Thursday, December 1, 2011

St. Paul was the First Feminist...

It is often assumed that St. Paul was a misogynist. At best, they say, he was a byproduct of his era- a time when women were regarded as little more than oversized children. They point to passages like Ephesians Chapter 5; "Wives be submissive to your husbands in everything" as proof of this discrimination. However, there is only one problem with this conclusion: it is wrong. The reality is St. Paul did more to further the rights of women than any of the so-called activists alive today.

First of all, what do we mean when we say that someone is a feminist? I think it is safe to say that all parties (with the exception of those who view men as completely useless) would agree that female equality is the cornerstone of any discussion related to feminism. Now, if what you mean by equality is that men and women are interchangeable and utterly indistinguishable from one another, then you have not only transgressed the boundaries of theology, but you have bypassed the very evidence of your eyeballs. Men and women are equal, but you hardly need an anthropologist to point out the biological differences. What I am saying is they compliment one another, which is to say they are not merely a redundancy of persons. They are both indispensable parts of an organic whole (yes, I said it, men are indispensable as well). All of this to say that together they are the instruments of God's plan to further human dignity, and perpetuate the human race.

But the issue at hand is whether Paul's theology is bigoted. Two passages in particular lay waste to this claim. The first one is in Galatians where Paul declares that in Baptism; "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not man or woman, but all are one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28). Not only does this passage provide the basis for women's rights, but it is practically a manifesto for the condemnation of all discrimination. This is not to say that all of those mentioned in this passage are merely some nameless interchangeable amalgam, but that in Christ every human being finds their own worth, and by extension, their equality. This reality is by no means "self-evident", as the American founding father's suggested, but a recognition of something quite intangible; something that in many ways contradicts social reality- and by contradicts I mean challenges common perceptions.

A second passage that proves Paul's inestimable contribution to women's rights is the very passage often used as a witness against him. Setting aside the obvious demands that are made on both parties in Ephesians 5:21-5:32, let us focus on the main objection. How can anyone call Paul a defender of women's rights after he tells them to be "subject to their husbands in everything"? As with everything in Scripture, or even in a media report, anything can be spliced together in such a fashion so as to appear to be saying something it is not. In fact, sometimes it is even made to say the exact opposite of what it is actually trying to say.

But the genius of Paul's words go well beyond a clever phraseology. Indeed, Paul is saying something far more revolutionary than the banal and predicable idea that men and women are the same (which would be easy enough to do). He is stating their divine vocation. Situating the discussion within the patriarchal language of the Greco-Roman world (he is speaking to the Galatians after all), he does not simply dismiss masculinity and then declare women to be equal. Rather, he does the more liberal thing. He affirms what is true and good about the pater familias, while simultaneously and rather subtly dismantling the notion of machismo. On the one hand he elevates women, but not by turning men into effeminate doormats, rather he does so by defining headship as an act of service. The irony of course here is that women must lower themselves only so that they can be at eye-level with man who is to already prostrate in her service.

In any event, declaring that women be "submissive to their husband's in everything," can hardly be more difficult than the demand to love your wife as Christ loved the Church; "Who though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God something at which to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming obedient, even unto death..." (Phillipians 2:8-9). Any wife may declare, half jokingly, that she is slave to her husband and children, but at least that is not, according to Scripture, her stated vocation. On the other, it is he who is slated to put himself in her service as a foot washer and a slave.

I call this passage a Pauline trick, for he takes the former pagan idea of marriage and says in essence "You want to be pater familias, OK- but here is the new definition: 'Husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the Church, handing himself over for her. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh, but rather nourishes and cherishes it.'" I do not think that even a feminist could object to the suggestion that men treat women as their equals, nor to the idea that a husband should "cherish" and "nourish" his wife.

Nevertheless, should one object to this interpretation, they are not only fighting with me, but with millions of women in the ancient world who converted for this reason. In droves they converted to Christianity in the early centuries, not because the Church oppressed women, but because they received that had far more rights under this new "regime." Some men were even reluctant to convert precisely because it seemed, as a result of these mass conversions, to be a "woman's religion". The increased rights of women (like, for example, not being forced to marry some creepy old dude at the age of 10), are the natural consequence of the nuptial image offered in this Pauline letter. A man may propose to a woman, but a woman is free to reject his proposal. Why? Because her free will is to be regarded just as much as any man's. They are companions in the truest sense of the word, for they eat (as the etymology suggests) of the same bread, and drink of the same cup, sharing in a marvelous communion prepared for them from the foundation of the world.          



  1. Do I get royalties for this one?
    Also, I'm waiting for "Every Sunday is Good Friday at your local protestant church."

  2. If you need your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (even if they're dating somebody else now) you gotta watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Have your ex CRAWLING back to you...?