Paul’s Theology of Gender: A Dual Reality

We know we are supposed to look for underlying principles when reading the Bible, since things don’t always pan out the same way today as they did when they were written. At times the transcultural ideas are pretty straightforward and easy to identify; at others the broader ethics can be tough to decipher.

I think the Apostle Paul’s views on gender fall into the tough-to-decipher camp.

I used to believe Paul was easy; it all seemed so clear to me. What hadn’t occurred to me was that I was overlooking the vast majority of the data, so I over-confidently espoused a party line application of the minority report.

For a lot of years.

But in honor of my mother, the woman who lived nearly 80 years even though her officially unofficial age was 29, I won’t tell you how many.

What makes Paul difficult is the way his minority report is at odds with his majority report. If these two would just work things out, life would be a whole lot easier for all of us. As it is, half the world (or less, at this point) focuses on the minority report and asserts Paul was a hierarchicalist.[1] The other half (or more, it would seem) prioritizes the majority report and claims he was fundamentally egalitarian.[2]

Others throw up their hands in defeat and conclude Paul had schizophrenic tendencies on the topic.[3]

Then there’s a growing number who argue that proving either hierarchy or equality was not Paul’s point, that he was neither complementarian nor egalitarian.[4] And when it comes to Paul and gender, this is where I tend to land. The dude didn’t espouse one single truth, one single idea, with respect to female and male, man and woman.

I believe Paul’s thoughts on the matter are better described as a dual reality.

Let me give you my take on it.

If we look at the majority report, the overwhelming majority of his words, the first and foremost way Paul conceived of dudes and chicks was that we are the same. Women and men are the same with respect to their essential humanity and all that that means. We equally reflect God’s eternal essence, who he is in relation to everything else under the sun, the one true and eternal creator and producer and decider and ruler.

Paul demonstrated this is what he believed by the way he assumed that guys and gals are equally capable of following Jesus, equally responsible for their words and actions, equally able to control their impulses, equally gifted to pray, to prophesy, to serve, to lead.[5]

The list goes on and on. When it comes to representing the eternal and essential nature of God to the rest of creation, Paul assumed women and men do so equally and in the same way. Ninety-six percent of what the man wrote demonstrates this fact, if we take the time to count every verse (like the woman with the inner calculator felt compelled to do) and compare those that treat male and female differently with those that treat them the same.

This was Pablo’s dominant theme when it comes to amigos and amigas, though we tend to overlook it.

Sometimes it’s the things that are staring us right in the face that we can’t see.

This surprising sameness of essence that Paul espoused would have been even more striking at a time when (in most circles) women were considered morally inferior, intellectually lacking, and fundamentally defective. You can read more about all that in my posts on ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman views of gender, if you’re interested.

This essential sameness isn’t the only thing Paul thought about male and female, however.

Four percent of the time Paul tailored his instructions according to gender. That’s right: four percent.

But four percent is four percent and reveals a second truth Paul embraced about male and female: we were also created in such a way as to forever and always and beautifully point to a greater reality, the reality of God’s relationship with humankind. We see this as the concept that underlies Paul’s gender-specific teachings in the way he spoke of the “marriage” relationship between Christ and the church.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:31-32)

This is the part some people adore and other people detest. You may not like it and may not agree with my thoughts on the matter; you have a right to your opinion. But it’s the second half of what I believe most faithfully represents Paul’s ideas. In future posts I will go through his gender-specific passages and explain in more detail how I think they relate to this second concept, but right now I want to focus on the big idea.

You see, this Judeo-Christian idea of intimacy, of a loving, personal, “marriage” relationship between deity and humanity, is unusual if not unique in the world of religion. Some religions have gods and goddesses that interact with one another, but not with humans, in personal ways. Many belief systems present deities that must be feared and appeased but not intimately known and loved. Others do not fully differentiate between humanity and deity, viewing everything as part of one greater reality.

Where else do we hear of a God who calls himself husband and humans his bride?

Where else do we get the sense that such a great and awesome being is interested in walking and talking and sitting with us as his friend, his beloved, the object of his affection? And how were we to grasp this strange, immense, mind-blowing truth without something tangible and close and heartfelt that we could relate it to?

So God wrote this two-becoming-one into our DNA, into the way we most naturally relate to the opposite sex, as a reflection of the two-becoming-one of God and his people, of Christ and the church.

This is what Paul was getting at with the four percent.

And this is why I think Paul’s construct of gender existed as a dual reality. The ninety-six and the four.

Male and female equally reflect and represent God in his eternal, kingly nature, created equally in his image and likeness, equally charged to be fruitful and multiply and exercise dominion over this planet.

Yet female and male also reflect and represent the relationship God desires to have with humanity, the love and intimacy that is almost too strange to embrace. And in this paradigm, it is the woman who reflects the beloved, the object of desire, that humanity is to God. And it is the man who reflects the lover, the pursuer, that God is to humankind. Read more about this in Why Adam Was First.

The problem is that we tend to confuse the metaphors and mix the reflections. We assign principles that belong in one category to the other, making claims that go beyond the evidence.

It will take a few more posts for me to work through Paul’s writings and support what I’ve written here, explaining how these two core ideas course through his words along with how we tend to misunderstand and misapply them.

So keep your eyes peeled for more on Paul’s Theology of Gender.

It’s coming.


[1] John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Thomas R. Schreiner and Douglas Moo, among others. See Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991/2006) for a systematic treatment of this perspective.

[2] Examples include Philip Payne, Gilbert Bilezikian, Gordon D. Fee, Linda Belleville and I. Howard Marshall. See Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005) for more on this view.

[3] Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 112; and Luise Schrottroff, Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament (Westminster: John Knox, 1991), 50, are two examples. However, many who argue for either hierarchy or equality note Paul’s inconsistencies on the topic, including Piper, Grudem, Bilezikian, Belleville, and Payne, among others.

[4] Craig L. Blomberg, “Neither Hierarchicalist nor Egalitarian: Gender Roles in Paul,” in Paul and His Theology, ed. Stanley Porter (Boston: Brill, 2006); Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).

[5] Paul never qualified spiritual gifts according to gender. See, for example, Rom. 12:6-8, where prophesying, teaching, and leading apply to all, just like serving and giving and showing mercy do.

4 thoughts on “Paul’s Theology of Gender: A Dual Reality

  1. Paul has always confused me when it comes to this topic. I never knew it was 96 vs 4 percent on his teaching. I can’t wait to keep reading!


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