Did Paul Practice What We’re Told He Preached?

by Alvera Mickelsen

People who know very little about the Bible all seem to have heard that Paul is "against women" and teaches that they should be subservient to men and that they should not be in leadership position where men are involved.

And people who are Christians seem to hear most frequently three verses from Paul, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man," (I Tim. 2:12) "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord," (Eph. 5:22) and "Women should be silent in the churches." (I Cor. 14:34).

If we believe the Bible is God’s Word (which I do) then we keep the commands that are in the Bible, don’t we? Of course we do–providing we understand what those commands are really trying to say. And then the problem becomes a good deal more complicated.

One of the most serious problems of Christians (and we are all guilty of this) is selective literalism. We choose which passages we want to apply literally; we shout those and we ignore all the others that we don’t like. Well, if that is bad, wouldn’t it be better if we just applied all of them literally? That would be almost impossible. For example, I’m sure that every person reading this is now disobeying at least one biblical command. "You shall not put on a garment made of two kinds of materials." (Lev. 19:19). So if you are wearing a cotton polyester blend or any other kind of blend, you are disobeying a biblical command!

Well, you may be saying, that’s an obscure Old Testament command. And you are right. There are lots of others like that. So let’s look at a New Testament command. Five times, Paul and Peter tell Christians to "Greet one another with a holy kiss." I’ve never seen that practiced in the churches I attend. And I could give you quite a list of other similar New Testament commands that we do not follow.

Why not? You know the answer. Those things are cultural customs and different cultures have different customs. In fact, almost everything in the Bible is culturally conditioned—just as almost everything we do is culturally conditioned.

The clothes we wear; our hairstyle; the kind of house we live in; the books we read; everything in our lives is deeply affected by the culture in which we live. It cannot be otherwise. The same was true in Bible times.

Then what good does it do to study the Bible? The main purpose, of course, is that we meet God there. We see what God is like primarily because we see Jesus Christ—God incarnate revealed in human form. And we can see the principles of life that God has revealed in spite of the different cultures. People in Bible times, like us, worked for a living, they loved and hated; they had governments and leaders that were sometimes much worse than ours! They had families—husbands and wives, and children and parents. They had the important relationships just as we do. And their major problem—like ours—was how to get along in those relationships—with God, in families, in Churches, in communities. So we study the Bible to see what it can teach us about these crucial matters that are so important to all of us.

Before we look at some of the oft-quoted teaching of Paul, let’s look a bit at Paul himself. He was undoubtedly the greatest evangelist in New Testament times. Without his passion for the Gospel, the New Testament church might not have gotten very far. He met Christ miraculously on the road to Damascus where he was going to persecute Christians and put them in jail. After his conversion, he met some of the disciples—Peter and some of the others. They no doubt told him a lot about Jesus—his life, his teachings, his death, and resurrection. Remember that for the first twenty years or so after the death and resurrection of Christ, there was no written Gospel; the words, acts, life of Jesus were passed on orally from one to another. Then, according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he spent several years in the Arabian desert—no doubt trying to work through all that he had learned about Jesus, and all that he knew about the Old Testament through his training as a Pharisee. He had to try to distinguish between what the Old Testament said, (nothing about women being subject to men, or keeping silent in worship) and the traditions that had been passed down in Judaism. He needed time to pray and study before he became the great emissary of Christ to the world.

Now Paul in his training as a Pharisee had been taught to have little or nothing to do with women. But he had had years to think through all of that with the things he had heard about Jesus and Jesus’ treatment of women. He had learned that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave or free—we are all one in Christ. And, as we will see, Paul had been truly converted to Jesus. He would never do anything different from what Jesus did and taught.

So let’s look at some of the things Paul did.

In Acts 16, we have the story of the beginning of the church in Philippi. Paul had been directed there by a vision of God. He usually began his evangelizing in the synagogue where he could reach the Jews. But there was no synagogue in Philippi. (To have a synagogue you had to have 10 Jewish men--women and children did not count.) Paul had heard that there was a prayer meeting along the river on the Sabbath so he went there. He found a group of women praying—apparently no men. So he began telling them about Jesus, and one woman, Lydia, opened her heart to God and so did other members of her household. She was a wealthy woman with a large house, and she invited Paul and his companions to stay at her home. He accepted, and her home apparently became the first "house church" in Europe. She was no doubt the "leader" of this young church. So far as the account goes, there were no men in the beginning.

I have been struck by the fact that in our "enlightened" day, we probably would not dream of starting a church with a bunch of women! We would say, "You have to have some men to start a church." Apparently Paul did not think so. Actually, this Philippian church that begun with women (the church later attracted men, too) became Paul’s very favorite church! His letter to the Philippians shows his great joy in that church. He said it was the only church that regularly supported him, and the only church from which he accepted monetary gifts. In the 4th chapter of Philippians, he names two women of the church as his co-workers who "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." Does this sound as though he told them always to be silent in church? Or that they must not proclaim or teach the gospel to men as well as women? If Paul really believed that as a universal principle, he surely would have included it in his letter to this church—that had been begun with women!

