Jesus v. Paul: The False Dichotomy

In reading through my morning e-mail alerts, I came across the following written by Emily Oliver, a theology graduate student at Xavier University, entitled "So many things Jesus DIDN'T say".

I had a startling thought the other night, and I think I need to explore it further: Jesus never said anything against women in leadership positions. I can't think of one time in scripture that Jesus is quoted as saying that women should be submissive or learn in silence. I can't think of a situation where Jesus told a woman that she was not to be in authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:9-15).

Here's a further thought: the Pauline epistles are generally thought to have been written before the gospels, with perhaps the exception of Mark, which was written concurrently. Why, if it was so theologically important to keep women out of leadership positions, did the gospel writers not make sure to include such points from Jesus' own mouth? I think it's a little funny that exclusion of women from leadership comes from Paul and not Jesus. Who's the Son of God?

Let me get this straight -- the only reliable Biblical teachings are the words of Jesus? Isn't that what she's saying? It's Jesus versus Paul, and of course, Paul isn't as trustworthy as Jesus.

From the standpoint of traditional Christianity, there are some problems with this approach to the issue. First and foremost it undercuts the idea of inspiration of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. The traditional church teaching is that Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and therefore his writings are divinely inspired and hold within them the sound Word of God. Thus, it isn't the words of Jesus, the Son of God, versus the words of Paul, the apostle; the real battle being set up by Ms. Oliver is the words of Jesus, the Son of God, against the words of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinitarian God, as recorded through Paul. Yes, it's God versus God.

Of course, the underlying problem is that there is an assumption that Paul and Jesus are at odds on this issue. The assumption is that because Paul made some statements about the role of women in the church while Jesus didn't make those statements (and apparently wouldn't have, in Ms. Oliver's point of view), we must take Jesus' non-words over Paul's words. I think that this battle is illusory.

Ms. Oliver, like other people who selectively accept the teachings of the Gospel, is actually reading her own viewpoint into Jesus' silence. She wants it to be the case that Jesus wouldn't have taught what she understands Paul to be teaching, and so she simply reads her desires into the silence and takes that silence as proof that Paul is wrong. It is a bad hermeneutic to read one's own desires into silence. Jesus didn't specifically speak about abortion, homosexuality, slavery, counterfeiting, embezzlement, Internet pornography or a hundred other issues facing the world either, but that doesn't mean that we are free to substitute our own desires into the Bible over the teachings that can be gleaned from other Biblical texts on these important issues. As Biblical scholar D.A. Carson is reported as saying in Lee Strobels' The Case for Christ when discussing the fact that Jesus never directly addressed slavery:

But you have to keep your eye on Jesus' mission. Essentially he did not come to overturn the Roman economic system, which included slavery. He came to free men and women from their sins. And here's my point: what his message does is transform people so they begin to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Naturally, that has an impact on the idea of slavery.

In other words, simply because Jesus didn't address something is not a reason to believe that he preferred the side of the argument that someone would like him to prefer. Rather, Jesus didn't address every societal ill or potential societal ill because He came to preach that He was the fulfillment of the kingdom and to bring salvation. Paul, who was an apostle appointed by God and acknowledged by the other apostles, was setting up churches throughout the Mediterranean and his mission was to answer questions about church leadership, the conduct of worship, and other questions that came with the church age. When Paul speaks about the church and its structure, he speaks as an apostle which means that he speaks with the authority of God.

It seems to me that the better course is to accept Paul's teaching, but not to accept it necessarily at face value. There is a great deal of debate within the church about the focus of Paul's statements. There is much material available over the Internet that argues for a more egalitarian view of Scriptures then has traditionally been accepted, and many of these articles do not downplay the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with respect to the teaching of the Bible. In other words, they continue in the belief that the Word of God as recorded in all of the books in the Gospels are inerrant, and so it doesn't set up a false dichotomy between Paul's words and Jesus' words. Rather, they try to look at the Bible as a whole and determine exactly what Paul meant when he made some comments that have been recently seen as misogynistic.

For example, F.F. Bruce has an article available on-line entitled "Women In The Church: A Biblical Survey" in which he does exactly that.

