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This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. Others criticise him for the parallel reasons, seeing him as oppressive of women, gays and others. Indeed he is sometimes regarded as radically altering the faith Jesus founded, replacing freedom in Christ with rule-based religion.
Neither view, I will argue, is fair to Paul, to the radical transformation he underwent, or to the contradictions with which he wrestled — personally, theologically and as a leader of a growing movement. A complex figure, Paul first appears in the Acts of the Apostles as Saul of Tarsus, a young religious fanatic who tries to stamp out Christianity by violence.
After a dramatic conversion experience in which he encounters Christ, he becomes a Christian himself and, while Jewish himself, focuses on bringing the good news to other peoples. His influence on the church has been profound. Jouette M Basler suggests that, while 2 Thessalonians and Colossians could possibly have been by Paul, there is overwhelming evidence that Ephesians, Timothy and Titus were not. Difference in authorship explains some of the contradictions which have puzzled many readers, though other differences arise from the range of specific problems he was addressing, and the nature of the Wisdom tradition which helped to shape his approach.
The name of Solomon — the scholar-king with wide knowledge of natural history 1 Kings 4. Through observation, experience, learning and reflection, this tradition sought a deeper understanding of the universe, how God is at work in it and how people ought to live. Some passages in the Wisdom books are subjective for instance the lament in Psalm 55 at betrayal by a friend and the sense of futility in Ecclesiastes 2 , or are based on outmoded knowledge. However an illustration based on flawed science does not necessarily invalidate an argument.
Indeed people in the twenty-first century have much to learn from those in earlier eras who, without modern scientific equipment, found out so much about the workings of the universe and, without computers or even printing, sought knowledge so diligently and made efforts to communicate it widely.
And it is useful to remember that, to many even in the ancient world, religion was not seen as solely a matter of revelation detached from reason. In Acts 17, Paul is portrayed sharing the good news in radically different contexts — with a mainly Jewish audience in Thessalonica, then Beroea, and later with Gentiles in Athens. So Paul drew creatively on the Hebrew Bible, reinterpreting it in the light of new experience. Instead he entered into debate with philosophers and accepted an invitation to the Areopagus named after the god Ares.
So he was able to affirm and build on what was positive in their culture, while challenging aspects which he believed alienated them from the living God. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. When considering what Paul said and wrote on particular topics, it is instructive to take of his wider approach of seeking to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, how God was and is at work, including in the lives of believers.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wrote on marriage in terms of mutuality. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11 he declared:. I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head… a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.
In which case Paul is here citing the Genesis of woman being created out of the rib of a man — itself meant as an alternative to violent Mesopotamian myths that required the destruction of the feminine as the condition for creation — and stretching it into an argument about propriety and church order.
There may be something in this, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul ends up with a depiction which is inherently subordinationist, even if this is not the intention. There are strong cultural factors at work here. He was concerned not to stoke the prejudice which Christians were already likely to face from those around them, as well as being swayed by the prejudices of the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of his day, in which gender distinctions and male dominance were heavily emphasised.
As in all the churches of the saints, 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 a woman to speak in church. It has been suggested that the practical concern he was addressing arose when women and men were sitting apart as customary in worship and wives called out to their husbands, disrupting the service.
It would seem likely that Paul experienced a tension between, on one hand, the freedom of a new community where barriers were broken down in Christ and roles determined charismatically and, on the other hand, the pressure of social and cultural expectations, as well as practical challenges. Far more evidence is now available of the suffering and waste resulting from sexual inequality and rigid gender roles, and the benefits to church and society as well as individual women of recognising their gifts.
Or, in the era of modern communication, search out the relevant journal articles or websites as well as listening to others in person before reaching firm conclusions. This is complicated by the fact that the modern concept of homosexual orientation was probably unknown in the ancient world, though of course some people engaged in sexual relationships with those of the same biological sex and might today have been regarded as LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
Ancient Jewish law forbade sex between men, a practice largely seen as associated with other, idolatrous nations, though not sex between women. The Greeks and Romans tended to approve of sex between males only if one was clearly socially inferior to the other e. In the Authorised King James version, 1 Corinthians 6. Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. This might indicate that Paul set the bar higher than Jesus, who was himself labelled as a glutton and drunkard by the religious leaders of his day Matthew However it is understandable that Paul would want to affirm the positive changes made by people ing the church and, like other Wisdom writers, encourage virtuous living. It is unclear what bearing 1 Corinthians has on equal relationships between adult men. Romans 1 possibly comes the closest to addressing what might be regarded today as homosexuality.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error…. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
So using the passage legalistically misses the point. It is also possible, though unlikely, that the passage alludes to lesbian sex. After all, it is not impossible for the direction of desire to be influenced by social ideals, e. The behaviour of some members of the Roman ruling class in the first century, including Emperor Nero and his family, would have given further credence to this belief.
