I am a Christian. I believe that the bible is the word of God. I believe that it remains essentially unchanged from the day the words were first put to oral or written record. I believe that God’s power to ensure that His word is protected is greater than humanity’s power to corrupt it.
But that doesn’t mean I understand all of it.
For example, the Apostle Paul’s statements about women seem disturbing to a modern woman. Especially to me, who didn’t have children, and who is a teacher and a writer. In fact, it was specifically Paul’s words regarding women that kept me from embracing Christianity for many years. Now, deep in my service to God through Christ Jesus, I still wonder what exactly Paul meant when he said, “wives, submit to your husbands in everything,” or “it is improper for women to speak in church.”
Since the subject is so large (Paul had a lot to say on the subject of women), I will address only Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in this discussion. I have studied that one recently and have prayed to understand it. But before delving right into the particular passage, I want to lay the foundation for who Paul was in relation to the culture of Ephesus when he arrived, bearing the Good News.
Before Paul believed in the divinity of Jesus, he was a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, a well-educated adherent to the strict letter of Jewish law. Saul was a Roman citizen by birth, and a student of Rabban Gamaliel, the renowned authority in law and member of the highest court of law in Jerusalem. Saul acted as a legal witness to the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem, the first recorded Christian martyrdom. Afterward, in his zeal to annihilate adherents to the Way, as Christians were then called, “Saul [went] everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:3).
The followers of Jesus scattered across Judea and Samaria, fleeing the wave of persecution in Jerusalem. “But Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains” (Acts 9:1-2).
Saul seemed hardly likely as a choice to spread the news of Jesus through the lands of the Gentiles. Yet, that is exactly what happened. And it was Jesus himself who appointed Saul to the task through a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-19). Thereafter, Saul’s zeal was for Jesus. Proclaiming Him the Son of God, Saul, also known as Paul (Acts 13:9), went out into the world, planting churches and making believers of Gentiles. One of the churches Paul established was at Ephesus, a huge and influential city in Asia Minor, second only to Rome at the time of Paul’s travels. The city may have contained from 250,000 to as many as 500,000 inhabitants in the 1st century AD, and was famous for its temple to the Greek goddess, Artemis.
Worship of Artemis in Ephesus had a flavor independent of other cults of Artemis at the time. Though the history is murky, and certainly this platform is inadequate for a thorough discussion, let it suffice to say that Ephesian culture was permeated through with Artemis-worship. Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A thriving industry revolved around producing objects used in rituals and worship. The political and social structures were influenced by the temple and the rites of worship. She was alternately a goddess of chastity, fertility, strength, and independence, and was called Queen and Savior. When Paul arrived bearing the news of Jesus Christ’s divinity, certainly he would have been met with no small amount of resistance.
Nevertheless, Paul was able to convince people in Ephesus of the truth of the Gospel. Rather, the Holy Spirit made that truth clear; Paul was merely the vehicle by which God delivered the message. Though Paul himself was eventually driven out of Ephesus by angry merchant-producers of goddess-worship products, the church he built there thrived. In Ephesians, Paul writes to that church from Rome, where he had been imprisoned. In the letter, Paul gives instruction for spiritual living. His words are wise, and for the most part are easy to understand from a modern Christian perspective: do not steal, do not be greedy, live a life filled with love, follow Christ’s example in all you do.
Then, in Ephesians 5:22-24, Paul writes the words that have troubled many a modern, Christian woman:
For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.
That is not the entirety of what Paul says in Ephesians about the relationship between wives and their husbands, but it is the part upon which we fixate. We women read that verse before the rest, and immediately we become defensive. We picture contemporary men who want to keep women out of church proceedings. We picture men who walk out of a service if a woman takes the microphone to teach or preach. We realize that it has not been long since we have had the right to vote in America, and that many women in the world can not own land, or drive a car legally, or even have access to medical care and education. And we are right to think those things. But a flawed human perspective is not the mindset with which to read Paul’s words about men and women. We must take on a Godly perspective.
I suggest reading the passage out-of-order to better understand the complete message. Start with verse 32:
“This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.”
The gospels are rife with the instruction to hear and understand, and with the notion that many who hear will not understand. Paul, as well, wrote that “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Therefore, it is fair to assume that Paul is trying to communicate a much deeper truth than that which we see on the surface.
If we accept that we must open our spirits to Godly truth, rather than worldly truth, then we can look at both sides of Paul’s instruction equally. He speaks of the teachings of our Lord Jesus to the men as well as to the women . These teachings are not to be taken lightly, nor are they to be viewed from a secular perspective. The instructions are:
- “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31).
- For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her (Ephesians 5:25).
- For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22).
- And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21).
As a woman, if my husband were to love me as Jesus loved His church, I would have no problem at all submitting to him, because his every wish would be in line with my best interest. That is the ideal relationship between a wife and her husband. And it mirrors exactly the beautiful paradox of submitting in slavery to God. I submit to God in order to be free. God’s every wish for me is in my best interest. My submission to Him frees me from the chains of earthly bondage. In an ideal marriage between a man and a woman, the two would become one, and would submit to one another. Paul tells us that, for a woman, this means giving her respect to the man who loves her as he loves himself. For a man, this means loving his wife as he loves himself, never considering her to be a mere extension of his own body, or a tool for his use.
In the perspective of Christ’s love of His church, and God’s love of His creation, our motives are meant to be pure. In that case, Paul’s words do not offend. But when we allow a secular perspective, and one in which there is competition and selfish greed between men and women, to shadow the verses, we naturally recoil from them.
Therefore, I say, regarding Ephesians at least, Paul is spot-on in his instructions for living a spiritual, God-centered life.
I am still praying for the Holy Spirit to help me understand 1 Corinthians 14 and (even tougher!) 1 Timothy 2:11 – 15. Those verses seem to preclude me from being able to act in the church as I feel that God is calling me to do. I feel strongly that I am meant to teach and to communicate through writing the means to apply scripture to our lives. Paul, in saying that women are to remain silent in the church, and worse, are never to be in a position to instruct men, must have a meaning that I am so far unable to understand. Since I have begun seeking God’s will for my life, earnestly, deliberately, and before all other desires, He has led my path, and it has been joyful and meaningful. I cannot believe that I am not in line with God’s will by teaching or by writing and speaking about Christian’s spiritual lives. I will keep trying, though, to understand. I welcome an open discussion with you, friends and readers, on the subject.
In Christ, with steadfast faith,