In the First Stasimon of Euripides’ Medea, the chorus sings in an ode that the world’s anti-feminist ways are about to be reversed, because women are finally going to achieve the prominence due them. It is time, announces the chorus, for women to assert themselves.

Later by half a millennium came Paul of Tarsus. He is as unpopular with modern feminists as the Greek playwright must have been popular with Athenian women. Many in today’s Women’s Liberation movement view Paul as an “elderly, invalid bachelor” who clung to a rigid anti-feminist theology; women were a luxury his austere apostleship could not permit (“I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I”—1 Cor. 7:8). Many Liberationists view Paul as a man annoyed by women who troubled the churches (“I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord”—Phil. 4:2). Thus Paul appears to be the theological forebear of St. Thomas, who said that woman was at best only an “imperfect man” and an “incidental being.”

A glance at some statements Paul made does seem to reveal a blatant anti-feminist:

• “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” (1 Tim. 2:11).

• “Let women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34).

• “I suffer not a woman to teach” (1 Tim. 2:12).

• “The head of the woman is the man” (1 Cor. 11:2).

• “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:9).

• “Wives, submit … unto your husband” (Eph. 5:22).

Silence, submission, subjection—these prescriptions for women make the Apostle seem the arch-tyrant of sex discrimination. I propose, however, that Paul was a moderate on the subject of women—certainly a long way from radical feminism, but not radically anti-feminist either. Let us consider these two extremes.

First of all, the left wing: Women’s Lib. The movement held to a rather moderate course until October 17, 1968. Then Betty Friedan, author of the popular book The Feminine Mystique and at that time the president of N.O.W. (National Organization of Women), gave an address in which she announced, “I want to get women into positions of power.” In response Ti-Grace Atkinson spoke the sentiments of the more radical wing. “We want to destroy positions of power,” she objected, “not get into those positions.” Small groups of dissenters left the ranks to form the Seventeenth of October movement, and radical feminism was born. The new radical feminist groups spawned by the Seventeenth of October movement took such names as WRAP (Women’s Radical Action Project), WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), and the Redstockings (more moderate than the other groups).

If the names of those groups were to leave any doubt about their extremism, the fiery oratories of their members would not. Roxanne Dunbar, in a kind of feminine Patrick Henryism, has said:

Free our Sisters! Free ourselves!…
Our history has been stolen from us. Our heroes died in childbirth, from peritonitis; … our geniuses were never taught to read and write. We must invent a history adequate to our ambitions. We must create a future adequate to our needs.
Women are the real Left. We are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies; bright, glowing mad in our inferior brains; wild hair flying, wild eyes staring … laughing at our own beauty, we who have lost our sense of humor: We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive. Power to all the people or none [Celestine Ware, Woman Power, Tower, 1970, p. 25].

No matter how clear it became that Paul was a moderate, he could never score many points with those whose red hot opinions leave no room for moderation.

On the right wing are evangelicals who have incorrectly represented Paul’s views on womanhood. Far too often we have sprinkled our sermons with Paul’s admonitions about silence and submission and ignored other things he said that were unfriendly to our biases. This is a grave error. We have long praised the Ruth and Mary type of woman (the biblical homemaker); now we must hold up for reevaluation the Deborahs and Miriams.

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Perhaps Paul’s strongest statement in support of women is Galatians 3:28, where he reminds us that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.” And in First Corinthians 11:12 he says, “For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.” How beautiful is this simple point: although woman was taken out of man (Gen. 2:23), without woman, man could never be born; and both depend for their existence on God.

Anyone in doubt about Paul’s esteem for Christian womanhood should consider the sixteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans; of the twenty-five people he salutes, one-third are women. To only two of the eight women does he send greetings without comment. He has complimentary things to say about the other six. Priscilla, he says, laid down her neck for his. Mary “bestowed much labor on us.” Tryphaena and Tryphosa “labor in the Lord.”

Two of the women deserve special attention: Phoebe and Junia. A subscript following Romans 16:27 indicates that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter from Corinth to Rome, a distance of several hundred miles. In a day when travel was insecure at best, Phoebe’s courage as courier cannot escape notice. Into her keeping the Apostle Paul entrusted the greatest theological document of the New Testament.

In the first verse of chapter sixteen, Phoebe is called a deaconess. This is the only place in the New Testament where the title is used in the feminine. While there is much debate as to whether “deaconess” was an office in the New Testament churches, one thing is sure: it is a title of respect.

Junia, mentioned in verse seven, is thought by many to have been a woman (though the masculine Junias appears in the RSV). She is accorded the rank of apostle and seems to have been the only woman in the New Testament so honored. John Chrysostom had no doubt that Junia was both a woman and an apostle, for he said: “Oh! how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle.” Whether or not female apostleship is implicit in this verse, it is clear that Junia, like Phoebe, is accorded a place of dignity and respect. Should it be proved that Junia is really Junias, and therefore a man, still Romans sixteen would be convincing evidence that Paul honored women who played active roles in the church.

Let those who see Paul as a woman-degrader consider all the evidence. And let us all remember that, as he stated in Ephesians five, the Apostle believed in the liberation of women—and of men—through submission to Christ and his Lordship. That is true liberty.

Calvin Miller is pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He received the B.S. degree from Oklahoma Baptist University and the M.Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written four books.

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