Why the Apostle Paul doesn’t hate women

Eminent American scholar says you can be both pro-Paul and pro-woman

New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick believes the Apostle Paul would not have a problem with her going to a church to teach male pastors because Paul knew that Priscilla was teaching Apollos, one of his trusted co-workers in Corinth.

Cohick, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Chicago – a leading evangelical college – believes Paul’s teaching on the participation of women in the church has been misunderstood or taken out of context.

She believes it is perfectly possible to be both pro-Paul and pro-woman if you focus on what Paul actually says and try to understand his teaching in its historical context.

Historically, she says, Paul worked closely with women as his co-workers – such as Junia, Euodia and Syntyche.

“He believed that both women and men were capable of expressing the gospel at the highest level.” – Lynn Cohick

“So often people say, ‘Don’t tell me what you think, show me by what you do,’ and if we hold Paul to that, he believed that both women and men were capable of expressing the gospel at the highest level and having leadership responsibilities and authority,” she says.

In considering Bible passages where Paul appears to restrict women, it’s important to remember what the options were for women more broadly, she says. In the ancient world, women were treated as minors, which meant that men had to take care of their sisters or wives or daughters in a legal sense because the women couldn’t do it on their own.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that Paul thought that women were innately inferior; it means that that was the society and, because of his beliefs that the Holy Spirit lives in all believers and will encourage and will enlighten and inform all believers, I think he gave an avenue for the full participation of women in the church,” she says.

“But he also realised that there was certain proper behaviour that women needed to follow in order to show respect to their husbands and vice versa and also that Jews needed to show to Gentiles and owners needed to show to slaves.”

“I think he gave an avenue for the full participation of women in the church.” – Lynn Cohick

Cohick was speaking to Eternity while visiting Sydney to speak at Anglican Deaconess Ministries’ School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement last week, where she gave the keynote short course each morning on the topic “Philippians Today.”

Cohick’s research focuses on the ways Jews and Christians lived out their faith in the ancient settings of Hellenism and the Roman Empire. She enjoys studying the Apostle Paul and his letters in their Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. She also explores women’s lives in the ancient world, most recently focusing on Christian women in the early church. Her publications include Christian Women in the Patristic World (Baker Academic, 2017).

Cohick describes Paul’s teaching as revolutionary in that treating everyone equally is part of the gospel, but it wasn’t part of the Greco-Roman world that Paul lived in, which was a slave culture where no one had a democratic vote.

“For example, in 1 Corinthians 11 … where Paul is talking about communion and the agape meal that they share, Paul is very upset with them because they are not treating the poor members of their community and the slaves in their Christian community with equal respect,” she says.

“And Paul says – these are some of the sharpest words against what the Corinthians are doing – they are humiliating those for whom Christ died …

“It’s his message of ‘when you’re in the church, the owner needs to wash his slaves’ feet. I mean, you need to treat your slave with honour as a fellow brother or sister in Christ.’ It’s very revolutionary but not necessarily in the way that we think.”

Another of Paul’s revolutionary ideas was that a woman has the freedom to choose not to marry.

“If you want to be single, like I am, living without a family, then you’re free to do that. That is revolutionary. The gist of it is … that he’s making a way for women to decide to not be married and not have a family,” she says.

“He’s very egalitarian – I mean this in just a generic sense – it’s slave, it’s free, it’s Jew, it’s Gentile, it’s male, female.” – Lynn Cohick

“I think, overall, Paul thought first and foremost your identity is as a follower of Christ … So when you see his broader discussions about discipleship, you realise that he’s very egalitarian – I mean this in just a generic sense – it’s slave, it’s free, it’s Jew, it’s Gentile, it’s male, female – everyone has their identity in Christ. But when you live that out in the culture, you also need to show respect for others.”

This is where some of the language causes problems, she says. For example, when he says wives should submit to your husbands, the same verb is used in the previous verse when he says, “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.”

“And so Paul isn’t asking women to do something – or wives to do something – that he hasn’t asked of himself and every other believer. And he could not have said directly to a husband, ‘submit to your wife,’ because in the hierarchy of the day I don’t know how you would actually do that,” she says.

“That’s why Paul says, ‘love your wife in the sacrificial, self-giving way that Christ did’.”

This idea of a husband loving a wife in a way that helps her grow rather than fulfil his needs was “somewhat revolutionary” and “pretty amazing,” she says.

Moreover, the idea of reciprocity was not commonly applied to husbands and wives, as Paul does.

“A husband is to think of a wife as his own body and a wife is to think of her husband as her own body,” she says.

“In Paul’s day, husbands had the right to her body but never considered the wife having a right to her husband’s body. Paul amends that through the theme of reciprocity and so I think that Paul is very much thinking about women, but not so that women can be just as authoritative and aggressive as men, but rather that both men and women are thinking of others before themselves.”

Asked why Christians have used these verses to segment the roles of women and men in the home and church, she says Christians have absorbed Aristotle’s view of the female as not a complete or mature human being.

“It was treated as a fact that the female was inferior to the male.” – Lynn Cohick

“Aristotle had the idea that women were sort of misbegotten males – women were inferior to men, ontologically and physically and mentally and spiritually, and in all ways the female was inferior to the male, and that was almost treated as science,” she explains.

“It was treated as a fact that the female was inferior to the male and the way the Bible became interpreted by the church fathers – especially as they understood the rise of the structure, the positions of authority like bishop – that that should only be given to a man because women are inferior. It just seemed natural to them.”

She does not believe Paul held the complementarian view that there are responsibilities in the home and in the church that are distinctly for men. Cohick places herself within the “egalitarian” viewpoint that maintains all roles are open to women and men.

“He certainly realised that in the Jerusalem temple only males were priests, but he would have argued for the priesthood of all believers like Peter does,” she says.

“I don’t think that Paul is arguing women can also serve other women but they can’t teach men because Priscilla taught Apollos, so I think Paul would be fine with me going to a church and teaching the pastors there because I’d just be following Paul’s idea or Phoebe taking the Letter to the Romans to Rome and presumably explaining it to the congregation, like Tychicus did with the Letter to the Ephesians and the Colossians.”

She gave a detailed analysis of a contentious passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Cohick says the primary command to Timothy is to let Gentile women learn the word, as Jewish women did. When he says “I am not permitting” a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she says that verb form is always used conditionally and depends on the context. She also believes “assume authority over” is better translated as “lording it over” because it is a rare verb that always had a negative connotation.

She concludes that Paul is not restricting women from teaching properly, but he is saying they’ve got to learn “and I think once they learn – and they have evidence in their faith, love, holiness with propriety in that way (v15) – then the prohibition against them teaching, I think, will be lifted.”

Asked how such interpretations don’t violate what seems plain in the text, Cohick says “we read selectively that passage, so we don’t focus on the right things. What I’m saying to you might sound forced but really it is just focusing on what is Paul actually saying and trying to understand it in its historical context.”

Editor’s Note: Eternity will pursue an interview with someone who takes the alternative view to Cohick.