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Conflict in the Pauline Communities: Gender, Money, Sex, and Culture

The Rev. Dr. William Rich
April 14, 2016


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Conflicts about Gender – Women and Leadership (Romans 16:1-16; I Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; Galatians 3:28; I Timothy 2:8-15)

In the writings of Paul, the ones that all regard as genuine, and the ones whose authorship is debated, the issues of women and their role, rank and leadership within the Body of Christ come to the fore. We could easily ascertain Paul’s perspective, if the views expressed in these writings all aligned with a common voice and saw women’s role with the Church with clarity and consistency. But even a quick glance at the suggested passages make it clear that “Paul’s” attitudes towards women do not appear to be consistent. What are we to make of this?

The debates about Paul and his attitude towards women revolve around what appear to be conflicting passages in the writings that bear his name.  For instance, in Galatians 3:28, Paul asserts that in the Church, men and women are completely equal because they are “one in Christ Jesus.”  Further, if one looks at passages like Romans 16:3-16, Paul greets both women and men as his equal partners in the work of the Gospel, naming Phoebe (Romans 16:1) a deacon, and even calling Junia (Romans 16:7) an apostle. If one were to take these passages alone, it would be absolutely clear that Paul regarded women as equal to men, and equally called to and capable of leadership roles within the churches he founded.

But there are other passages within writings attributed to Paul that speak in ways that run counter to Paul’s supportive attitudes towards women and their leadership among Christ’s followers. In these passages, the writer asserts that women must keep silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34 ff, and I Timothy 2:11 ff.) and submit to the leadership of men/their husbands.  How can we make sense of this?  A preponderance of modern scholars believe that Paul himself maintained the highest regard for women throughout his years of ministry and consistently shared leadership and power with women within the churches he founded.  These same scholars believe that the more negative attitudes towards women and their roles within the Body of Christ that appear in supposedly Pauline writings come from figures other than Paul in the early church and who lived after Paul.  Scholars believe that these leaders began to fear that the radical equality with women and sharing of power in Christ that Paul had promulgated made the church suspect in the eyes of the average potential convert in the ancient world.  And so it appears that these fearful traditionalists wrote entire letters in Paul’s name – or interpolated brief passages in genuine letters of Paul – to set forth a much more traditional and conservative perspective on the proper role for women within the Church.  If we look at the history of the development of Christianity through the first 400 years of the Church’s life, it appears that the genuine Paul’s radically inclusive and supportive attitude towards women as equals within the Body of Christ shrinks as the Church becomes more and more a part of the establishment within the Roman Empire.

Conflicts about Money and Work (I Thessalonians 4:9-12, 5:12-22; II Thessalonians 3:6-15; I Corinthians 11:17-34; James 2:1-13 [(not a Pauline letter])

In the communities founded by Paul and others during the early years of the Church, conflicts also arose around issues of work and money.  In the letters to the Church in Thessalonica, Paul speaks several times to his fellow Christians about the issue of work.  It appears that some have stopped working because they expect the imminent return of Jesus at the Second Coming.  Although Paul himself also believed that Jesus’ return was imminent, he does not think that this gives one reason to stop working.  He admonishes all members of the community to continue working, and not to become idle busybodies. (II Thessalonians 3:11-12)

Money also becomes a matter of conflict in Paul’s churches. When he writes to the Church in Corinth about the celebration of the Eucharist, Paul becomes angry with the well-off within the Body of Christ for not caring about those who have little or nothing. The symbolic meal of the Eucharist, it appears, was embedded in a full meal – rather like the Love Feasts or Agapes that are still today celebrated among Mennonites.  Paul admonishes the well- off because they are gorging themselves during the agape meal, and ignoring those within the Church who have little or nothing to eat. (I Corinthians 11:21-22) He goes on to tell them that they are eating and drinking judgment upon themselves if they do not discern the Body – by which he means their fellow Christians within the Body of Christ.  (I Corinthians 11:29)  They are not to allow divisions due to wealth or poverty to separate them from one another.  Those who have food are to wait for others within the Body, and share what they have with those who have little or nothing, rather than going ahead and eating and ignoring their brothers and sisters in Christ.  (I Corinthians 11:33)

