The Gospel According to St. Paul: Part 2

I arrived in my new suit –  a dark blue linen jacket and skirt – for my first day as a senior pastor in my new church in Los Angeles. I greeted the people, I led worship and preached and then after the service – it was July in Southern California –the church had an outdoor barbeque to welcome me. So I walked from small group to small group, family to family, shaking hands and introducing myself. When I approached a group of elderly ladies eating their lunches, I shook hands and said, “Hello, I’m Krista, the new pastor,” and one of the ladies said, “Well, if you have to be a woman, good thing you’re wearing a dark suit….”

Apparently, wearing a dark suit was a proper pastoral thing to do on your first day in a new church. Being a woman was not.

Throughout my almost 20-year career, it has been a constant critique, one that I can’t (or won’t) do anything about: I am a woman. A female pastor. And even though the United Methodist Church has been ordaining female clergy since 1956, it is STILL a shock – “Women can be pastors?” you may ask. And I say,  “Yes we can!”

But didn’t Paul – the Apostle, the writer, the missionary, the author of fourteen letters included in our biblical texts – didn’t Paul write something about “women being silent in church?” Does that statement alone ensure women cannot or should not have a voice in church leadership? Many denominations and religious groups do not ordain women, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists and when asked why, they point to writings of Paul.

  • “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” (Eph. 5:2)
  • “God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, man is the head of the woman.” (1 Cor. 11: 3)
  • I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“And so, Krista,” you may ask, “How can you justify standing before us, speaking, taking leadership and teaching men?”

Today, I will tell you. In this second sermon in our series on Paul, I preach for the first time about Paul’s treatment of women, and I do so with pleasure. Pleasure, because I love Paul – I value his writings, his theology, I appreciate what he did in evangelizing the Gentiles, and because I believe Paul’s words have been manipulated and extracted and misused for our own purposes.

We begin with a reminder:

Paul was a writer and a traveller. Paul was a missionary pastor, someone whose passion was to travel from place to place preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He travelled to Cyprus, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), mainland Greece, Crete, and Rome. He counseled those communities as they attempted to understand and interpret the story of the Risen Messiah. As the first churches were established around the Roman Empire, Paul helped them identify a new way of living, a new way of thinking, a new theology and a new leader in Jesus Christ.

In our bible, we see fourteen letters attributed to Paul, but only seven are said to be written by Paul himself. The others are unverified and scholars believe they might be written by a follower of Paul. The verified letters of Paul include Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians and Philemon.

I mention this because some of the problematic quotes I read earlier are from the unverified texts:

  • “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” (Eph. 5:2)
  • I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

And the other  – “…man is the head of the woman”    is from the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11 and it reflects the social structure of the time. Women, in Paul’s society, WERE subordinate culturally and Paul’s words reflect that.

But Paul was not hostile to women. Paul did not ban women from working alongside him in his work, in his church-building, in his gospel-preaching, in his nurturing people in the faith. In fact, Paul recognized and accepted and welcomed women in the movement, as we see in our lesson from the letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses 1-9.

To add a bit of context, Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians from jail – either in Ephesus in the winter of 55-56 CE or in Rome around 58-60 CE. The Church in Philippi had a lot of problems – the jealousy and pettiness of its members made the church a difficult one, but throughout all its internal struggles and  external strife, Paul’s relationship with the Philippians remained “warm and deeply affectionate.” (1)

According to author Calvin Roetzel, “The Philippians gave money to support Paul’s mission in Thessalonica (4:16) and possibly also in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:9).  They gave generously to the Jerusalem collection (2 Cor. 8: 1-5) and they sent Epaphroditus to care for Paul while he was in prison (Phil. 2:25) (2)

In this turbulent church, two of their female leaders were arguing with one another. Euodia and Syntyche, two of Paul’s “fellow-workers” in the Lord were quarrelling and it was disrupting the “harmony” of the church community and in chapter 4, verses 2-3, Paul advises his contact in the Philippian Church to help bring a resolution to their conflict:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Women worked alongside Paul, not only in Philippi, but throughout his ministry, all over the ancient world. To demonstrate I’ll read to you the beginning of the sixteenth chapter in the Letters to the Romans, a section in which Paul sends his greetings to his “fellow-workers.”

Romans 16: 1-5a

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5Greet also the church in their house.

Also included in the list:

  • Mary, who has worked very hard among you. (Rom. 16:6)
  • Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.  (Rom. 16:7-8)
  • Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Rom. 16:15)

Women have always been part of the movement of Christianity, since the women came to find the body of Jesus and instead found an empty tomb. Women have always been part of the movement, since the angel of the Lord appeared to a young woman announcing the birth of the Messiah. Women have always been a part of the movement and always will be.

So what of our text about keeping silent in church? Well this text is found in the First Letter to the Corinthian church, in the context of a discussion about “speaking in tongues.” You will remember two chapters before our text, Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.

1 Corinthians 12: 4-13

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

Paul explains that everyone has gifts and they are all good. This discussion was necessary because at the time, speaking in tongues was seen as the most important, most valued gift. If you could pray and preach well – great! If you could sing or teach well – GREAT! BUT the one who could speak in tongues was more important, more vital, and closer to God and should therefore be highly-valued.

Some of these people who were “disrupting the service” by speaking loudly in tongues were women – separated from the men during the service, but their enthusiasm, their volume was disruptive. So Paul writes this:

 1 Corinthians 14: 26-40

26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. 29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. 32And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

(As in all the churches of the saints, 34women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

Now, this statement (from verse 33b-36) Pauline scholar Robin Scroggs says was inserted by a later hand to conform with the outlook of the other texts. (3) Paul in fact, recognizes that women do pray and prophecy and work in the church, as noted in the instruction to keep our heads covered: 1 Corinthians 11: 5:

5but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.

So, granted… We have to keep our heads covered (as was the custom of the day) but women –according to Paul in chapter 11 of First Corinthians – were praying and prophesying in church!

The important point for Paul was that when we come together, the whole community benefits from our gifts. We don’t have gifts to make ourselves look good, to gain power in the church, or to be seen as more important than others. We have gifts to benefit the community and to be used in the glory of God. There are so many gifts we’ve been given, but the greatest of our spiritual gifts is LOVE, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is a gift that keeps on giving, Love is the mark of our movement, Love is the way we live in this world.

I am pleased and proud to be a pastor in 2018 and I am grateful for the women who worked alongside Jesus and Paul, women that paved the way for not only female pastors, but for all of us.

Hand in hand together, we accomplish the task of Jesus in our world. Hand in hand together – Jew and Greek, Male and Female, slave and free, black and white, immigrants, refugees, from all backgrounds, language groups, political sides – And even though we are given different gifts, we are all part of the one family of God. Amen.

  1. Calvin Roetzel, The Letters of Paul (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 113.
  2. Roetzel.
  3. Roetzel.