Smashing Patriarchy: Saint Paul

So we’re coming to the end of the week of talking about patriarchy and the Book of Esther. I just want to transition to some New Testament texts that I’ve used in the discussion and talk a little bit more about them. The passages from Colossians, Ephesians, and Timothy are all pretty famous patriarchal passages and they have often been called out for their overt misogyny. That is part of the reason I used them – because they are so easily recognizable. Now, I’ve been pretty critical of these passages and of opressive patriarchal tradition in Christianity. I believe we need to be critical about our applications of the Bible to life for the simple reason that we are fallible and we could be doing it wrong. Obviously, misogyny and patriarchalism are areas where I believe we’ve got it wrong.

Something So Right

saint paul, patriarchy, feminismThere are critics who say that patriarchy in the Church is Saint Paul’s fault. After all, it is primarily from his letters that we get all the verses that oppress women. I believe that to a certain extent, these critics are right. Saint Paul does seem to have a low opinion of women. Not only does he relegate them to a silent, submissive role, but he also doesn’t find much use for them in relationships. Men are counselled to marry if they absolutely can’t stay sexually chaste any other way. In some respects, women are just the lesser of two evils.

I’m inclined, however, to think that in these areas, the context of the letters matters much more than the actual verbage. Just what exactly that context is, we do not completely understand. But there is a disconnect between the communications Saint Paul has with women personally and how he describes them. So which Saint Paul are we to follow? Finding the real Saint Paul is a difficult task. Instead, it is much easier to just impose the Paul we want to see, as many have done. That, more than the actual teaching of Saint Paul, is what has led to the rise of oppressive patriarchalism in the Church.

Saint Paul did say one very, very important thing that has been too long ignored.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

In this passage, Saint Paul gets it exactly right. The oneness of humanity is what is emphasized here – a unity created by Christ and by belonging to Christ. So why is something so right getting lost in such a wrong interpretation?

Willful Misunderstanding

To understand that, we have to really look at this passage and try to understand it. Now, there are a lot of people who argue that this passage does away with all distinctions that exist between persons. Especially for some of my LGBT friends, this passage stands out because it does away with those little boxes that people try to put each other in. For someone who is constantly told “you are not what you say you are” or “you are wrong about your own self,” how wonderful must it be to find something in the Bible that makes you feel right! There is a lot of value in this kind of interpretation, but for our purposes it is a secondary one.

patriarchy, feminismTo understand this passage, you really have to understand what patriarchy does to people. Patriarchy is a power struggle. Its principle is that men belong on top and everyone else goes below. Patriarchy is the claim that authority belongs with those who are biologically male and no one else. We can see this very clearly in how the church emphasizes the role of men at the expense of all others. Only men can be part of the clergy and have that kind of spiritual authority. They are also the head of the family, giving them temporal authority in the domestic sphere. There were also arguments many decades ago that women should not be allowed to vote, to participate in public enterprise or politics, or run any important business or venture. In fact, Christianity has been one of the primary stumbling blocks to equality of the sexes for hundreds of years. That is what patriarchy in the Church has done and still does to this day.

Now, back to Galatians. This passage is a complete repudiation of the entire patriarchal tradition that exists in the Church. Not because it does away with sexes, but because it does away with the inequaity we impose on them. Look at the examples Saint Paul gives: Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female. The first two examples are about separation. Jews and Gentiles could not mix according to Jewish law. Slaves were subservient to free people. These groups were separated from each other by cultural and legal differentiations that created inequality. Christianity, according to Saint Paul, does away with that and makes everyone equal.

So what about the sexes? The cultural conventions on inequality still apply and are done away with. The example of the sexes belongs to this list because the same conditions apply. And Christiantiy does away with those conditions as well, making men and women equal t each other. Thus, in this passage, the patriarchal distinctions between men and women that have plagued the church for so long, are done away with. It is only because of a willful ignornace that religious patriarchy has been allowed to continue for so long.

Treasure and Heart

So what’s the explanation for the long history of the patriarchy in the Church? It all boils down to what you want.

Did the people running the early church want a system that would require them to share power with women? Do men in our day and age want to admit that women are something more than just subordinates? Or do they want to continue believing that they are somehow better simply because they are men? Patriarchy and its effects provide the answer to all these questions.

Jesus himself knew what was what. He told people, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In this case, the treasure is patriarchal power and there are too many people invested in keeping that treasure than in having their heart in Christ. patriarchy, feminism


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