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Paul, Women, and New Creation

2012 January 16

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.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2012

    I haven’t read the book, but I hope Daniel points out (as N.T. Wright does) that words from Saul/Paul’s mouth (via Luke) in Acts make it clear that women were leaders in the church from the beginning (Acts 8:3, 9:2, 22:4). I have also heard an interpretation of “the women must be silent in church” verses (1Cor 14:34-35) which makes a whole lot more sense than the ones we normally are subjected to. I can’t really do it justice in a short post, but it has to do with the railing separating the men and women in a Jewish synagogue being removed for the first time. In an early Christian gathering, the women were allowed into the inner circle to discuss the weighty matters of their faith alongside the men who had been doing it since they were twelve. The women, of course, would have had a lot of questions and Paul is asking them to take those basic, beginning questions home and ask their husbands (to keep order – which is what the rest of the text is about). Based on Paul’s emphasis on who he used to persecute and throw in jail, it was clear that the women quickly caught up and were leading right alongside the men.

    • January 16, 2012

      I don’t know if Daniel addresses that question, but if you read his blog Storied Theology you will see that he agrees with NT Wright on that point.

    • January 16, 2012

      Yes, the chapter starts with a focus on the narrative of all the things women were doing in the NT church. He points out that the restrictive passages must be read in light of the evidence of what women were doing. But he also admits that just because women were serving in churches doesn’t mean that Paul wasn’t writing restrictive rules for them. He argues that t was because they had too much freedom for their culture that in order to not turn Jesus into an offense, they needed to be more circumspect in their actions (while not affirming the oppressive hierarchical ways of the world.)

  2. January 16, 2012

    I haven’t read this one yet either, but I wanted to throw one resource out there that folks might consider helpful alongside it, and as a part of this broader conversation we need to be having.

    More than ten years ago, I came across a site called the Christian Think Tank (http://christianthinktank.com). The guy who created it is a pretty conservative guy – holds to inerrancy and other things that I don’t feel the need for like I did back then, but even so his study of women in the Bible is still one of the best (the best exclusively online) cases for egalitarianism that I’ve ever seen.

    http://christianthinktank.com/femalex.html

    He also doesn’t feel the need to imply that Paul was wrong, or that he didn’t write what the text says he wrote, but puts forth (what I think is) a compelling argument for Paul’s own egalitarianism. Plus he gives good resources for further study, including those to his own left.

    I would love for it to be a useful thing for folks. I can’t overemphasize how much it meant for me, back then as a male teenager just getting to know Jesus and the church and all that, to have a resource like that around.

    • January 16, 2012

      I just read his treatment on the troublesome Pauline passages. Fabulous exegesis!! Amazing what happens when we stop dismembering the living text limb-from-limb and allow it speak, immersed in its original context, the whole message.

    • Fred Harrell permalink
      January 16, 2012

      I think Paul was egalitarian as well… and that website you recommended is great. His treatment of the difficult passages in Paul is exceptional.

  3. January 16, 2012

    As to the question of “how offensive to the culture should Christians be?” Jesus and eleven of the original twelve disciples were martyred (according to tradition). John died in exile and Paul was also executed. I’d say it’s safe to say that we’re called to shine the light whatever the consequences, or whoever it upsets.

  4. January 16, 2012

    Thanks for this appreciative and challenging review.

    I confess to struggling over the feminist critiques of the sort that you mention. I acknowledge the power that calls to cruciformity have had in the hands of the powerful, and men in particular.

    But as I’ve read those engagements, I’ve often thought that the call away from a cross-bearing life has ended up blunting what is particular about Christian ethics, the Christian story, overall.

    There is a danger that the freedom and equality longed for will materialize in such a way that the persons change positions rather than adopting the better way modeled by Jesus. In fact, it seems to me that the problems the feminist theologians have rightly highlighted were created by Christian leaders stepping into the roles of the powerful and wielding those roles as those who preceded them, rather than embodying the cruciform narrative of Christ and the church.

