Paul versus Jesus on family
November 9, 2010
For the last few posts, I’ve been arguing that folks who want to use the Bible as a guide to marriage and family life find that biblical testimony in this area has evolved a great deal over the millennia. As a result, they must pick and choose which book of the Bible, which story, which form of marriage they want to rely on as testimony to God’s will.
As we have seen, even Jesus’ teachings on family and his actions regarding his own family leave a confusing sense of conflict. As with a lot of other areas of Christian theology, however, it’s not to Jesus that many people turn for biblical rules about family, but to Paul. And as in many other areas, Paul either ignores Jesus’ teachings and practice or directly contradicts them. This is most certainly true with marriage. To confuse matters more, Paul does not even remain consistent with himself, though here the matter really rests on a higher order question of who actually wrote some of the letters ascribed to Paul. The most jarring shift in his teachings occurs in letters many scholars believe to have been written by a ‘disciple’—Colossians and Ephesians.
Paul’s contradictions, with Jesus and with his earlier writings (Galatians, in particular), have to do with the relationships between women and men, between the husband and the wife. For a full and groundbreaking treatment of these matters, I highly recommend In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, by Elisabeth Fiorenza, though I should warn you that this is a pretty dense read. Fiorenza’s book could hardly be more valuable and important to an understanding of women in the Bible, but it could easily be more reader-friendly. If you’re interested but don’t want to slog through the jargon, check out this website’s more user-friendly presentation of her work, using excerpts.
First, we’ll look at Jesus and Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul (or his eponymous disciple) contradicts himself.
Several women traveled with the itinerant prophet Jesus and supported his ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3). Mary Magdalene and some other women (accounts vary) were the first to receive the revelation of Jesus’ rising from the dead. Women recognize Jesus for who he is consistently throughout the gospels, anointing him, washing his feet with their hair, sitting at his feet to be taught. Men consistently resist or resent this; Jesus repeatedly rebukes them for it. Jesus seems to have radically reordered the gender relations in his community, giving to women status far beyond that allowed in the wider culture or even by his own male followers.
In the end, though, the men won out. They have Paul to thank for their dominion over women. Paul tells the Corinthians that “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife” (I Cor 11:3); that “a man … is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (I Cor 11:8-9). Paul is obviously looking to Genesis here, just as Jesus had done regarding divorce. So maybe Jesus actually agreed with Paul; we don’t really know.
About speaking in worship, however, I think we can be more certain. Paul demands that “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 women to speak in church” (I Cor 14:34-35).
This is a far cry from the way Jesus seems to have treated the testimony of the women in his own community. It doesn’t even jive with Paul’s own belief about discipline in the faith of Christ, as he expressed it in Galatians (3:23-4:7): “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
So. Is it shameful for women to speak in church? Are women one with men in Christ? Are women substantially and spiritually inferior to men, by virtue of their apparent derivative creation according to Genesis 2? Must they be subordinate to their husbands?
If you turn to the Bible to answer these questions, which passages do you choose and which do you ignore? Do you follow the Teacher or a self-proclaimed apostle who never even heard him teach?