Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bracket 2: Paul v. Paul (Paul v. Women Edition)

There is no more loved and more hated person in Christian history than Paul of Tarsus. (I could make good cases for Constantine in that category, but that's not this bracket.) Paul deriders say he was a misogynistic egotist who hated Jews (might have even been the original self-hating Jew) and moved Christianity to the margins today because of his words. Paul supporters say he was a great philosopher who was far more open than his day would have allowed and, without him, Christianity might never have become a mainstream religion, much less the powerhouse that it is today.

For the sake of the argument, let's allow in the game the seven books (just like b-ball!) that we're pretty sure were penned by Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. There's a place for redaction criticism (as a point guard) later in this game, but I'd like to point out first that this Scriptural debate is brought to you by...

God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: True Author of the Written Word. For all your inspiration needs, see God. You might like the Big 10, but we worship the Big 3-in-1!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Was Paul anti-woman? Let's consider 1 Corinthians 14:34-36: "[W]omen should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church."

Redaction arguments posit that this was added later to the text. As the letters of Paul were gathered together, an editor added this note (which appears textually in parentheses) to keep Paul in line with the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, James, Titus), which were being written at the time to help the early church as it became a more formal organization.

Using the "editor added it later" argument helps Paul, but I call traveling. That argument runs down the court with the ball, which gets you to the goal, but without abiding by the rules.

Let's throw it in from the sidelines and consider what else Paul has to say about women in 1 Corinthians (at the very least). How about 1 Corinthians 11:5: "[B]ut any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head- it is one and the same as having her head shaved."

People get caught up in the idea that this verse establishes the godly mandate for long hair on women. However, that misses the point just a little bit. Any woman who prays or prophesies would seem to be a more crucial phrase. Paul is taking it for granted that women will pray and prophesy. And this wouldn't be just among other women. Paul greets women by name in congregations in the Letter to the Romans and he affirms equality all before the Lord in Galatians, "In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. " (Gal. 3:28)

Secondly, in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, Paul says, "But because of the cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise her husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self control!"

(Let the crowd do the wave, so we can get the air moving again.)

Paul will go on to say he wishes that everyone could remain unmarried, but not everyone has the gift for celibacy, which he did. However, this is a radical statement of equality in marriage. Unlike in non-Christians marriages, where each spouse might have his or her own lovers (or two) and unite only for the purpose of children (offspring being a necessity to cement a marriage, which was most likely political in nature at all levels of society), Paul is proposing that spouses cleave only (only!) to one another. Furthermore, he's asserting that the wife has the same rights regarding her body and her sexual expectations as does the husband! That's pretty impressive for an alleged woman- hater.

So, what's with that women-silent-in-church passage? Since we're going with the understanding that it was written by Paul, then we have to figure it out. It doesn't really stand with the other passages on women that we know are from his hand. Is there another explanation?

What if Paul was being sarcastic? He was known for putting a sharp twist on his words when he needed to.

1 Corinthians is one letter or a collection of letters that Paul writes to a congregation he knows and who has written to him with some spiritual issues. There are concerns about people speaking in tongues, eating meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality and other issues. Paul mostly advises people to play it safe when dealing with issues that could interfere with the faith life of a brother or sister. Is your brother in faith very worried about your habit of eating meat sold out the back of the temple, previously sacrificed to some Roman god? Then grab for the bean pods when you're with him and don't push him on it. (1 Cor. 8:13)

Yet, if Paul thinks it's important, he can have a firm hand. Romans 6:1-2, "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" Paul is dramatically making his point that though God's grace is for all people and covers all our sins, we don't keep sinning for access to that grace.

1 Corinthians 14:36- "Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?" This comment follows the dictates about women speaking in church. If we go with the idea that the instruction about silent women came later, this latter sentence would be read to understand that elsewhere God makes it clear that women have no authority or right to speak in church.

Since that does not stand with the rest of the biblical narrative (which has some mouthy, holy women!), perhaps this is Paul scolding the men of the Corinthian church for adopting maxim from other religions or the larger culture.

In other words, what Paul may well be saying is:

"I've heard you've adopted a new church policy: "Women don't talk here." You expect women to be silent worship participants, is that it? Women should go home and talk to their husbands and never in the gathering of the body, where men always know best. Well, how wonderful for you that you know the law so well? And where is that this is written? Oh, it's not, but you know that it's the desire of the Spirit? How amazing that we have such enlightened and spiritual individuals in our midst. They know the mind of God better than I, Paul, your teacher. They even know it better than God himself."

I think Paul snatches the ball, runs down the court and, despite his limpy, bowed legs, he's got a slam-dunk before others know he had the ball.

Christianity does have some misogynistic roots and it has a history of trying to keep women quiet, but that tree hasn't grown from Paul. Maybe from misinterpretation of Paul and misattribution of words to him, but I think Paul's writing stands as a testament to a God who does not discriminate and a Spirit who is equally indiscriminate and to a Savior who dined with and died for all.

Paul "Votes for Women" of Tarsus wins this bracket. Which means that women win as well.

(This topic got expansive. Other Pauline issues have been benched for future games.)

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