Paul Gives Me Grief

by Wren Bouwman | March 25, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!        

I was introduced to the conflict of Paul’s letters during premarital counseling. “Wives, submit to your husband” (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18), I was told. “Your husband should lead you in the right direction and protect your spiritual growth.” The burden placed on my husband’s shoulders was emphasized repeatedly, as was my role as cheerleader. “You were designed to be his helper.” While my husband and I were put off by these verses and their application, we soon brushed them off as minor qualms and moved on to more important things like flowers and vows.

As we continued to participate in studies, however, it became evident that our church relied on these gendered roles. The man led the household and, since the church was a family of families, men led the Church. Scripture was thrown at every challenge, reminding women, “the woman was deceived first and became a sinner” (1 Tim. 2:14) and “I do not permit a woman to speak” (1 Tim. 2:12). The weight of these verses pulled at my husband and me. At first, we played along in the hope that we would eventually understand. As time passed, we became more and more fed up with the answers we were given to questions like “is there a biblical definition of masculinity” and “what makes women incapable of guarding their own spiritual wellbeing,” so we set to work trying to prove the opposition wrong. Our faith was fraying at the edges as we were told that God designed women to be “different” (and, consequently, without agency) while our hearts promised a loving creator. We found our church at odds with our experiential reality, and we were determined to find the God who loved their children and not just their sons.

What followed was a struggle akin to the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, as we searched to find hope in this daunting dogma.

Denial

First, we poured over concordances and scientific studies, searching for every shred of evidence to prove that Paul didn’t actually say these things. “This concordance says ‘submit’ can mean compromise, but I can’t find a source for it,” I would call out. “Here’s more about the lack of biological gender differences,” my husband would respond.

We touched on many good leads during those first weeks, but every step forward was met with denial and more questions. When we found cultural context to Paul’s letters, we were told that the Bible transcends culture. When we found an alternative definition, we were either “quarreling over words” or those definitions were scattered and inconsistent. I had come to my first crossroads: continue to deny that Paul gave commands based on gender or start asking why.

Anger

Once I believed that the verse translations were accurate, I felt angry. I was angry I didn’t know about these verses sooner. I was angry that my church thought I was somehow more prone to deception than male churchgoers who post conspiracy theories on Facebook. I was angry that my gender had been weaponized against me. I was angry that a God who loved me and made me in their image would make me less than others. What I realized as I raged was this: there cannot be “separate but equal” gender roles when women are limited and men are not. Bible verses are not used to stop men from doting on their children or organizing a potluck. They are used to stop women from speaking from a pulpit and pursuing a career. Every time I was told about the beautiful (but different!) tasks set out for me because of chromosomes, I was actually being put in a box. If the Bible truly called for women to be exclusively homemakers and nurturers and men to be workers and disciplinarians, we would have scripture that holds men back from tasks that are perceived as feminine. Instead, restrictions were placed solely on women.

When a man would bring a study to share with a group, it was heralded as a teaching, while my own studies were called “thought exercises.” I watched mothers miss entire services to change diapers and care for children, while their husbands engaged with the sermons. The Bible was being used as a weapon to limit me and other women from teaching and decision-making, which seemed to contradict our experiential relationship with the Holy Spirit.

My husband and I began to question our church leaders, and the more we pushed the angrier I became. Repeatedly, I was reminded that, as a woman, I was too trusting and that made me dangerous. I needed a man to protect me or I might believe something that wasn’t true. I was pitied for doubting Paul and scolded for not trusting Scripture. My faith and my relationships were crumbling as I questioned every action and scripture that led me to God’s love.

Bargaining

In my anger with Paul, I started seeking out reasons not to trust him. Who was this false teacher and what gave him the right to regulate my gifts? It became a habit to start bargaining with God over Paul. “I’ll keep Galatians,” I would say. “But you have to take back 1 Timothy because Paul might not have even written it.” I continued to plead with God over every argument. I challenged God on the historical Adam, on the nature of sin, on the purpose of family and relationships. I begged God for clarity, offering that if God would just make it really clear I was supposed to submit, then I would.

Surprisingly, a voice did not echo from the heavens telling me to either throw out 1 Timothy or to just submit to my husband. The outcome was, instead, a swift deconstruction of my faith. The more I pulled at Scripture, the more bricks came loose. The issue with dismissing parts of Scripture is that it forces you to look at the rest of Scripture through the same lens. If I can throw out 1 Timothy, why can’t I throw out the rape and genocide in the Old Testament? I haggled over every book and Sunday-school story with God, trying to leverage my faith with a more palatable Holy Book

In the walls that contained my faith, I pulled out all the “Paul” bricks and a few “Joshua” and “Kings” bricks for good measure, evening out the empty spaces and trading them in for a “just Jesus” mentality until there was nothing left of my faith except a vague feeling that the Hebrew God was probably the real God.