Paul was not the only one who recognized women as leaders of house churches. The little letter of II John is addressed to "the elect lady and her children whom I love in the truth." It closes with "the children of your elect sister send you their greetings." Older commentaries said that the "elect lady" and the "elect sister" were churches—not individuals. But a common-sense reading of this letter points to churches led by women.

Now let’s look at Priscilla and Aquila—a married couple who were great evangelists and church planters. Paul met them first in Corinth and stayed with them because they, like Paul, were tent-makers. (Paul, like every good Jewish rabbi, had a trade by which to support himself.) When opposition became too strong for Paul in Corinth (he was arrested for preaching the gospel) he left for Ephesus and asked Priscilla and Aquila to go with him. Paul stayed in Ephesus a while and then went on to Caesarea, leaving Priscilla and Aquila in charge of the believers in Ephesus. Then there came to Ephesus a devout Jewish Christian man named Apollos who had come from Alexandria, Egypt. He was a gifted and enthusiastic speaker, and Priscilla and Aquila were thrilled. But when they heard him speak, they recognized that there were parts of the gospel that he did not really understand, so they took him aside and taught him the way of God more accurately. Apollos went on his way and became a great power for God.

Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned and commended by Paul eight times in his letters—more often than anyone else except Timothy, and in all but two instances Priscilla’s name is mentioned first although that was contrary to the custom of that day (and ours!) It probably indicates that when Paul thought of them, he thought of her first, which may indicate that she was the stronger leader of the two. She was at very least Aquila’s equal. In Romans 16, when Paul is sending greeting to many people, Priscilla and Aquila lead the list and he says, "They worked with me in Christ Jesus, and risked their necks for my life, to whom, not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house." Priscilla and Aquila were then back in Rome and on task starting churches wherever they went. They could hardly have done what they did if Priscilla was to be silent and not to teach all who came.

And then there is Phoebe, who is mentioned in Romans 16:1 as a "deacon" in the church of Cenchrea. It is usually assumed that she was the one who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans from Greece to Rome. It was a hazardous, difficult journey across the stormy Mediterranean by ship, and then up 100 miles from Puteoli to Rome by caravan and foot. This must have been a strong woman (both physically and spiritually) that Paul trusted to make this journey and carry this important letter. Except in a few recent translations, the word "deacon" in reference to Phoebe, is translated some other way ("servant") in KJV, "deaconess" in others, etc. However, Paul describes her with the same word that he uses to describe himself, Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Timothy—where it is always translated "deacon." Whatever Phoebe did in Cenchrea must have been important, for Paul says she was a benefactor of many, including himself. It doesn’t sound as if she were a silent woman who never took leadership!

There are others. Lois and Eunice are listed in I Timothy as the Christian grandmother and mother of Timothy—Paul’s very favorite disciple. When there was a tough situation, Paul sent Timothy to handle it—even though Timothy was younger than most of the other leaders in the churches. Paul sent Timothy to the very difficult church of Ephesus when, near the end of Paul’s life, that church was having lots of troubles. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, "Continue in what you have learned and firmly believe, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you through faith in Christ Jesus."

Who taught this strong young man in the faith "from childhood"? Obviously his Christian mother and grandmother. (Acts tells us that his father was a Greek and apparently not a believer—he is never mentioned again.)

There are other illustrations—ten women are mentioned in Paul’s greetings to the Christians in Romans 16. Paul had never been to Rome when he wrote that letter, but he had heard about these people and their work for God. He describes the women with the same terms as he greets the nineteen men.

Please note also, that in the three letters where Paul talks about the "gifts" that God has given to the church for its edification, there is never any distinction between the gifts God gives women and those God gives men (Romans 12, I Cor. 12 Ephesians4). If Paul thought that some gifts were strictly for men and not women, would he not have somehow arranged those lists so that was obvious?

So if Paul was not sexist in his activities, and I think it is obvious from all accounts that he was not, why did he write those few references that make him sound like a male chauvinist?

Paul was a very wise man whose passion was to see the gospel go forward in all the known world. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen—most Christians were not.

In the Roman empire everyone (with the exception of Jews who got a special dispensation) was expected to acknowledge the emperor as a god. Most people in the time of the early church had many gods in addition to Caesar—and that was considered o.k. so long as they acknowledged Caesar. Paul knew the church could prosper better if it kept a relatively low profile—not drawing unnecessary attention to the Greek customs that the Christians did not observe and that would make them look like some sect of weirdos.

Most of Paul’s letters in the NT are originally written to churches that faced some particular problem and he was trying to help them work through it.

I Corinthians was clearly a letter written by Paul to a church that had a lot of troubles: a) divided loyalties—some said they followed Paul, some Peter, some Apollos, some Christ; b) sexual immorality among members; c) people taking each other to court d) eating meat offered to idols; e) order in worship services, and others. We have a lot of the same problems.

