September 1, 1997 Issue

by Carl M. Johnson

A friend recently attended a wedding at a Christian Church in Texas and was startled to find the preacher officiating the ceremony was a woman. He asked incredulously, "In view of what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11 12 about women keeping silent and not being permitted to teach in the church, how can anyone take a woman preacher seriously?" How indeed? The feminist movement has had a tremendous impact upon our society, however, and it is causing many churches to reconsider the role of women in the church. There are even some churches of Christ who contending that women should be allowed to lead in public prayer, singing, teaching, and should be allowed to serve as elders. This current trend reminds me of the old Bob Dylan song of the rebellious 1960s, "The Times, They are A Changin’." Religious leaders advocating changes in the traditional roles of women are forced to deal, however, with the teachings of Paul. Christine Wicker, Religion columnist for the Dallas Morning News says:

" Those who want equal treatment for women in the Christian church must deal with what has been called 'The Paul Problem.' Nobody who takes the Bible seriously can ignore the old bachelor’s many pronouncements concerning a woman’s place. 'Women should be silent in the churches.' 'Woman [was created] for the sake of man.' and 'Wives, be subject to your husbands' are but a sampling (12 October 1996)."

Wicker says a new book by S. Wesley Ariarajah, Did I Betray the Gospel? The Letters of Paul and the Place of Women, sheds light on "The Paul Problem." Some years ago, Mr. Ariarajah, deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, began trying to persuade churches to help women in their fight for "equal rights." His book sheds no new light on the so-called Paul Problem, but is the same tired, hackneyed approach that has been used for years by many protestors, including some churches of Christ, to explain away the words of the Apostle.

Vilify Paul

The first stratagem used by Paul’s critics is to attack him personally. He is called "the old bachelor" or "the old woman hater." It is implied Paul was a bigot and his teachings about wives and women are the result of a personal vendetta against them. This approach is as old as Paul’s ministry itself. The Judaizers who dogged Paul’s missionary travels attempted to discredit him by saying he wasn’t really an apostle and that he was taking advantage of the churches for personal gain. Much of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, and his second letter to the Corinthians are devoted, consequently, to Paul’s vindicating himself as an apostle, defending his means of supporting himself, and defending the very gospel he preached.

Paul Versus Jesus

Another effective ploy of Paul’s critics is to position Paul’s teachings against the teachings of Jesus as though they are conflicting. Ariarajah notes that the risen Christ first appears to a woman, Mary Magdalene, and that He instructs her to go and tell others. Then he adds: "If Jesus assigned to a woman the task of telling the disciples of his resurrection, who are we to prevent women from this primary calling? If Paul can claim apostleship because Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, then Mary has an even greater right" (Dallas Morning News, 12 Oct. 1996).

Ariarajah’s logic is egregious. Paul did not claim his apostleship simply because Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road, but Paul’s apostleship was based upon Jesus’ specific message that He had chosen Paul to be an apostle and that there were many things Paul would have to suffer for Christ’s sake (Acts 9:15-16). Jesus gave no such message to Mary Magdalene.

Paul Versus Paul

One of the most popular methods of discrediting Paul’s teaching, however, is to place Paul at odds with himself. When Paul’s teachings mentioned above are cited, critics will often respond, "Yes, but Paul also says in Galatians 3:28, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."’ It is argued from this passage that God makes no distinction between men and women who are Christian and consequently there are no distinctive roles for either gender in the church. Again, this logic is absurd. Context is an important principle in the study of the scriptures. Passages should be studied in the context of the Bible, in the context of the book, and in their immediate contexts. The correct interpretation of any passage will not conflict with the whole Bible, the book, or the immediate context. If an interpretation contradicts any other passage, or is out of harmony with the purpose o the book, or does not fit the immediate context, the exegesis is wrong. The issues Paul deals with in Galatians are: "Is it necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law to be saved?"; and "Can Gentiles enjoy full fellowship?" The context makes clear that Paul is not contradicting and invalidating his own teaching about the respective roles of men and women, (nor about slaves and masters, cf. Philemon and Onesimus) but he is teaching that regardless of our earthly roles we are children of God and and enjoy full fellowship by virtue of our faith in Christ (Gal 3:26-29).

A New Hermeneutic?

The so-called new hermeneutic is also being exercised today to counter the God-given roles of men and women. According to Professor D.R. Dungan, sacred hermeneutics is the science of interpreting the scriptures. A form of the word "hermeneutic" was used by the people of Lystra (in Asia Minor) when they called Paul "Hermes" (Hermes, in mythology a god who was the messenger or herald of the gods), because he was the principal speaker (Acts 14:12). So anyone who explains a matter is a Hermes.

The new hermeneutic, however, which is rapidly gaining in popularity among many churches of Christ, is really an effort to discount the Bible and explain away its teachings. This approach is result-oriented, that is, men have sought out a new hermeneutic, or a new way of interpreting the Scriptures, because they are seeking to justify particular positions which they can not establish by applying the Bible as pattern authority. Thus a new approach must be found that will lend itself to the desired conclusions. This theory argues Christianity should be fluid and adaptable, and that we may alter certain aspects of the gospel format in order to conform to the cultural motif of our day. This approach makes a distinction between what the New Testament meant to the first century saints, and what it means to us today. For example, Ariarajah argues that Paul’s ancient letters are directed toward specific situations and should be taken only in that context, and that if Paul were writing new letters today, his teachings about the roles of men and women would be totally different. Can Ariarajah possibly be right? Did Paul place such restrictions upon women solely because of the culture in which they lived? Was Paul merely accommodating an unenlightened, hostile environment, stalling for time and keeping prejudice to a minimum, until he could teach them the gospel? Absolutely not.

There are three NT contexts where the apostle discusses the distinctive roles of men and women in the church (1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:8-15). A summary of these passages reveals Paul’s inspired reasons for feminine subjection are based upon the creation (1 Cor 11:7-9 14:34; I Tim 2:13) and woman’s deception by Satan (1 Tim 2:14). "Culture" is not a factor in these contexts. Paul argues further that we should resist the sinful influences of culture when he admonishes the Romans to be not "conformed to this world," but rather be "transformed by the renewing of your mind" (12:2).


Every movement in society will to some degree, eventually make its presence felt in the church, and the feminist movement is no exception. Those pressing the feminist agenda would have us believe Paul’s teachings about the role of women keep them chained to a position of inferiority. It would be easy in this age of "political correctness" for church leaders to succumb to such rhetoric and conform to the world about us. It requires greater vigilance and effort in this day not to be "conformed," but rather to be "transformed." A proper understanding of Paul’s teaching concerning the distinctive roles of men and women does not imply there is a natural distinction between men and women in ability, worth, or value. Women are not inferior to men anymore than Christ is inferior to God, citizens are inferior to the President, or church members are inferior to elders. The differentiation is purely a matter of function, assigned tasks, and sphere of responsibility. The issue facing the church today, consequently, is not "what shall we do with the teachings of the Apostle Paul?" The real issue is, "are we willing to fit ourselves into God’s arrangement for men and women?" If we refuse to accept God’s will in this matter, it is then we are confronted with "The Paul Problem."

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