    • January 16, 2012

      I don’t see what I or the feminists are doing as being a call away from a cross-bearing life so much as a call to women to embrace that we are image-bearers as well. I am always one to argue that the ways of the Kingdom involve self-sacrificial love for others, but so too must it mean living into the new creation. Most of us Christian women have been habituated to self-sacrifice, but many have never been able to love themselves for who God made them to be. Extreme self-denial can be a sin if it silences the voice of God in a person’s life. Throwing the gifts God has given us back at God because the world tells us we are not being humble, or patient, or self-sacrificial enough is a mockery of God’s gifts.

      Pride has often been the sin of men and so they accuse women of the same sin whenever women emerge from being doormats. No one is arguing that women should go to the extreme of craving power or wielding authority to oppress men, but that seems to be the fear I hear of what will happen if women are treated as equals at all. Perhaps it is just men fearing that women will sin in the same ways they have and projecting that onto women, but it is effectively working to continue to make women feel guilty for even daring to go to seminary, apply for a church job, or ask for a living wage in her church position. The men manipulate us into feeling guilty about attempting to do anything and yet at the same time I don’t see many men giving up their church positions, or teaching posts at Christian schools, or speaking gigs at conferences out of fear that they are not living a proper cross-bearing life.

      I’m not saying it’s not impossible for women to seek after power, but I find it strange that it’s so often the very first thing mentioned by men in the church once the possibility of equality comes up. And, I only hear it in regards to women’s equality. No one is arguing that we should be careful about embracing racial equality because those ____ (insert racial group here) people might seize power and forget to follow Christ. I know it’s rare to hear any men arguing for egalitarian approaches to gender, so I really appreciated you including it in the book. I just wish one day to read such a call without it being followed by a caution that many have used to ensure such equality is never in actuality achieved.

      • January 20, 2012

        Thank you SO much for taking this on. So important to clarify that point! -Bo

  5. January 16, 2012

    Julie, great post on why we need to move past the self-seeking pride argument in the new creation.

  6. Jacob May permalink
    January 28, 2012

    Although I have yet to read Dr. Kirk’s book, I am thrilled to see so many positive and constructive reviews, and I welcome what seems to be a strong affirmation of women in ministry and of a shift towards egalitarianism in general!

    I would like to comment on an argument I read most recently in Paul Anderson’s work on the Gospel of John, a Gospel that stands out in its rather charitable depiction of women. If it’s the case that John was challenging the growing priority of men in leadership positions within the early Christian communities – a shift reflected (and encouraged?) by the Pastorals – in favor of a more or less equal role of women based on Jesus’ own movement, the Gospel of John may be very relevant to this discussion.

  7. February 17, 2012

    The discussion encourages this 67 year old follower of Jesus, and may I add Paul, no end. If we could combine the scholastic with the stories of women today, just as the scriptures do, might the impact be more dynamic? I have had ministries taken from me because, ‘women can not teach men.’ I have lost at least one ministry paid position because I lived and taught the ‘whole counsel of God,’ egalitarianism. I have as JRD Kirk has encouraged, kept silent so as not to offend. BUT no more. Julie, I agree with you and others who have stated that living in God’s kingdom does not include subservience to cultural norms. If anything, it means the reverse. Following the Way of the Cross, as Jesus did, does not mean silence. I understand it to mean relationship, through sacrifice, often the sacrifice of being ‘accepted.’
    I am encouraged to discover JR Daniel Kirk and his writings and I hope to scrape the pennies (sontiems) together to get both his books.
    I remember a day when an intern, (from Fuller in L.A.) I had been encouraging in the study of egalitarianism, came racing into the church office. He was excited about a speaker that had spoken that day on the subject at the Fuller campus. The campus was ablaze with anger and fear but there were some ‘converts,’ my friend among them. Good to know things have moved on.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Chapter 6: Julie Clawson | Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul Blog Tour
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  3. Julie Clawson reviews the section of “Jesus I Have Loved, But Paul?” that discusses women in the story of God. She gives a great summary of what’s going on, and also raises the discussion to another level. | jonathan stegall: creative te
  4. A Real “Clobber Passage” (a translation of Romans 2:1-4) « BLT

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