Three influential factors that led me out of complementary/patriarchal theology: the racism inherent in allowing white women to teach BIPOC men overseas but not white men in our own churches, the wake of devastation left in my own church from the vacuum of female leadership, and…the teachings of Paul.
When my husband and I first began to question the complementarian theology of our church, we were trying to understand how egalitarians interpreted the passages complementarians used to prop up their theology. One of the more frustrating and disorienting problems we kept running into as we tried to wrestle with different viewpoints was the constant referencing to the original Greek by both sides. Both claimed the Greek perfectly supported their positions. Since neither my husband nor I had the slightest understanding of Greek beyond the letters of our friends’ fraternities and sororities, we had no idea who to believe. And if understanding the Bible depended on Greek expertise, it made the whole English Bible feel untrustworthy. BUT before we came to any decisive conclusions about what the Bible taught regarding women in ministry, we did decide to leave our church of almost a decade because, even if we didn’t understand everything else, we had become convinced through the actions of our church that they did not love women, regardless of what they claimed to believe. At the time, I still considered myself comp, but because I had the audacity to question the all-male leadership for their handling of several situations that crushed my friends, my church labeled me “contrary.” Author Jan Owen captured my pain when she reflected, “I would have given the church my heart and life, but she would not have me.”
One of the first things I did after we left was read through the entirety of Paul’s writings. In the past, I always zoomed in. I read all of Paul through the lens of a few verses that had been preached at me since childhood (1 Tim 2:12, 1 Cor 14:34-36). This time, I tried to approach his writings as a believer receiving them for the first time. I zoomed out. You know what happened? I fell in love with Paul. Paul’s love of Jesus bled off the pages. Paul’s greatest desire was for everyone to know the power of the cross, to know the Jesus he knew—a God that gave up power to humbly live and die in the flesh to empower us with the Spirit to love God and love others. You don’t have to parse the Greek to realize Paul would be horrified by anyone weaponizing his teachings to draw hard doctrinal lines excluding people from the message of the cross. In fact, if you’re parsing the Greek to force your cultural practices and traditions on others, you’ve missed the entire point of Paul’s letters. You’ve become the very thing Paul was so passionately fighting against—the law of death.
The whole book of Galatians strongly illustrates Paul’s passion to free people from the curse of the law:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”Galatians 3:10-12
But it’s not just in Galatians that Paul expresses disdain for life under the law and celebrates life in the Spirit. It’s everywhere. In every. single. letter. (Also, it’s easy for modern readers to gloss over lists of names, but the names of Paul’s co-workers, many of them women, are scattered generously throughout his letters. See Romans 16 for a concentration of female names.) Like Jesus, Paul did not desire to use a top-down force of power to make God known, but the bottom-up transformative power of love. Paul did not advocate to topple oppressive systems of slavery and patriarchy through brute force and legislated law, but to turn the hearts of the oppressors to a God who washed feet like a slave and laid down his life on a cross. To change hearts through the power of love, Paul understood that cultural context mattered. That’s why he took time to write many letters instead of one generic letter to the universal church – he wrote specific instructions to specific people in a specific time period. He was passionately opposed to circumcision for gentiles, but circumcised Timothy, who ministered to Jewish populations. Paul’s heart was to free people from the legalism of the law, but he understood that in order to do this, he needed to lovingly meet people in their cultural context:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul’s only concern was that people knew the Jesus he knew, a God that was willing to give up all authority, power, and position, to live on earth and die on a cross.
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.1 Corinthians 2:1-2
Paul didn’t care if a person was circumcised or uncircumcised, ate pork or lamb, wore their hair long or short, UNLESS it impeded a person’s ability to communicate the gospel message effectively.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.Romans 14:17-22
In the Christian tradition in which I was raised, it was common to judge the Pharisees for their long lists of laws to honor the Sabbath. When I see people making lists of what women can and can’t do in the church, splitting hairs about the meaning of the word “elder”, or arguing if reading a book written by a woman is the same as listening to a woman standing behind a pulpit, I shake my head at the irony. When I read Paul in his entirety, his heart was to free people from the trappings of the law, not to burden them with more laws:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1
The beauty of the Christian faith is that our salvation is not based on our obedience to the letter of the law. If it were, it would be imperative for us to know the law in the original language to ensure that we do not deter from it. Jesus came to free us from the burden of the law. He hints at this in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”John 4:19-24
Jesus came to free us from the burden of the letter of the law and empower us to carry out the Spirit of the Law, which is Love.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22:37-40
The very fact that the New Testament is written in Greek instead of Hebrew speaks to this reality. God’s plan was never for us all to become Hebrew-speaking Jews, but through the Jewish people he planned on bringing salvation to the whole world. In his glimpse of the future in Revelation, John reveals,
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”Revelation 7:9-10
There’s absolutely a place for biblical scholarship, but knowing ancient Hebrew and Greek is not necessary to knowing God. The Bible as we know it didn’t even exist until hundreds of years after Jesus ascended, and many people and cultures have come to faith without full access to the Bible in their own language.
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that our English translations are trustworthy enough to enable us to love God in spirit and truth and love our neighbor as ourselves. And women are invited to the banquet as full participants. Paul reminds men and women of Jesus’ call to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). Paul understood Jesus was calling all people, women and men, to humble service when he wrote: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Only after his call to mutual submission does Paul specifically exhort wives to submit and husbands to love. Nowhere in the New Testament does it state, “women submit, men lead.” When the church corrupts the Christian message of mutual love and submission (in marriage or in the church) into “lead and submit,” love is lost. Paul called men to love as Christ loved the church, to lay down their power and share it, as Christ shares his power with the church, both his Bride and Co-Heir:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.Romans 8:14-17
Paul desired for all to know Christ and share in his glory. Do I fully understand what Paul meant when he wrote, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”? (1 Tim 2:12). I do not. I take it as seriously as I do his admonishment immediately prior for women to avoid “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (2:9), and I’ve already covered what drove Paul’s opinions about hairstyles. I’m confident Paul would be appalled to see the way his letters have become the letter of the law to restrict half of the human race from fully expressing the gifts of the Spirit. We’ve missed the forest for the trees. Over and over and over again, Paul calls Christians to live by the Spirit, not the death of the letter:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Corinthians 3:6
Jesus said, “Follow me” (Mk 1:17). We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, men and women, who followed Jesus to the cross and life beyond. They cheer us on as we each run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. I’m thankful Paul finished the race and kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7). His witness helped lead me out of patriarchal theology and closer to Jesus.
Though it’s no longer so important to me what Paul did or didn’t mean in one verse because I better understand the overall purpose of his letters, I highly recommend the work of Marg Mowczko. Her scholarship has played an important role in my journey out of patriarchal theology. Check out her site:
Title image is Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (attributed to Valentin de Boulogne)
Age of Patriarchy: Desire of Woman & Rule of Man – The Hebrew word desire only occurs three times in Old Testament – I explore the significance of the man’s desire in Song of Songs 7:10 echoing the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16.
Different AND Equal: One Woman’s Journey from Complementarian to Egalitarian – I often ask myself why I avoided wrestling with egalitarian theology for so long. I’ve concluded it’s a weird stew of several factors: a desire to be objective, a rejection of secular white feminism, a result of my circumstances, a propensity towards self-flagellation, and a fear of becoming a feminazi.
Patriarchy: Porn & Purity Culture – a reflection on my complex history with purity culture
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