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?

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2 Responses to “Paul versus Jesus on family”

  1. micahbales Says:

    Thanks for this post, Steven. I think that you raise some excellent points, cautioning us against taking the New Testament epistles at face value, out of context. I think it’s also important that you raised the issue of authorship – neither Colossians nor Ephesians have clear Pauline authorship, and we need to consider that they are quite possibly third-generation documents that express the views of later Christians – probably students of Paul.

    I think we need to be careful of undercutting Paul’s authority in the Christian tradition. Of course, Jesus is our ultimate authority, and we need to understand Paul’s (and others’) writings in the light of what we know of Jesus. On the other hand, I believe that Paul was indeed an apostle. He himself experienced the Risen Lord, just as Friends claim is possible today. If we attempt to discredit Paul based on the fact that he did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry, we discredit our own tradition as Friends, which insists that Jesus Christ is still teaching us, even today.

    Micah Bales
    http://www.lambswar.com


    • I agree that trying to discredit Paul because he didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry brings our own tradition into question. Thanks for the correction.

      The real question, though, it seems to me, is whether his own teachings reflect the direct inward teaching of Jesus. He claims so, of course. But he deviates from the Jesus of the gospels so often and, at times, so fundamentally, that it raises the question. One of these days, I want to address this here in BibleMonster, and from a perspective I’ve not seen elsewhere: a look at who was Ananias, the man who taught the apostle Paul in Damascus after his conversion.

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