Depression

The problem with deconstructing is that, at some point, you end up sitting among the rubble of your beliefs, scattered and uncertain how to rebuild. When I lost faith in Paul, I began to worry I was losing faith in God. I had deserted the Scriptures, lost respect for my leaders, and I was scared I had started a process I couldn’t finish. I felt like I had tried to clean the house by tearing everything out the closets, and now I faced the daunting task of sorting everything into “keep” and “toss” piles

I lost many hours of sleep blaming Paul for my doubt. If Paul really said these things, if my church believed them, how could I tell my friends about Jesus? How could I invite my loved ones to join me at the table when they might be told that God made women less than men? I struggled to see a point in having faith. If my purpose was to make disciples, I was set to fail.

I began devouring books and blog posts, digging at the rubble in search of a foundation. The beautiful thing, the thing that makes deconstructing worth it, is finding that foundation. As I wallowed in doubt and worried I was losing my faith, I was reminded of Jesus. Jesus, who taught me to love others, who laughed, who wept, and who helped people. Jesus, who died so that I could spend eternity with him. I was reminded that even in my doubting, I never doubted Christ. So, I started building back up from my foundation.

Acceptance

As a member of an epistle-focused church, it had been a long time since I had read the Gospels. But, as I scrambled to pick up the bricks of my faith through Rachel Held Evans books and issues of Priscilla Papers, I was reminded of the women in Jesus’ ministry (Luke 10:38–42). Mary, a woman, learned at the feet of Jesus. I met women who were the first witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection and, consequently, became the apostles to the apostles (Luke 24:1–12). It was women who took Jesus into their homes and funded his travel. These women traveled with Jesus alongside the twelve, witnessing Christ’s miracles and hearing his parables, too. Jesus loved these women and taught them. He never said in the Great Commission, “Men, go make disciples of all nations. Women, prepare a hot meal for them when they return.” He gave us all an equal task to do.

In my search to reconcile Paul with Jesus, I stumbled onto descriptions of the Roman social order, pater familias, which prohibited women from owning property or making any legal decisions. I learned about Aristotle’s own household codes, laid out in Aristotle’s Politics: Book 1, XII, which call for husbands to dominate their wives. I read about the cult of Artemis, which boasted out-spoken priestesses that might have distorted the gospel. I discovered Jewish rebellions and distrust that made the Roman world a dangerous place for the followers of the Hebrew God.

Each new discovery became a brick for me to hesitantly place. I learned the early church was in danger of being branded an extremist cult or a rebellion that needed to be quelled. With this lens, Paul’s writing becomes a twist of what would have been familiar ideas to his audience. Where his readers expected husbands to rule over their wives, slaves to be without rights, the spiritually weak to be cast out, Paul called for care, humanity, and learning. The divisions caused by class, ethnicity, and gender were gone in the eyes of Christ, but Caesar still enforced them. Paul, who loved Christ but lived under Caesar, was charged with growing the seeds of Christianity in hostile soil. He found a way to break the inequities of the world from the inside, a task that we should be continuing in our churches today. We are so often told to be “in the world, but not of it,” but what we forget is that Paul was also in the world. Affected by the time and culture, he fought to bring Jesus to people within the rules of his society. Paul’s bricks fit better this time, as I placed them back into my faith. They aren’t as simple, and some of them still don’t fit quite right, but he has a place there, reminding me to love Jesus in the time and place in which I exist.

Accepting the grief Paul caused helped me accept the humanity of Scripture, and my place in it. While I can’t know Paul’s mind, I believe his letters transcend his time and speak to the real-world application of Jesus’s teaching. They point toward progress; they point toward a new kingdom. We cannot correct every injustice but, just as Paul did, we can take steps forward. My own walls are far from rebuilt. There are still holes where I have questions and bricks that I will later find crumble just as easily as the old ones of patriarchy and oppression. However, these walls are still stronger than they were before. My process has not only equipped me to keep rebuilding, but it has also made me more prepared for when things fall apart. There is nothing easy about deconstructing those walls of faith but, just as the stages of grief are a natural process to come to a greater understanding, every brick that falls and is replaced is a natural part of coming to love the God who loves us all equally.

This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Find more winning entries from CBE's 2020 writing contest here.