From the standpoint of Paul's upbringing he voices a revolutionary sentiment when he declares that in Christ Jesus...there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is neither male nor female' (Gal. 3:28). Already in his time the Jewish morning prayer probably included the passage where the pious man thanks God that he was made a Jew not a Gentile, a free man not a slave, a man and not a woman. All three of these privileges are hereby wiped out: real how they were in the Judaism of Paul's day, they are abolished in Christ, in Judaism it was the males only who received in their bodies the viable seal of the covenant with Abraham; it is a corollary of Paul's circumcision-free gospel that any such religious privilege enjoyed by males over females is abolished. To the present day among orthodox Jews the quorum for a synagogue congregation is ten free men; unless ten such males are present the service cannot begin. (We may, incidentally, be happy that for Christian meetings we have the less stringent quorum of 'two or three', with nothing said as to whether they are men or women.) Paul, on the other hand, expects Christian women to play a responsible part in church meetings, and if, out of concern for public order, he asks them to veil their heads when they pray or prophesy, the veil is the sign of their authority to exercise their Christian liberty in this way, not the sign of someone else's authority over them.

Nothing that Paul says elsewhere on women's contribution to church services can be understood in a sense which conflicts with these statements of principle. This applies to the limitations apparently placed on their public liberty in 1 Cor. 14:34 ('the women should keep silence in the churches') and 1 Tim. 2:11 ('let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness'). Critical questions have indeed been raised about the text of 1 Cor. 14:34f.(which the 'western' recension places after verse 40) or the direct authorship of the pastoral epistles. The evidence is not sufficient to extrude 1 Cor. 14:34f. from the authentic text; the prohibition expressed in these verses refers to the asking of questions which imply a judgment on prophetic utterances (so, at least, their context suggests). As for the pastoral epistles, we have received them as canonical scripture, and that goes for 1 Tim. 2:9-15. I am disposed to agree with Chrysostom, who read the Greek New Testament in his native language, that in 1 Tim.2:9f. we have a direction (developing the teaching of 1 Cor.11:2-16) that woman's dress and demeanour should be seemly when they engage in public prayer. In verses 11 and 12 of this chapter, however, women are quite explicitly not given permission to teach or rule. The relevance of the two arguments-(a) that Adam was formed before Eve and (b) that Eve was genuinely deceived whereas Adam knew what he was doing when he broke the divine commandment-is not immediately obvious; I am not too happy with the suggestions that the former is an early instance of the principle of primogeniture, in which the special rights of the firstborn are recognised.

Exegesis seeks to determine the meaning of the text in its primary setting. But when exegesis has done its work, our application of the text should avoid treating the New Testament as a book of rules. In applying the New Testament text to our situation, we need not treat it as the scribes of our Lord's day treated the Old Testament. We should not turn what were meant as guiding lines for worshippers in one situation into laws binding for all time. (It is commonly recognised that the regulations regarding widows, later in 1 Tim., need not be carried out literally today, although their essential principles should continue to be observed.) It is an ironical paradox when Paul, who was so concerned to free his converts from bondage of law, is treated as a law-giver for later generations. The freedom of the Spirit, which can be safeguarded by one set of guiding lines in a particular situation, may call for a different procedure in a new situation.

It is very naturally asked what criteria can be safely used to distinguish between those elements in the apostolic letters which are of local and temporary application and those which are of universal and permanent validity. The question is too big for a detailed discussion here. Where the writings of Paul are concerned, however, a reliable rule of thumb is suggested by his passionate emphasis on freedom-true freedom by contrast with spiritual bondage on the one hand and moral licence on the other. Here it is: whatever in Paul's teaching promotes true freedom is of universal and permanent validity; whatever seems to impose restrictions on true freedom has regard to local and temporary conditions. (For example, to go to another area, restrictions on Christian's freedom in the matter of food are conditioned by the company in which he or she is at the time; and even those restrictions are manifestations of the overriding principle of always considering the well-being of others.)

In posting this lengthy quote from Bruce, I am not adopting it as necessarily being the correct answer to this question. But I do post it to point out that there is a reasonable way to understand these scriptures without setting up a battle between Paul and Jesus on the issue of women in the church -- especially where Jesus didn't directly address the issue.


Jason said…
Good post. Lots of good points.

(I've been so critical recently, I thought I'd take an opportunity to give a thumbs up. {s!})

While I'm inclined to share some of Emily's concerns, I agree it isn't a good principle application to pit something Jesus isn't recorded as saying, vs. something Paul is positively recorded as saying. And in the case of the sayings against female religious authority in the Pauline epistles, there are several options which may be considered, due to the characteristics of the offending instances.

