Pulling the Weeds I Had Planted in Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

I enjoy weeding. Not that I like the leg cramps and backache that result from crouching down and poking a metal stick into the ground under the blazing Colorado sun that seems to radiate all the way through your clothing into your skin. No. It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes from getting under the surface and pulling out the roots of all the noxious plants in my garden that I enjoy.

I feel the same way about comprehending Paul’s views on gender. If I can dig under the surface and pull out all my noxious interpretations that have taken root over the years, something beautiful may surface.

One part of Paul’s writings that was, for me, particularly overgrown with bindweed and purslane and Canada thistle is his correspondence to the Corinthians. I based my interpretation of these letters upon a few ideas I believed arose directly from the text. Now, though, I am convinced they are the tares among the wheat.

I missed the forest for the trees and the flowers for the weeds.

If you’re at all familiar with bindweed, you know it winds its way around your plants and chokes the life out of them. My Corinthian bindweed was the idea that women must never speak in a church service, that it would be disgraceful for them to do so.[1] Twisting its way around everything I thought and did, the principle of silence began to choke the life out of me.

It undermined any belief that women are equal to men in our natural, God-ordained ability.

And then there’s purslane. One of creation’s most prolific weeds, a single plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds that hang around and come to life for years to come.[2] Not the weed you want to let go to seed in your garden, as I would regularly remind my husband if I were the regularly-reminding-husband-about-weeds sort of gal.

But I’ve learned that sort of reminding grows old pretty fast.

My Corinthian purslane consisted of a logical conclusion. Can I say that I’m the more logical one and my husband the more intuitive? And that neither tendency is more valuable than the other? Logic can get you into trouble sometimes, though, if my experience is any indication.

This was my logical conclusion: since women must be “in submission,” under men who are under Jesus who is under God, women may not make independent decisions.[3] Women ought to do what the father presumes is right, say what the husband believes is best, think what the pastor assumes is obvious.

This purslane-like logic generated an abundance of seeds that overtook every aspect of my life, leaving very little room to grow, constricted as I was on every side.

It stole any sense that women are the same as men in our God-given, image-of-God-likeness authority.

One of purslane’s offspring came to life as the belief that women have to obtain permission to express an opinion to a man, disagree with a man, question a man’s words or deeds. Women are free to admonish children and other women, of course, but men have men in their lives for all the admonishing they could ever wish for. Women, on the other hand, have both women and men to assist them in their pursuit of godliness.

This Canada thistle with its miniscule yet painful spines sliced through all my defenses, my leather gloves and canvas shirt, to cut at the sense that God had granted me the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, wisdom from folly, helpfulness from harmfulness, and that I ought to use this ability when needed.

It destroyed any thought that women are equal to men in our innate morality.

Then there is the weed of weeds, that epitome of weedfulness, especially in Colorado: the dandelion. Imported to our high country by pioneer women who discovered it was one the only bloomin’ thing that thrived at 11,000 feet above sea level, dandelions have overtaken our mountainous state. I suppose when you have no flowers at all, those fuzzy little yellow petals are attractive.

Coloradans have been cursing those pioneer women ever since.

My Corinthian dandelion, that deceptive flower that seemed beautiful at first, until it made it impossible for my lawn to grow, was the idea that God speaks spiritual truths through men. If men are supposed to be the spiritual leaders in the home and the church, it only made sense that the God-talk would come through them.

I thought I was holding something beautiful in my hand, a lovely lily that freed me from the responsibility of hearing and speaking the words of God, permitting me to enjoy my true womanhood unburdened by the heavier duties of life. But it was only a dandelion, a weed that made it impossible for me to grow to spiritual maturity.

It left no room for an acknowledgement that women are identical to men in our fundamental spirituality.

These weeds that overtook my Corinthian garden arose from a couple of statements Paul made in those letters. True enough. But I had overlooked the poppies and roses and lilies in my rush to miss my destination.

When Paul wrote about judging disputes between believers, an Oriental poppy if I ever saw one, he could have stipulated that this was a role reserved for males, but he didn’t. Based on the premise that “the saints” will one day judge the world, the sole qualification for arbitrating issues between two Christians is wisdom.

Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? …Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? (1 Cor. 6:2, 5)

When it comes to the only place Paul articulated any specifics with respect to Christian marriage, the rights and responsibilities he granted to husbands and wives are identical. Paul didn’t say husbands should control the sexual relationship and wives had no say in the matter. Nor did he say wives were in charge and husbands had to put up with whatever the wife decided. No, the playing field is level and the expectations are mutual.

A rose is a rose is a rose.

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)

The same holds true of Paul’s teaching on separation, divorce, and remarriage. He was not a fan of those things, but he understood that they happen. In a broken world full of broken people, sometimes we don’t manage to work it out and see no solution but to leave. Paul granted to women the authority to make that decision if necessary, a right that, for the most part, was reserved to men at the time.

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

Paul did not assign this authority casually, however. He reminded us that this is a weighty decision that lies between us and Jesus. In other words, don’t forget that it doesn’t matter how much we justify ourselves to our Best Friends Forever. What matters is Jesus’ take on the whole situation.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:10)

Neither did Paul claim that a Christian husband had to make the best of being married to an unbeliever but a Christian wife could split and forge a new life if she felt like it. No, male and female believer alike must do all they can to make their marriage work. Paul didn’t assume that hubby or wifey would get saved, like some people today tend to imply, if only the believing spouse would play it right. I guess Paul knew it doesn’t always work out that way.

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:16)

Why was I taught that? Why was I taught that a wife’s behavior somehow controlled her husband, as though he were a non-self-governing being incapable of making his own decisions? That exceptional behavior on the part of the wife always resulted in the salvation or maturation of the husband?

Paul also exhorted women to conduct their spiritual lives in the same manner as men, with the same end goal in mind, instead of instructing women to run in whatever way the men in our lives suggest or desire or require.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24)

Strange.

Women should determine, just like men, where to draw the line between personal freedom and the impact it has on others. Women, not just men, ought to decide on an amount and then give to the needs of the church. Women, same as men, must avoid improper entanglements with unbelievers.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God. (1 Cor. 10:31-32)

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor. 9:7)

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14)

Paul missed so many golden opportunities to demonstrate that the essential nature of females is distinct from, less than, that of males. That in terms of capacity and responsibility, women do not measure up to men.

Sleeping on the job, perhaps.

Unless, of course, it was intentional.

Like beautiful lilies, Paul’s many assumptions about the sameness of men and women with respect to ability and authority, morality and spirituality paint my landscape with healing hues of reds, pinks, peaches and creams.

This lovely garden is the context for understanding everything else Paul wrote in those letters to the Corinthians, including the words that I understood in such a restrictive way. I will write about those words soon, but right now I want to drink in the colors.

No more missing the flowers for the weeds for me.

 

[1] Based, in part, on my understanding of the second half of 1 Cor. 14:35.

[2] urbanfarmcolorado.com/common-colorado-weeds/, accessed July 7, 2017.

[3] From 1 Cor. 11:3.

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