Paul did seemingly have some difficult things to say to women, especially when judged by 21st century standards. The simple answer to the question, “Was Paul a Male Chauvinist?” is absolutely, but so were all men in the Ancient Near East. Paul was a man who viewed the world as a 1st century person and we could not expect anything other than this. His world was dominated by men.
In light of this, maybe we should be asking a different question. Maybe the question should be, “How did Paul’s newfound faith in Jesus change the way he viewed women?” Instead of trying to make Paul one way or the other, we should instead try to understand how Paul wrestled with the grace of God and his male dominated view of the world.
To begin with, let’s examine again what may be Paul’s earliest letter, Galatians. In this letter, Paul makes an amazing statement, especially when we understand his male dominated world-view. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Notice that Paul believed that in Jesus, all persons are equal. This makes sense when we look at Genesis and notice that the reason women were under the authority of men was the result of sin. If we find salvation in Jesus, then original creation is restored. The problem though is that most of society was not in Christ Jesus and they operated out of a different world view. So for Paul, the grace of God in Jesus meant that men and women were equal. If this is the case, how do we make sense of some of the other writings of Paul?
In 1 Corinthians we have two different places where Paul addresses the role of women. In both chapters 11 and 14 Paul is addressing issues with the Corinthian worship practices. His instruction to women in chapter 11 is to cover their head WHEN PRAYING or PROPHESEYING. If this is Paul’s instruction, then it must be assumed that women were praying and prophesying in church. This leads us to chapter 14 where Paul seems to contradict himself. He tells the women in verse 34 not to speak in the churches.
Remember again that Paul is trying to help the Corinthian church to bring order to their worship service. Apparently people are speaking in tongues and this gift is being valued above the other gifts that the spirit gives. Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter 12 that all gifts are equal, in chapter 13 that love is above all gifts, and in chapter 14 that prophecy is preferred because it builds up the whole church, not just the individual.
So, why does Paul tell the women to shut up in church when he has already told them to pray and prophesy with their heads covered? Honestly, I am not sure, but my theory is that the women were the ones causing the commotion both inside the church and outside of it. Let me explain. I think the women were taking their new fond freedom in Christ and using it in ways that offended those people outside the church and causing commotion in worship.
In chapter 11 Paul is trying to tell the women that they still need to follow the customs of the culture so that the church will still be credible to those on the outside. The last thing the church needed was to draw negative attention to themselves. As we have already seen, Paul is not a T-Totaller when it came to following the law or customs, but he did want the church to be respectable to the society. Although Paul believed women were free in Christ, we also believed in being a Jew for the Jews and a Gentile for the Gentiles. In order to reach those outside the church, those inside must be credible.
In chapter 14 I believe Paul is trying to solve the problem of the worship being disorganized and if I am right the women were the root cause of it, then it makes sense for him to instruct the women to be silent. I also think that he means they should be silent in the area of speaking in tongues, not necessarily in praying and prophesying. Remember, the problem is not that they are praying and prophesying, but that they are using tongues in the wrong way. To solve the problem, Paul told them to shut the tongues up!
In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul gives the Christians a household code to live by. In both these letters he addresses the roles of the husbands, wives, children, and slaves. In both letters he tells the wives to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to be obedient to their masters. In Paul’s day this was a no brainier. Everyone would have already known this. Paul does something different though. Paul adds to this the responsibly of the male. He is to love his wife and treat the children and slaves well.
In both of these passages Paul does believe the man is ahead of the household, but this would have been common sense in the 1st century. However, his Christian conviction causes him to tell the men to act like Christ towards those whom they are responsible for.
We also see Paul giving this same instruction to women in the pastoral letter of Timothy. He tells him that he is not to let women speak in church because men are over women. Rather, they are to submit and learn from the man. This is a rather odd passage to me because it seems to be somewhat out of character from the other passages that Paul uses to address these issues. Paul does say all of these things in other letters, but this letter does not add Paul’s though about the other side.
Some people may suggest that Paul did not write this and therefore we are clear of having to explain it. While this would be easy, it may not really be fruitful. I think the answer may lay again in the specific problem Paul is addressing. He may have had so much success with his advice to the Corinthians about women keeping quit that he decided to make it standard in all his churches. It also may be possible that the women who were uneducated in this culture were having a difficult time with understanding Paul’s teachings and they may have been leading people astray so Paul encouraged them to talk privately with their husbands. It could also have to do with the false teachers who seemed to follow Paul around misleading the women and in turn, they would mislead others in public worship.
Whatever the case may be, it is clear to me that Paul’s Christianity, while not eradicating his 1st century mindset, did lead him to changing some of his views. It appears that he did have helpers who were women. Women did prophecy and pray in the churches. Women were considered equal in Christ. Paul thought it was important to teach husbands how to love their wives. It seems that Paul actually had quite a radical view of women for his day and time.
While Paul was a radical in this issue, it is also clear that he was hesitant to allow the women’s new freedom to compromise the message of the gospel to those who were not Christians. Paul felt it was important to maintain societal norms in order to keep peace between the church and the culture.