Every culture has its own ideas of proper decorum in worship. And in the early church Paul had the added problem of trying to make it possible for Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles to worship together. Something like our problems of combining black and white churches.

Like us, those Christians had strong ideas of proper dress, hairstyle, worship style, etc. Add to that the cultural attitudes about differences between the way men and women should act in worship.

In I Corinthians 11, Paul tells men that they should pray and prophesy in church with their heads uncovered. Why, I frankly don’t know, but we recognize that even today it is not usually considered good manners for men to wear hats in church. He says women should have something on their heads when they pray and prophesy in church. Again, I don’t know why, but it probably had something to do with what was considered proper in that society. But please note that women were to pray and prophesy in church services, but they should follow the accepted good manners of that time. The 11th chapter has lots of references to cultural patterns that we do not understand.

Remember, Paul was trying to keep the early church from getting in trouble with the Roman government and the rest of the Gentiles and the Jews he was trying to reach. He wanted nothing to hinder the message of the gospel from going out.

It is in this same letter that the phrase "women should be silent in the church" appears. There are many possible explanations of that. But it is sufficient for me to know that Paul could not possible have meant that literally since he had just explained how women could and should pray and prophesy in public gatherings. In the same 14th chapter Paul explains how important the gift of prophecy is in evangelism and in teaching. We need to read all of this recognizing that Paul is speaking to a first century situation in a particular town.

Let’s look at the next well-known quote of Paul’s—the one most often given to "prove" that women are not to be leaders (especially pastors) in a church. I Tim. 2:11, 12. "Let a women learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man." A number of books and articles have been written on this passage recently with many viewpoints presented.

We need to be reminded that we dare not read anything in the Bible apart from its literary and cultural and historical context. The old line is true, "A text without its context is pretext."

Remember that Paul wrote this as a personal letter to Timothy, his loyal disciple who is trying to bring order to the difficult church in Ephesus. This is not written to the church (as the letter to Ephesians is.) It is an intimate letter in which Paul tries to help Timothy with some of the problems he knows he is having. The basic thrust of the letter is false teaching that is rampant in the area. The first chapter talks at length about wrong doctrine, myths, endless genealogies, and those who have shipwrecked the faith.

Ephesus was a very difficult city in which to work and preach. It was the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis—the fertility goddess of all Asia. The temple to Artemis in Ephesus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Actually, the emphasis in the passage seems to be on the importance of women learning. In that culture, women did not have the same educational opportunities as men. Realistically, it has only been in the last 100 years that women in United States began to get opportunities for higher education. So Paul’s statement that women should learn is very forward-looking for his time. And since this is followed immediately by the statement, "I am not permitting a women to teach or have authority over a man" it is possible that these uneducated women were taking a teaching role for which they were not prepared.

The reference to Adam being formed before Eve is hard to understand but it is possible that Paul was refuting one of the wild myths circulating in Ephesus—maybe by these very women who, Paul said, should learn before they teach.

Would Timothy think Paul was talking about all women of all time? Probably not. No doubt Timothy knew all about Priscilla and Aquila and the part they had played in teaching Apollos in this very town of Ephesus! In Paul’s last letter to Timothy before his death, Paul tells Timothy to greet Priscilla and Aquila. They are apparently back in Ephesus to give whatever help they can to Timothy.

That leaves one more often quoted passage—Ephesians 5:22 "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord." That is pretty clear, isn’t it? Yes, except that it must be read with the preceding verse: "Submit to one another our of reverence for Christ." Submission is a part of the life of every believer—male and female.

The law and culture of that time was clearly that of patriarchy—men being in charge. This was written to that church in Ephesus, a powerful city. I think Paul is just telling wives to go along with the culture for the sake of Christ. But he turns it all over by telling husbands they also had to be submissive for the sake of Christ. And then he says that husbands are to be totally self-giving to their wives—to love then as Christ loved the church when he gave himself up for us all! What an assignment.

Let’s note, too, that Paul said he was really speaking of Christ and the church, and just using marriage as an example of the oneness that believers should have with each other and with Christ.

Actually, the only place where Paul talks exclusively about marriage is I Corinthians 7—and we rarely hear that discussed. In I Corinthians 7, Paul gives instructions to husbands and wives regarding sex, about keeping the marriage together, about winning unsaved spouses to the Lord, and some other things. He gives exactly the same instructions to husbands and to wives. They are both equally responsible in all these areas. This important chapter that is so rarely discussed has nothing about husbands being in charge and wives being secondary.

So did Paul practice what he actually preached? He surely did. But what we have been told he preached is often a misunderstanding caused by selective literalism and failure to read those selected verses in the light of the historical cultural situation of Paul’s time, and what Paul himself did. I think Paul has gotten a bum rap, and I would like to see him restored to his place as a champion of all believers and their service for God. He was a true follower of Jesus, as all of us want to be.

I’m so glad that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, bond or free. We are all one in Christ. Let’s all try to live what we believe.