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On the Areopagus - 10 St Paul on Women

Thursday, February 19, 2009
Nowadays the popular view of St Paul with regard to women is not a particularly favourable one. I think for many Christians St Paul can cause confusion and misunderstanding in his attitude towards women in the primitive church. His record is very much a mixed one. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, Paul says that women ought to be silent in church, not being permitted to speak, but should instead be subordinate as the law requires. In fact Paul says it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Paul often reminds the faithful that they are no longer subject to the law, but freed by Christ, so why this reaffirming of the law with regard to women in church? In this particular section of the epistle Paul was dealing with orderly worship, setting limits on the use of tongues and prophecy, in order to ensure orderly, organised worship. Now why this ought to include women remaining silent in worship is not made clear by Paul.

At the Shrine of St PaulIs this all St Paul says in regard to women? Does he attach importance to gender for the Christian community? In Galatians 3:24-29, St Paul speaks of the equality there is for those who are baptized into Christ. He says “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”. In this passage St Paul acknowledges the equality there is among the children of God, adopted through Christ. All are one, all are equally recipients of the promises God has made to Abraham. Paul certainly doesn’t see gender as a cause of division or as a cause of a distinction in the sight of God.

I will focus on two of the many women St Paul mentions by name in his letters, Prisca (sometimes Priscilla) and Junia. Prisca is mentioned in 1 Corinthians and Romans, along with her husband Aquila. In Romans 16:3-4 he refers to them as co-workers in Christ, who had risked their necks for Paul’s life. He sees them as his equals, fellow co-workers, in their role as leaders of a house church. As such, they were both protectors of the church and indeed protectors of Paul while he was with them. It is interesting that he calls both Prisca and Aquila his co-workers, he treats them both equally. He does not say Aquila my co-worker and Prisca his wife but calls them both co-workers.

A second woman mentioned by name in Paul’s letters is Junia. Towards the end of Romans, Paul mentions five women, of which Junia is one. He describes her and Andronicus as “my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (16:7). He refers to these two as apostles, people who carried the message of the risen Christ to others. This is certainly evidence of Paul expressing the equality of all believers in Christ. This is not the writing of a misogynist. In his commentary on Romans, Chrysostom says of Junia “[T]o be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle.”

This article was written by Br Denis Murphy OP


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