However, in Romans, Paul questioned whether even those who worshipped one God were as righteous as they supposed. As has been pointed out in recent decades, Romans 1 does not appear to fit LGB people, partnered or otherwise, whose orientation has not arisen from idol-worship and who are no more prone to vices such as envy and malice than their heterosexual neighbours.
In addition, far more is known now about sexuality than two thousand years ago, for instance that same-sex acts or pair-bonding occur in many species. However how same-sex desire is perceived and expressed has varied considerably. As Paul sought out and learnt from the most plausible theories of his day, we would do well to do the same today. More positively for LGB people, at a time when there was heavy emphasis on procreation, and the single and childless risked being marginalised, Paul upheld the acceptability of being unmarried as Jesus had done , creating space for sexual minorities.
Though almost certainly celibate himself, he was also realistic about the fact that most people were not cut out for lifelong abstinence. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. However it is still an important practical point that partnership allows people to channel desire constructively. He thus prudently steered a path between the extremes of taking all sexual feelings at face value and suggesting that people could easily refrain from ever expressing their sexuality physically.
There is now extensive evidence that heterosexual marriages entered into by lesbian and gay people, though occasionally successful, are often tokenistic, short-lived or damaging to both partners; and that permanent celibacy works well for only for a minority of people, LGBT or heterosexual. In contrast, same-sex partnerships can be stable, joyful and a source of love which overspills to others in the community.
Other writings by Paul are indirectly relevant when wrestling with ethical issues linked with gender and sexuality. He made it clear that, in his view, moral conduct was not a matter of following arbitrary commands supposedly issued by God. In Romans 13, he wrote:. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love is not a sentimental notion: Paul writes at some length about what this might involve in practice e. In addition, he advocated — and strove to build — a community not fundamentally based on hierarchy or competitiveness, an approach that remains radical even today.
For instance he portrayed the church as a body with Christ as the head:. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
Thus exclusion of any comes at a cost to all. And, within this ethos, there is no reason to suppose that improving the status of women or LGBT people will necessarily result in reduced status for men and masculinity, or heterosexuals and heterosexual marriage. He also went to considerable lengths to challenge the marginalisation of converts and insistence that they adopt Jewish law to be fully included in Christian worship, to the point of challenging the main church leaders Galatians 2. Attitudes and measures that discourage some groups of people from ing, or fully participating in, the church should not be lightly adopted.
Likewise, in debates on sexuality, he is often quoted by those who regard same-sex partnerships as wrong, while others believe such passages are not relevant to committed and equal relationships today. Steeped in the Wisdom tradition, he set an example of grappling with difficult issues. The building of a community in which all are valued and brought to fullness of life, through the grace of Christ who died and rose again, is also of crucial importance, even if this involves challenging the seemingly important and self-righteous.
If indeed the refusal of full equality is demonstrably causing damage at both a personal and community level, we might be well advised to follow the advice in Sirach 4. A Catholic reading of Romans 1: [The author is a Catholic theologian and author. This essay was first published at Ekklesia. Used with permission. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.
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The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators. Search our Site. Using and misusing St. Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality. November 10, Episcopal Cafe. Who was Paul? In the words of Proverbs: Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?
Proverbs 8. Or who has been his counsellor? Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things… She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well. According to Sirach 1: Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity.
Thus the Christ to whom Christians are ed may be seen as an embodiment of divine Wisdom. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11 he declared: I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. In chapter 14 he went on to urge, in the context of avoiding disorderly worship: As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. In addition the authors of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and Titus urged female submission.
To quote the New Revised Standard Version NRSV : the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth… Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles… For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.
Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error… They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. He seems to refer to the theory in Wisdom about the origins of immorality: all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists… the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life… they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favours, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.
Wider principles and ethical trajectories Other writings by Paul are indirectly relevant when wrestling with ethical issues linked with gender and sexuality. In Romans 13, he wrote: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For instance he portrayed the church as a body with Christ as the head: just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Interested in ing our team?St paul women sex
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Paul the Apostle and women