Paul was part of an early Christian world in which some Church leaders were women. Opponents believe he forbade women to exercise power in church.
As an authority on life in the earliest Christian communities, Paul is unsurpassed. He was a key figure in the first Churches spreading outside the Holy Land.
His letters to early Christians were reverently collected to form a major part of the New Testament - though they are preoccupied with local disputes and organisational matters and often angry.
Paul often affirmed the ministry of women despite the gender prejudices of his culture. With a few exceptions (some women philosophers), advanced education was a male domain. Because most people in Mediterranean antiquity were functionally illiterate, those who could read and speak well generally assumed teaching roles, and–with rare exceptions–these were men.7 In the first centuries of our era, most Jewish men–like Philo, Josephus, and many later rabbis–reflected the prejudice of much of the broader Greco-Roman culture.8
Women’s roles varied from one region to another, but Paul’s writings clearly rank him among the more progressive, not the more chauvinistic, writers of his day. Many of Paul’s colaborers in the gospel were women.
Paul commended the ministry of a woman who brought his letter to the Roman Christians (Romans 16:1,2). Phoebe was a servant of the church at Cenchrea. "Servant" may refer to a deacon, a term that sometimes designated administrative responsibility in the Early Church. In his epistles, however, Paul most frequently applied the term to any minister of God’s Word, including himself (1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21). He also called Phoebe a "succorer" or "helper" of many (Romans 16:2); this term technically designated her as the church’s patron or sponsor, most likely the owner of the home in which the church at Cenchrea was meeting. This entitled her to a position of honor in the church.9
Phoebe was not the only influential woman in the church. Whereas Paul greeted about twice as many men as women in Romans 16, he commended the ministries of about twice as many women as men in that list. (Some use the predominance of male ministers in the Bible against women in ministry, but that argument could work against men’s ministry in this passage.) These commendations may indicate his sensitivity to the opposition women undoubtedly faced for their ministry and are remarkable, given the prejudice against women’s ministry that existed in Paul’s culture.
If Paul followed ancient custom when he praised Priscilla, he may have mentioned her before her husband Aquila because of her higher status (Romans 16:3,4). Elsewhere we learn that she and her husband taught Scripture to another minister, Apollos (Acts 18:26). Paul also listed two fellow apostles, Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Although Junia is clearly a feminine name, writers opposed to the possibility that Paul could have referred to a female apostle,10 suggest that Junia is a contraction for the masculine Junianus. This contraction, however, never occurs, and more recently has been shown to be grammatically impossible for a Latin name like Junia. This suggestion rests not on the text itself, but entirely on the presupposition that a woman could not be an apostle.
Elsewhere Paul referred to the ministry of two women in Philippi, who, like his many male fellow ministers, shared in his work for the gospel there (Philippians 4:2,3). Because women typically achieved more prominent religious roles in Macedonia than in most parts of the Roman world,11 Paul’s women colleagues in this region may have moved more quickly into prominent offices in the church (cf., Acts 16:14,15).
Although Paul ranked prophets second only to apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28), he acknowledged the ministry of prophetesses (1 Corinthians 11:5), following the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:13,14) and early Christian practice (Acts 2:17,18; 21:9). Thus those who complain that Paul did not specifically mention women pastors by name miss the point. Paul rarely mentioned any men pastors by name, either. He most often simply mentioned his traveling companions in ministry, who were naturally men. Paul’s most commonly used titles for these fellow laborers were "servant" and "fellow worker"–both of which he also applied to women (Romans 16:1,3). Given the culture he addressed, it was natural that fewer women could exercise the social independence necessary to achieve positions of ministry. Where they did, however, Paul commended them and included commendations to women apostles and prophets, the offices of the highest authority in the church.
While passages such as these establish Paul among the more progressive writers of his era, the primary controversy today rages around other passages in which Paul seemed to oppose women in ministry. Before turning there, we must examine one passage where Paul clearly addressed a local cultural situation.
Why does Paul in First Corinthians 7:10 attribute to Jesus the teaching that women should not divorce their husbands, when women were not allowed to divorce their husbands under Jewish law?
Would the historical Jesus have said that women couldn't divorce their husbands? I thought under Jewish law in Palestine women weren't even allowed to divorce their husbands? Or did Jesus probably just say that men can't divorce their wives, and Paul just extrapolated that the same rule should apply to women who want to divorce their husbands?
Mark 10: He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
The terms translated “leave” and “send away”—NASB—or “separate” and “divorce”—NIV and NRSV—were often synonyms for divorce and probably function as such in this context. In 7:10-11, however, where Paul refers to Jesus’ teaching, it may be significant that a wife in Jewish Palestine could only “leave,” not “divorce”; in Roman society, either partner could divorce the other by a unilateral decision or abandonment.
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