The verse from 1 Tim, for instance, runs so far against Paul's sin-of-Adam theology, that I'm inclined to consider _that_ part (at least) to be an early marginal note by Timothy--assuming the letter is legit in the first place. And given the evidence in favor of tacit quotations being employed elsewhere in 1 Cor, I tend to consider the 1 Cor verse to be Paul quoting a party in the congregation which he then proceeds to _oppose_! (The surrounding contexts so obviously don't fit a straight reading of this from Paul, that the verse was moved around in a few texts to try to make it fit better.)

Something else also worth mentioning: when Paul expects women to cover their heads for prayer and prophesy, what's often overlooked is that men were expected to do the same thing--Paul is affirming that the women should do as the men are doing.

All this being said--I do think there are certain portions of sacramental logic, so to speak, that mitigate against a woman being proper to perform those particular rites (which is why Abbesses in early Christian Ireland still needed a 2nd-in-command bishop in order to fill that role in the rites.) Not that this should or even could be a problem for Baptists... {ironic g!} Neither, so far as I can tell, would it have been an issue in Paul's day. (Possibly not in the day of the post-Marcan Gospels, either, if all of them were written before 70, as I myself think is very likely.)

Anyway. If Emily did ever decide to trump Paul with Jesus (based hopefully on things Jesus is at least reported of having said {g}), she _would_ be admittedly in good company, in principle, since C. S. Lewis (and his teacher George MacDonald) allowed that in a conflict between the sources we would of course be obliged to go with Jesus. (Though I don't think either of them actually proposed any such conflict to be extant. I know GMcD didn't; and the one case I can think of from Lewis which might fit, was in favor of a more commonly accepted theological doctrine among the orthodox instead of a less common one.)

It also depends, as you say, on how strong a stance the interpreter holds regarding the character of inspiration. But that's a whole other (very large) debate.

codepoke said…
It seems to me that the better course is to accept Paul's teaching, but not to accept it necessarily at face value.


Jason hits all the high points of Paul and egalitarianism, so I won't belabor them. Paul spoke by the same Spirit Whom Jesus had without measure. Attempting to squelch Paul from silence is damaging in the extreme.

Paul was an egalitarian, and there's life to be had in reading his words as he intended them. Why anyone would want to hide from those truths eludes me.
slaveofone said…
Rather, they try to look at the Bible as a whole and determine exactly what Paul meant when he made some comments that have been recently seen as misogynistic.

Well, I'll tell you my thoughts...

This demands that what Paul thought and wrote early on is the same thing he thought or said later, which even accounting for inspiration by a Spirit which is the same yesterday, today, and forever, doesn't account whatsoever for the changes in the humanity of Paul himself who could not as a human have thought and understood things the same from his first to last epistle. It seems to me we could only approach Paul's writings from this harmonistic methodology if Paul came into a knowledge and mindset and communication that didn't change whatsoever, nothing added, nothing clarified, nothing misunderstood from his own frailties, looking through a mirror clearly, from conversion to death. But if knowledge is progressive, if the kingdom is progressive, if the gospel is progressive, if the Spirit does not give all insight and truth to us at once for all things in our lifetime, and if there is no clouding of truth by the haze of our own limited and not-quite-yet-perfected being, then to look at Paul's writings as a whole to determine what he thought and meant at any one time or letter seems foolhardy. It could be that Paul thought less of women and their place and part in the kingdom at one point in time and the Spirit was actively working to change and turn his own imperfections to perfection over time, thus different letters would represent that development and the inspired word of the Spirit working in him would look different and result in differences over the course.
slaveofone said…
"and if there is no clouding" should be "and if there is clouding"
TOR Hershman said…
You know, I did a web search (Did? Doing! This is part of it) for
"Blogspot Bertrand Russell" and EVERY blog, so far, has been a Christian one.

Not an Atheist blog in the bunch.

I'm somewhat, but not too, surprised by this;
after the HUGE, negative, Atheist response to my "The Awful Facts" such things are accepted.

Well, anywho, nice write-up.

Stay on Groovin' (DNA Jungle) Safari,
Layman said…
Here is a link to an article titled, "Did Jesus and Paul Teach the Same Thing?"

It's pretty good.

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