Paul, Women, and New Creation
As I mentioned last week, I’m am excited to be part of the blog tour for Daniel Kirk’s latest book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Drop by the blog tour website to read others’ contributions to the tour as they interact with various chapters in the book (and don’t forget to enter the contest to win a free copy of the book!). As luck would have it (or perhaps because I’m the only woman participating in the tour), I was asked to engage with Chapter 6 “Women in the Story of God.”
In my experience, the number one reason people have issues with Paul is because of the passages regarding women's roles in his letters. A few select passages seemingly calling for women to submit to men and to be silent in church are enough for many to jettison Paul from the canon. As some read Paul (or at least have had Paul imposed upon them), he seems to be denying the very humanity and dignity of women – something that Jesus never did. With such an interpretation as a given, it’s difficult for many to figure out what to do with Paul. There are of course those that use such an interpretation of Paul to demean and oppress women. Some believing that they have no right to question that interpretation accept it and yet keep Paul at a distance, like a creepy relative that they would prefer not to show up at family gatherings. Others outright reject Paul, claiming that such a patriarchal attitude nullifies any right his words have to speak into our world today. Some accept Paul, but insist that his words restricting women must have been added by some later scribe. In light of all that, it's easy to see how it's hard to love Paul.
Yet I’ve generally found all those approaches to be lacking. Having to choose between rejecting the reality of the biblical context or rejecting the Bible because of the reality of the biblical context both seemed too limiting for me.
So I appreciate the approach Kirk offers in his book. In situating Paul within the context of the larger narrative of scripture, he begins by addressing how women are treated in the text beyond the traditional “clobber-women-into-submission” passages. What he reveals is a world where patriarchy is the norm and yet women are find opportunities to serve in all areas of the church. From the scriptural evidence of what women were in truth doing in the church, Kirk argues that the controversial passages have both at times been interpreted wrongly and yet give testimony to the ambiguity present in scripture. He states, “As for Scripture, it not only sows seeds of equality whose flowers never fully bloom on its pages; it also continues to reflect and, at times, affirm the inequalities endemic to its ancient cultural context.” (118). In short, the Bible contains both stories of women leading churches, preaching and prophesying, and embracing greater dignity in the church than their culture ever bestowed upon them as well as statements supporting the gender hierarchies of the time. Kirk concludes that to argue that the Bible is either fully egalitarian or fully patriarchal is to ignore its cultural situation.
But although that cultural context might be messy and not reflect fully what we might want to find in Scripture, Kirk argues that what is most important is to remember that we are part of the ongoing narrative of God’s story. He writes that this narrative “is as dramatic and sweeping a gospel narrative as one could hope for. … Paul’s narrative of salvation is nothing less than the proclamation and embodiment here and now of the coming dominion of God” (50). So therefore, “because it is a story of cosmic transformation, the story has to be embodied and lived” (51). To proclaim the dominion of God is to live in its ways here and now – to testify to its transforming power. The gospel gives “glimpses of a new creation that has no hierarchical distinction between male and female. It is not a vision that is worked out consistently in the first-century culture in which the New Testament writings grew-up, but it is one that fits within the plot of a story that turns all social hierarchies on their head as God comes to rule the world through a crucified Messiah” (137) Instead of giving sin power by letting the patriarchy of that time keep us from living out the redemptive nature of new creation now, Kirk calls us to instead embrace Christ’s redemptive work and turn upside-down the controlling hierarchies of this world.
I greatly appreciate this take on Paul that affirms both the reality of his context and the reality of what women were doing in the early church. Placing myself within a continuing narrative witnessing to new creation makes far more sense to me than just rejecting Paul because he isn’t who I would like for him to be. I do wish though that Kirk had explored whether he thought it would have been appropriate for women to live into that narrative of New Creation in periods in history where it might have caused the surrounded cultures to be offended. Should women’s dignity, worth, and equality be affirmed because such things are true or only when affirming them would not give offense within a particular culture? I get that Paul may have imposed restrictions on women so that they wouldn’t offend the culture, but I am left wondering in this interpretation at what point one should simply embrace New Creation in spite of the culture that does not understand the light shining in the darkness?
I found myself most troubled in this chapter when immediately after arguing that we should embrace Christ’s redemptive power by affirming an egalitarian position on gender, Kirk jumped straight to the most common argument used to temper the radical assertion of equality. He is quick to say that real Christ-like egalitarianism is not therefore a call for women to seek out positions of leadership in the church as to be called to Christ is to accept the hard life of submission and servant hood. While I wouldn’t argue that following Christ does involve a servant’s heart, this is an argument that has been used over and over as simply a backhanded way of asserting patriarchy in the name of equality. I honestly don’t think Kirk intended to do so here, but I do wonder if he was unaware of how this argument has been used to give lip-service to egalitarianism while ensuring nothing really changes in the male-dominated church.
As many feminist scholars have argued, to accuse women of the sin of self-seeking pride when they attempt to use their God-given gifts leads to many women burying those gifts lest they fall into sin. They are bullied into passivity under the guise of humility. That is not what it means though to follow Christ and live into the telos of who God created us to be. Centuries though of being told that unless we submit and let men dominate us we are sinning and not being sufficiently Christ-like are difficult to overcome. The last thing women need to hear more of is that we are sinning or living in the ways of the world when we choose to accept God’s call to use the gifts God has given us.
We still live in a world marred by the oppressive ways of patriarchy. The dominion of God where there is no male or female is not yet fully realized, although we are called to live as if it is. Perhaps we still need gender specific instructions for how to live in these ways. To men, yes, counter years of living in unChrist-like ways by telling them to be servants and to not pursue positions of power in the church. But, to women, don’t reinforce the idea that they are sining by living into their gifts. Encourage them instead to reject the ways of the world by accepting their gifts and having no fear in using them to serve Christ. I don’t believe that Daniel Kirk was trying to reinforce gender hierarchies by bringing up this standard caution regarding egalitarianism, but I would be remiss to not mention what the warning can imply for women. We are still living into this narrative that affirms the breaking in of the reign of God in the here and now, and so I do greatly appreciate this book’s helpful way of realistically dealing with often unsettling texts. Even as the New Creation is yet unfolding, so it seems is our ability to figure out how to best embrace Christ’s redemption in our lives.
Although I would have liked this chapter to offer more constructive suggestions for navigating gender in the New Creation, I appreciate the ways in which it reframes the conversation regarding Paul and women. For those of us who have never felt comfortable with the options given to us for how we should handle Paul, it proposes an affirming yet realistic engagement that allows both Scripture and the transformative redemptive power of Christ to co-exist as part of the narrative of God’s people.