Paul’s conversion story has been and continues to be meaningful for countless Christians. Nobody rides horses today but who would pass up the opportunity to fall out of one’s vehicle of choice and see that blinding light? Maybe like Paul, your life would be forever changed for the better. At one moment persecuting Christians as a violent Pharisees and at the next writing the poem we read at weddings.
One thing remains perplexing and troubling though. If Paul came to love Jesus, the one he says “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross”(Philippians 2:7-8), why do his views on women seem so self-serving and patriarchal? Would Jesus, who praised Mary for leaving her “many tasks” at home to come be a disciple at his feet, speak of women the way Paul speaks of women(Luke 10:38-42)? Would Paul belittle the women who supported Jesus’ ministry, caring for him at the cross when all the male disciples had fled in fear(Mark 15:40-41)? Some Pauline texts suggest he would. How then, can a Christian follow the example of Paul who in 1 Timothy 2 argues women should have no authority over men because Eve was the one who sinned? Adam, he assures us, was only deceived.
A common response to Paul’s apparent misogyny is to point out that he did not in fact write many of the letters contained in the New Testament. For instance, very few scholars believe Paul actually wrote 1 Timothy or Titus, though they bear his name. If these two letters do not represent the views of Paul then some of the harshest language against women in the New Testament belongs not to the apostle, but to later writers.
One text that cannot be dealt with this easily is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36.
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If 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. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
1 Corinthians is considered one of the 7 “undisputed letters” of Paul. Scholars are in agreement that Paul penned it. This text presents what I would consider to be the only evidence that the historical Paul forbid women from speaking in his churches. Some scholars though argue that even this text is on shaky ground. Perhaps the most damaging argument to its authenticity is that the ancient manuscripts are not in agreement as to where it goes in 1 Corinthians. Some have these verses after 14:40. This suggests that the verses were a note at some point placed in the margin that later scribes tried to fit appropriately into the text. These scribes did not agree as to where it went because it was not originally in the letter.
The internal evidence against the verses is also striking. What law forbids women to speak and commands them to be subordinate? There seems to be no such law in the Law of Moses. In addition this is not how Paul argues in his undisputed letters. The Law is neither the model of right living nor the reason for right living. In 2 Corinthians 3, in fact, Paul calls the Law of Moses “the ministry of death” and says the ministry of the Spirit has replaced the Law, setting it aside(3:10-11). Paul’s vision of ethics comes from the story of Jesus not from the Law. For instance, in Romans 8, Paul argues for right living on the basis that the spirit of Jesus lives in those who believe. Or in Philippians 2 where he encourages his readers to love simply because Jesus loved.
Finally, despite what this text teaches, there are places in the undisputed letters where it is clear that Paul has given women positions of authority. He names Phoebe a minister(Romans 16:1), and calls Junia one prominent among the apostles(Romans 16:7). A woman named Chloe appears to be his messenger for the church in Corinth(1 Corinthians 1:11). Most damning to the text in question comes from 1 Corinthians itself. In 11:5 Paul implies that it is right for women to both pray and prophesy in his church. How then, can he write only three chapters later “women should be silent in the churches”?
If this text is inauthentic, as it appears to be, Paul’s words in Galatians can and should be considered one of the most radical claims ever made in the ancient world. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(3:28). The experience Paul had of Jesus truly changed his life.