The apostle Paul is blamed for many of the controversies affecting modern Christian belief and practice. Did he, for example, support the institution of slavery as some have insisted? Did he condemn homosexuality? Did he reject Judaism as a failed religion? Was he a misogynist who looked upon women as second-class human beings? Centuries of Christian teaching and tradition based on the New Testament letters attributed to Paul have resulted in answers to these questions that in many cases would have astounded the apostle.
Fortunately, this essay asks a question that is fairly easy to answer. In short, no, Paul was not a misogynist and did not tell women to sit down and be quiet in church. But before rushing to your Bibles to look up passages you swore contained instructions to the contrary, we need to examine how Biblical scholars have come to understand both Paul and the texts attributed to him in the New Testament. First, let’s first look at those offending passages, ostensibly written by Paul, that you were going to look up anyway.
The first is found in one of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believers in the city of Corinth. First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35 read: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Seems clear enough. How can we deny what appears to be obvious? Before we address that question, let’s look at the next passage.
The second passage that relates to the silence of women in the churches is found in the first letter addressed to Timothy, a Christian missionary. First Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11-12 read: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Seems to be in perfect agreement with what was written in 1 Corinthians above.
At first blush, these passages would appear to indicate that Paul wanted to issue a gag order on women in churches who felt motivated to ask questions, make comments, or even teach. The later church certainly understood Paul this way which is why it felt wholly justified in restricting church teaching, administration, and oversight to men. But was this really Paul’s position?