Messianic Jewish Feminism: Reading Paul (Part 1)
There are many ways of reading Paul. The way he’s often quoted at women, you’d think he’s a chauvinist waiting with a stick to beat us over the head. Submit to your husband. Be silent. You can’t teach. Ask your husband at home. There are many frustrating prescriptions that are outdated and inapplicable (unless you want to be miserable while pretending it’s what God intended and you’re happy with your lot).
Christian churches and Messianic congregations have a variety of approaches to Pauline passages on women, ranging from egalitarian, complementarian, patriarchal to feminist interpretations of the same texts. In our experience, within one Messianic congregation you can see patriarchal interpretations of some texts and egalitarian interpretations of others; there is not a comprehensive or fully-systematic way Biblical authors are interpreted and applied.
While women are often considered secondary and supportive figures in the church/congregation, if you read Paul’s writings more closely, we see many reasons to believe that he viewed women as legitimate leaders in the church:
Women prayed and prophesied in Paul’s churches (1 Cor 11:4-5) and they had important leadership roles.
- In Romans 16, we see multiple women mentioned with important ministry roles.
Some people have said that Junia (v.7) was actually an apostle with great authority, so much so that the church later changed her name to the masculine form of Junius to appease those disturbed by the idea that she was such a respected woman.
Additionally, Romans 16 names Phoebe as some sort of “deaconess” who Paul entrusted with his letter to deliver to the Romans, showing she was also sent out as a representative of her congregation (v.1-2).
In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Chloe is mentioned and it seems she may have been leading and pastoring a congregation.
Priscilla is another woman referred to multiple times in Paul’s writings, alongside her husband. Her name was always given before her husband’s, which many believe indicates that she was the stronger or more respected leader, though she worked as a team with him.
One author from Charisma magazine takes a look at the Biblical basis for women having “apostolic authority,” citing many examples of women functioning in such roles in the early church, beginning with Mary Magdalene receiving the first “apostolic commission” to many others mentioned by Paul and the early church.
The reason Paul is often maligned by critics is due to a number of problematic passages. It’s important to note that of the 13 letters ascribed to Paul, only seven are strongly considered to be Pauline (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians). Many scholars consider it unlikely that he authored Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians, and nearly all scholars argue that 1 and 2 Timothy as well as Titus are not written by Paul.
However, whether he authored them or not, it’s important to remember that these letters are only half of a conversation; Paul often replied to letters he received. In other words, his letters are rarely summaries of his message or what he thinks is most important, but rather a way to discuss issues his communities were struggling with. The communities’ requests set the agenda for Paul’s letters.
In the next post we will address the problematic verses and ways that a number of faithful followers of Jesus interpret them