way, to make straight the crooked paths in America and our election system. We must prepare for the return of Donald Trump.”

    All i can say is, “oh, my.”

    1. Ben, I believe you are making reference to Paul’s affirmation that Jesus was truly raised from the dead. Anything short of that is a false gospel, now then and in-between.

      It has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump, or my Brother-in-law’s secretary in Nashville who declared one day that “God Told me to buy A blue Chevy Silverado”. I’m not kidding, she really said that. It’s delicious.

      1. If God indulged in promoting silly materialistic desires, surely it would have been a ’63 Sting Ray Coupe.

      2. Well whadaya know. God just told me to buy that ink blue velvet couch from West Elm. I take everything back.

      3. @Ben,
        I was just having a little fun, and not at your expense, at the expense of the fundies. It’s too bad that they have proven themselves to be dangerous. Apart from that they are utterly entertaining.

      1. Well, Mark, the subject was Paul. Your subject for quite some time has been false gospels, false prophets, false Messiahs, false Christianity.

        And the cult of the former occupant of the White House, where all of this intersects.

        I realize that it was not entirely Germane to the topic at hand, but there didn’t seem to be any place else to put it and I thought it was worth noting.

        Why don’t you just delete it.

      2. The pastor’s last name, Vaughn, derives from the Welsh “bychan” (“little”, “small”).

        Welsh is a Brittonic language and, along with Irish and Scottish Gaelic, is part of the Insular Celtic language group, composed of Celtic languages spoken in Great Britain, Ireland, and (via migration from Britain, starting in the 200s CE) Brittany.

        Other Celtic languages–now extinct–were spoken on the European continent, from what is now Spain to what is now Turkey.

        In what is now central Turkey, a Celtic tribe (descendants of Celts who had migrated from western and central Europe) spoke a Celtic language modern scholars call the Galatian language.

        Around 50 CE, St. Paul wrote a letter to some Galatians who had begun to adopt the practices and beliefs associated with the nascent Jesus-Mashiach movement. They were likely thankful that Paul did not believe that the male Galatians would have to undergo what was arguably the unkindest cut of all.

      3. Agnikan just drew a step by step logical path from a weird fundie pastor’s name to the Welsh language, to the Celtic tribe, to the Galatians, to St. Paul.

        This, I say, is exactly what internet discussion boards are for. I tip my hat to you, sir.

    2. What we are to make of this, is that Paul is preaching the Gospel of Christ, and you and Vaughn are not. But I’m sure you have another Venn diagram in mind.

    3. @arteveide

      My brother used to, and probably still does, have one parked in his garage. Mint condition. He would drive it around the block ever so often, and then put it back into his garage.

  5. I want to raise another point about Paul. I was a catechist in my parish RCIA process. I like Paul. I would be the one to teach on Sundays when he’d say something controversial to present ears. The problem with Paul lies with us. We approach scripture, working to make it fit the worldview of the times. It’s easy to say Paul is misogynistic or condemn his apparent support of slavery. We need to respect Paul enough to take him on his term, not make him fit our sensibilities. My issue is the number of Christians of all denominations who subvert Paul for their own ends. They use him as a cudgel to put women in boxes of their making. Wear headcovering, veil at Mass, don’t say anything, don’t serve in liturgical ministries, that’s for men. Wives be submissive, with all the male entitlement that entails. Paul is even more demanding of husbands, who are enjoined to lay down their lives for their spouse, but they can’t see, hear, or acknowledge it because the wives line comes before. Paul is challenging. He waxes poetic in developing his view of Christ.

    So, I don’t think Paul is the issue anywhere as much as those who use his teachings and words to justify their narrow views of women and slavery. We have the problem.

  6. Actually, one bit of trivia I learned in my theology classes:

    Paul’s words, the most misgynonistic of them, were likely put in by a later author; especially the “women should be silent in church” bit.
    It’s like someone scrawled in crayon over Paul’s calligraphy because they thought girls were icky.

  7. Paul’s attitude to marriage was also influenced by his belief in Christ’s immediate return in glory. Getting married was pointless in his view.

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