Paul and Women

By Mary Jane Chaignot


Did Paul really put down women? Many of my friends say he did and they come back with passages that sound like it. But for some reason, I don’t think he did. What can I say?


Paul writes, “In Christ there is neither male nor female.” That’s a pretty awesome statement, written for the Galatians (3:28). And it stands in stark contrast to some of the statements we read in 1 Corinthians: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1). “The head of every man is Christ; the head of a woman is man” (11:3). “Man is the image and glory of God, and the woman is the glory of man” (11:11). “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.” (14:34-35) To many modern-day women, these all sound outrageous.

The problem is that all these verses have been taken totally out of context. And because the scholars agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, they carry a lot of weight. So scholars are studying them IN context. Some have begun looking at the Corinthian church, which was comprised of a very diverse group of people—master and slave, male and female, wealthy and poor. Paul’s task is to have this group work together as one, as the body of Christ, doing everything for the edification of the group.

The Corinthian group wrote to him, and so he’s responding to their letter. The first statement about “not touching a woman” is a quote from their letter to Paul. Paul is quoting it back to them. It immediately follows a series of examples about male immorality. It is even possible that the women wrote this sentence. It is the women who are taking Paul’s words to heart and want to devote their lives to serving God. So they are flexing their freedom and insisting on chastity. The men have been so frustrated that they have been looking for pleasure outside of their marriages. Paul continues with a very balanced approach to marriage. The duties of a wife are the same for the husband. Whatever is expected of the wife is also expected of the husband. Male/female relationships are in flux.

Likewise, in the other passages, context makes a difference. Regarding the one about women being silent in church, scholars explain that it is most likely Paul is speaking ironically and is actually arguing against silencing women based on the questions which he asks at the end of the section: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (14:36). The way that “you” is written, Paul is addressing the males, who are the ones who think the word of God rests with them. Given the tone of the entire book, it is obvious that the males have much to learn.

There’s one more thing to point out that we simply would never know from an English translation. Between the end of verse 35 and the beginning of verse 36 is a tiny little Greek particle. It’s one letter with a hash mark on top. In 1886, the author of the English-Greek lexicon said that when this little particle is between two sentences, it means that they contradict each other. And he used 1 Cor. 14:36 as an example of this. Because of that particle, verse 36 contradicts verses 34, 35. For a century, his comment was basically ignored. But recently, scholars have been taking it seriously and asking what would it mean if these two sentences contradict each other. Boiled down, it means that verses 34-35 about women not speaking in church aren’t Paul’s decree; they are statements that he disagrees with. Paul is really mocking the males here. Women are praying and prophesying and ought to be able to speak in church.

And this is consistent with what Paul has been saying through this entire letter/book—trying to empower the weaker members, preaching against ideas of superiority, and advocating for a church that values everyone and builds each other up. And he finishes by saying, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy…. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:39, 40). That “sisters” there means women. He just told women they should be “eager to prophesy,” encouraging them to talk!

The sad thing is that despite scholars’ best interpretations, many others take the words out of context and at face value. But if something seems wrong, it probably is, and a little extra effort will oftentimes bring clarity to passages that put down a whole class of people. The message of the Bible is for everyone.