Paul on Gender Equality
Synopsis: We now take the role of a woman as a pastor for granted but that has only changed in our lifetime. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus was the first woman to be ordained by Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1989. I still remember those heated debates about the ordination of women when I was a seminary student in the 80s. Paul’s letters were at the center of that controversy. Several questions predominate. How do we make sense of the contrasting views in the letters attributed to Paul? How did Paul relate to women in the church? Finally, what can we learn from this as we strive for gender equality on the church today?
My wife Ruth and I were part of the group that started Shalom Mennonite Congregation on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in 1986. One year later I was ordained for a mission assignment in Manila. My assignment was to teach theological education, to relate to Mennonite churches in South East Asia, and to relate to an emerging congregation in a former squatter community in the center of Manila.
At that time, women were not ordained in most Mennonite conferences, but things were beginning to change. Emma Richards had been ordained in 1973 for a special assignment in the Chicago area and served as a co-pastor with her husband Joe. It still was not possible for a woman to be ordained as a pastor in her own right. It would be another ten years before that changed.
I remember those debates. Women had not been ordained as pastors for thousands of years and it now felt like the solid foundation of the church was giving way. Bible verses attributed to the apostle Paul were front and center in that contentious matter. It couldn’t be clearer in the first letter to Timothy, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (2: 11-12).
Yet, as a seminary student studying the New Testament, I was aware that the matter was not that clear-cut. In a related matter, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (1 Cor. 11: 5). This was another contentious matter in the 70s and 80s as young Mennonite women refused to wear those distinctive head coverings that their mothers and grandmothers had always worn. Some thought these women, including my wife Ruth, were completely out of control.
What was often overlooked in this contentious matter was that women in the Corinthian churches obviously prayed and spoke publicly in mixed gender worship gatherings, else the teaching wouldn’t make sense. (So much for remaining silent.) Biblical scholars can’t do more than give an educated guess on the issue of a woman being veiled. It seems that some Corinthian women were claiming their freedom in Christ to really push social boundaries in a patriarchal culture.
Back to our little church in the Shenandoah Valley. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, a well-known matriarch in Virginia Mennonite circles, was part of the group that started our church. She was known for her Christian radio program for women known as “Heart to Heart.” She loved public speaking and became part of the pastoral team at our church. Ruth cared deeply about social justice issues such as resisting US involvement in the civil wars in Central America. She traveled there on a solidarity trip with a group called Witness for Peace. She wore a practically invisible little white covering on her snow-white hair during church services but never at other times. And she was adamantly opposed to wearing any kind of jewelry. She referred to earrings and necklaces as “balls and chains.”
Ruth thought she should be ordained for her ministry even though she was well beyond the age of retirement. Her brother, George Bunk II, a well-known evangelist and church leader in Virginia, was, however, adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. Ruth pushed ahead anyway and was the first woman ordained in Virginia Conference in 1989. For George, that was the last straw. He had been agitating for some time about what he saw as the loss of biblical authority in the church. Ordaining a woman, even though it was his sister, was too much and he severed his ties with the Mennonite Church. Both he and Ruth were characters and neither gave an inch in this fight. They, however, continued to relate amiably to each other as brother and sister for the rest of their lives.
So. what about Paul’s position on women in church leadership? When I was a seminary student, those arguments, both for and against women in church leadership, swirled around Paul’s letters to the churches. Granted, the instruction to Timothy that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen—oops, I mean fully submissive and silent, wasn’t actually written by Paul.
There are still plenty of other passages like the one in 1 Corinthians 14 on orderly worship, where women are told to be silent and to ask their husbands at home if they have a question. Being silent actually applies to both men and women in most churches in our day.
Few get the chance to talk back to the preacher or even ask a question. Still, it’s feels rather off-putting for to single out women in this way. I wish we had a better understanding of the situation in Corinth. Maybe those liberated Corinthian women were creating a ruckus.
We should notice that these verses in 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35 are put in parentheses in most of our Bibles. That’s because they’re found in a different place in various ancient manuscripts. It appears that they were added by a later editor of Paul’s letter. That makes sense because they don’t fit in the structure of the passage. The thought pattern flows more logically when we remove these verses.
We, however, should not make Paul into a 21st century feminist passionately fighting for women’s rights. That’s not who he was. Still, he also certainly wasn’t the misogynist that some think he was. It’s more complicated than that. He was an unmarried, single man who said that he wished everyone was like him. Given, his life’s work, that was a good thing. I can’t imagine him dragging a wife and children along on his missionary journeys.
There are so many things we don’t know. Was Paul ever in love and was he ever married? It would have been practically unthinkable for a Jewish man of his social class to remain unmarried. Furthermore, how could the author of 1 Corinthians 13 (the love passage read at so many weddings) not have known intimate romantic love? Perhaps he lost the love of his life who died in childbirth. That was common in the ancient world.
Paul had close working relationships with lots of different women who he treated as equals. We, therefore, have to believe that he practiced what he preached when he said that there is no longer male and female and that we are all one in Christ Jesus. The last chapter of the book of Romans gives us a window into those relationships. Paul’s letter is being carried to Rome by Phoebe, a deacon in a church near Corinth. Paul commends Phoebe as a benefactor of many, including himself. That, in itself, is very significant. Phoebe was a woman of financial means. Next, two married couples receive extraordinary praise.
Priscilla and Aguila are mentioned as a couple who risked everything. Notice that Priscilla is mentioned first. She was clearly equal to her husband and perhaps the most capable partner in this dynamic marriage. The second couple is Andronicus and Junia who Paul praises as “prominent among the apostles.” Beginning in the second century, women’s roles were being more and more restricted in the churches. During that time the claim was first made that Junia was short for the male name Junianus. But that makes no sense because there’s not one other example of that while there are 250 known cases of a female Junia in antiquity.
The reason for this rather desperate claim is apparent. If Junia is allowed to be female, then a woman can be an apostle. Paul, of course, had no problem with that. Of the 27 leaders that Paul mentions, 10 are women. That exceeds the ratio of female to male leadership in the church today. According to the Hartford Institute, around 10% of American congregations have a female as their senior or sole ordained leader. It doesn’t exceed 25% in even more liberal denominations.
I’m quite aware that our church used to have a female pastor, then an African American pastor, and now we have an old white guy. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m glad we called this old white guy to be our pastor. I can promote equality for ethnic minorities and for women but I’m not a minority or a woman. That’s obvious. There’s still a huge equality gap in our churches. We’re still some distance from being one in Christ.
This is one of the things I think about as I get closer to retirement. How do we respond to this as a congregation? At Shalom Mennonite, I worked with Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus as part of our pastoral team until she was well into her 70s. We gently moved her out of that role when she started to repeat herself too much. I want to retire before I get to that place.
Then Katherine Temple became my co-pastor, followed by Emily North who succeeded me when I resigned to go to India. We were good at gender equality but not nearly as good at racial or ethnic equality. I don’t have easy answers to any of this, but I’m convinced that the ferment of God’s Spirit is leading us to such equality. We are all one in Christ.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, 51-53.