Paul’s Theology of Gender Part 2: The First Reality

For the next few posts I’m going to focus on the overwhelming majority (96%) of what the Apostle Paul wrote that indicates he believed women and men are the same with respect to their full possession of the image of God. (If you haven’t read the first installment of this series, you may want to check it out before you read on.)

At this point in my life, I’m convinced that Paul believed women are fully and equally human, possessing the same essential human nature as men. I will explain why I believe this by walking you through the books of the New Testament that shed light on Paul’s thoughts, and when I’m finished you can decide if, as Ryan Lochte would say, I’m over-exaggerating.

Today we’ll hit Acts and Romans and in future posts we’ll cover the rest.

Though not penned by Paul, the book of Acts tells us a lot about his life. And what we learn is that before his encounter with Jesus, Paul was known for persecuting male and female Christians alike. He didn’t skip the women because he believed they were weak and posed no threat to Judaism.

No, he went after them.

When Paul got saved, he evangelized women and men. Good thing too, since a lot of powerful women opposed his work. The more women he could win to Christ, the better. Like Lydia, who became the first convert and house church leader in Europe, which seems pretty weird when we remember Paul had a vision of a man begging him to come preach the gospel in that region. We might have thought he would have waited to preach until he met a dude.

But he didn’t.

Then there was Paul’s friendship with Aquila and Priscilla, the couple who became Priscilla and Aquila in no time.[1] So why the switch? Putting someone’s name first meant they were more influential, more prominent – or male. Yet Luke put Priscilla first, even when describing how she and Aquila taught Apollos about Jesus. As respected biblical scholar Douglas Moo notes, this couple was an ancient “wife-and-husband team.”[2]

Curious.

Sometimes the way we order names simply indicates who we met first. I might say “John and Mary” but “Elaine and Arthur,” because I met John before Mary but Elaine before Arthur. Paul met Aquila first, yet two times out of three he wrote “Priscilla and Aquila.”[3]

Does anyone out there wonder why?

We know Priscilla was a tentmaker like Aquila, so she worked alongside him in the family business. But that wouldn’t make her more influential than Aquila; that would make her equal to him. Was Priscilla the one with the gift of teaching? Did she have gifts of leadership that stood out? Was she a gifted problem-solver or effective church-planter?

We don’t really know.

All we know is that something was going on that caused both Luke and Paul to put Priscilla’s name first more often than not. And that indicates a view of women that assumes parity with men.

When we move along to Romans we see that Paul depicted women as identical to men in terms of morality, spirituality, authority, and ability. When Paul wrote of our moral accountability before God, he didn’t hold men to one standard and women to another.

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Rom. 2:6-8)

Paul wouldn’t have agreed with the teaching out there today that claims God will hold men accountable for all their actions, but women only for how they have responded to men. Paul didn’t let women off the hook like that, as though we could pass the buck before Jesus one day with the line, “I was just being submissive.”[4]

When it comes to spirituality, Paul didn’t say males should be led by the Spirit while females should be led by males. No, he expected everyone to follow the Spirit.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Rom. 8:12-14)

Of course telling everyone to be led by the Spirit (rather than by some human who is in charge of  what everyone else thinks) will lead to differences of opinion, since for some reason it is not possible for all of us to hear the same thing in the same way at the same time. But apparently Paul thought this was a risk worth taking, and apparently Paul believed we could handle our differences without one person claiming they heard from the Spirit for someone else.

When Paul discussed how to handle these differences of opinion, he described those with overly tender consciences as weak and those who were not troubled by disputable matters as strong. In stark contrast to a culture that assumed women were weak and men were strong, Paul never differentiated these groups along gender lines.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (Rom. 14:1-2)

Paul did not teach that one gender was more spiritual than the other, that one gender could hear from the Spirit better than the other. No, Paul taught that all of us should accept one another and respect each other’s decisions when it comes to differences of opinions.

Paul went so far as to say:

Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (Rom. 14:22)

So when it comes to the authority to make decisions on how to apply spiritual principles to our lives in practical ways, we are to do our best to be led by the Spirit, make a decision, and then keep our opinions to ourselves. With respect to how we walk this out around other believers, the guiding principle is love, not submission.

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. (Rom. 14:15)

Even though Romans turned out to be such an important treatise on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, Paul never even hinted that men deserve more honor than women, or that men can somehow sense they merit more respect than women, or anything of the sort. Rather, Paul wrote:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Rom. 12:10)

Paul didn’t say “honor women above men” or “honor men above women.” No, honor goes both ways; we honor others above ourselves no matter their gender. I should honor my husband and my neighbor and my friend above myself, and my husband should honor me and his coworker the pastor and above himself.

Strange.

When it comes to ability, Paul explained that God has given us a variety of gifts.

If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Rom. 12:6-8)

Yet Paul didn’t limit prophesy and teaching and leading to males, or serving and encouraging and showing mercy to females. Apparently all the gifts apply equally to both genders. For evidence of this, look at Romans 16, where Paul commended his female coworkers along with the males, where he called Phoebe a deacon and Junia an apostle.[5]

I could give you more examples, but you get the drift. When it comes to the book of Romans, the overwhelming assumption is that females and males are the same with respect to the fundamental qualities that define the essence of being human: morality, spirituality, authority and ability.

And I don’t think I’m over-exaggerating.

 

[1] Acts 18:2 lists Aquila’s name first. Acts 18:18, 19 and 26 out Priscilla’s first.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 919.

[3] Rom. 16:3 and 2 Tim. 4:19, but not 1 Cor. 16:19.

[4] Debi Pearl, Created to Be His Help Meet (Pleasantville, TN: No Greater Joy Ministries, 2005), is an example of someone who seems to espouse such a view.

[5] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 887, notes that although Paul lists more males than females in Romans 16, “Paul attributes leading roles to more women than men” there.

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