• Jim Coppoc

Did Paul Silence Women?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

-Paul, the Apostle (I Cor. 14:34-35, NRSV)

A friend, whose mind I respect, recently told me he will never be Christian. Like me, he was wounded by a conservative Evangelical church as a child. Like me, he turned away from the Church because he had to. Unlike me, he will never walk that Damascan road back.

Although I'm sure he has many reasons, what was on his mind in that conversation was Paul. My friend cannot be part of a religion that excludes women, silences their voice, and makes them a separate, second class. And I don't blame him. I have wrestled with Paul too.

When someone tells you they have been wounded by the Church, it is not the time to make a nuanced, theological defense, and it is certainly not the time for a kneejerk "not all Christians" response. But I do have Paul on my heart tonight, especially the passage quoted above, and I have to share my thoughts with someone. So here goes...


Paul is not Jesus. If Christians really do want to follow Christ, they should privilege Christ's egalitarian views of women over the more recent, chauvinistic interpretation of Paul. In a broader sense, too, Christ commanded that all laws and traditions be viewed through the lens of love. As Paul himself said, among other things, love is not "arrogant" (1 Cor. 13:4, NRSV), nor does it "insist on its own way" (13:5). This says a lot about the stance Paul would have taken on this issue had his loving discourse with the church at Corinth taken place in the year 2019.


Contrary to the way modern Evangelicals view his teaching, Paul did not pretend to have all the answers. Although sometimes he did boast of having been sent by God (see, e.g., Gal 1:1), Paul clearly stated his opinions on many subjects were his own, and not the word of God (see 1 Cor. 7:10-12; cf. 1 Cor 7:25, 7:40, 2 Cor. 8:8-10, 11:17). He was also very open about not completely understanding prophecy or knowledge himself (1 Cor. 13:12; cf. Rom. 11:34).


Although evangelicals are fond of quoting certain "clobber passages" from Paul's writing to demand women be silenced and submissive to men (e.g. I Cor. 14:33-35), they nearly always omit the fact that Paul also contradicted these passages many times. On the most fundamental level, Paul's claim in Galatians 3:28 that there is no "male or female" in Christ's church not only places women on equal footing with men, but also literally erases any difference among the sexes in Christ. And three chapters before the most famous verse where Paul stated a woman may not speak in church ( 1 Cor. 14:34), there is another verse contemplating exactly that (1 Cor. 11:5), albeit with her head covered.


Evangelical interpretations of Paul lean very heavily on glittering generalities, but almost always neglect the way Paul spoke of real, concrete, actual human women who existed in his time. Take, for example, the epilogue to Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which he calls out and commends a number of women. The first person, male or female, Paul commends is "our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae" (Rom. 16:1, NRSV). He also greets the apostle Junia as one of "my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners" (16:7), stating "they were in Christ before me" (id.); the missionary Prisca (16:3); and several other prominent women in the early church. Nowhere in this passage does Paul indicate the women he greets and commends are in any way inferior to the men whose names lie next to them.


Cognitive bias can turn any Biblical passage into a mirror of the reader's own fears and preconceptions. We see what we want to see. Christian writer Anne Lamott summed it up well when she wrote, "you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."

Was Paul a misogynist? In light of 21st century understandings of sex and gender, his 1st century patriarchal worldview probably earns him that label. But in his own era, Paul was a conflicted but earnest Christian man, doing his best to lead a fledgling religious movement bound to the times he found himself in. And he was deeply reverential of the actual women in his orbit. Modern feminist scholarship has called into question many of the conservative evangelical traditions surrounding Paul, and some have even gone much further than I have here in redeeming his message, but I think all can agree that Paul was no enemy to the actual female deacons, apostles, missionaries and others of his time.