Paul gets a bad rap today, and often for reasons opposite to those he got one in the first century. In his own culture and addressing issues of his own time, Paul was among the more affirming voices regarding women. When people today read him anachronistically, though, they want him to speak as if he were speaking directly to the twenty-first century.
When Paul (on my view) wrote Ephesians, he certainly knew what offended his culture. He was in Roman custody, a prisoner of the empire. At the time, Christians constituted far less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the Roman empire. Rome mistrusted “eastern cults” such as Judaism and (as part of it) the Christian movement, suspecting that they undermined traditional Roman family values. Paul urges Christians to behave in ways honorable to their culture and consistent with Christian values. Like many ancient writers, he adopts a literary form that was originally designed to tell the male head of the house how to rule his wife, children, and slaves.
But Paul adapts the form, addressing also the wife, children and slaves and instructing the husband how to love his wife rather than how to rule her. After he invites slaves to submit for Christ’s sake, he urges slaveholders to (literally) “do the same things to them”—enjoining mutual submission for slaves. When he calls wives to submit, in Greek the word “submit” has to be borrowed from the preceding verse—where it calls for all believers to submit to one another. While careful not to provoke the culture’s values where unnecessary, Paul reframes them with Christian ethics: Jesus had taught all his followers to serve one another, and that the greatest is the one who serves. To my knowledge, of all ancient household codes (the literary form designed to instruct the male householder how to rule), only Paul’s begins and ends with an admonition to mutual submission (5:21; 6:9).
Scholars engage in lively debate today especially over the meaning of two passages that seem to require women’s silence in church. It is helpful to remember, however, that in Paul’s day, women teaching men was barely ever tolerated outside some smaller radical philosophic sects. In both debated passages, Paul urges women to learn—the element that was countercultural in his own day. That they should learn “quietly” was standard practice for all new learners.
Less controversial are passages where Paul greets and respectfully affirms friends and colleagues of both genders for what they are doing for the Lord (Romans 16:1-7; cf. Phil 4:2-3)—especially in two of the places in the empire (Rome and Philippi) where women had the most freedoms. When he speaks of believers as Christ’s body, he emphasizes the value of the gifts God has given each of us, without limiting these to one gender. While upholding polite culture’s requirement that wives cover their hair in public as a sign of sexual modesty (1 Cor 11:2-16), Paul notes mutual dependence of the genders (11:11-12; cf. 7:2-4) and welcomes women to pray and even prophesy God’s message in the assembly (11:5).
If we don’t want to read Paul anachronistically and thus ethnocentrically, we should recognize what he accomplished in the world in which he ministered. He not only made faith in the one true God more widely available to non-Jews, he actually advanced the role of women. He might have written differently in a different cultural setting, so it is unfair to charge him with being sexist.
Craig S. Keener, PhD. is the F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Professor Keener's recommended further reading:
Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul
Two Views on Women in Ministry