The most explicit writing about divisions among rich and poor within the Body of Christ appear not among Paul’s letters, but in the Letter of James. (The letter is really a sermon, cast in the form of a letter.) In Chapter Two, the author (by tradition, James, Jesus’ brother, but ancient records do not give much strength to that tradition) argues with no equivocation that if the poor are not treated with every bit as much respect as the wealthy within the Body of Christ, then we are not really loving our neighbors as ourselves. (James 2:4, 8-9)To wish well those who have little or no food or clothing, without acting to improve their lot does no good at all. Kind words that are not backed up by action are empty. Faith without works is dead. (James 2:17)

Conflicts about Sex and Sexuality (Romans 1:18-2:11; I Corinthians 5:1-3; 6:7-12) 

Divisions within Paul’s communities also included disputes about proper sexual behavior.  In the Church of our own day, much energy and attention has been given to debates about homosexuality, as if this were the only sexual matter that Paul addresses. But Paul is concerned about a wider perspective on healthy sexual behavior.  In his most extended piece of writing about sexuality in Romans 1 and 2, Paul addresses himself to sexuality as one part of a “natural theology” that seeks to understand how God has structured  the universe. Romans 1:26-27 was traditionally interpreted as Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, but more modern interpretations of that passage remind us that Paul is speaking about people exchanging their natural passions – which he assumed were always and only heterosexually constructed – for false passions, directed towards members of their own sex to whom they were not really, naturally attracted.

No matter how one reads Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27, if one continues to study his further thoughts in the beginning of Chapter 2, it becomes clear that Paul does not believe that anyone has the right to judge another person, because as he says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  If we take Paul seriously then, no one Christian has the right to judge another Christian’s behavior, as if one were himself blameless before God. All of us need to face our own sinfulness and realize that it is only by the mercy of God that we are freed from the burden of our sins and their attendant guilt.

Conflicts about Culture and Religion (Galatians 3:28; Romans 11:1-32)

Within the Church there has been a long and heinous history of condemnation of Jews as sinful, rejected by God as Christ or God killers. The Holocaust during the twentieth century in Europe is merely the most obvious result of such attitudes on the part of Christians. But this history of Christian hatred and persecution of Jews has been long-standing.  In the Middle Ages, Christians consistently accused Jews of blood libel – the kidnapping and murder of Christian children, and the use of their blood in ritual meals. The same Crusaders who went to war against Muslims in an attempt to capture the Holy Land as Christian territory also murdered Jews along their travel routes to and from the Holy Land.  For centuries throughout Europe, Good Friday was a particularly dangerous day for Jews, because preachers would stir up congregations to take revenge on Jews for the death of Christ.

Paul himself was a Jew, and his own writings about the place of Jews and Judaism in relation to Christ and the Church are complex. Chapter Eleven of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the central place where Paul works out a theological perspective on Judaism.  Paul argues that there has always been, within Judaism, people who remained faithful to God, and others who wandered away from God. (Romans 11:1-5) Paul seems to think of the falling away of some Jews as providing the opportunity for Gentiles to come into a faithful relationship with God.  (Romans 11:11) And Paul looks forward to a day when some or all Jews will come back into a faithful covenantal relationship with God, so that all – Jews as well as Gentile Christians – will receive life instead of death. (Romans 11:15)  Paul sees us – the Gentile Church – as a wild olive branch grafted onto the original olive tree of Judaism so that God could have mercy upon all, Jews and Gentiles alike. (Romans 11:32) So, instead of presumptuous boasting, Paul recommends to Christians gratitude and awe, for the mercy and inscrutable wisdom of God for having grafted us into the faithful tree of Israel. (Romans 11:20, 33-34)

Mercy instead of Judgment – Practical Politics Melded with Faith and Spirituality 

There has been a tendency among some Christians to assume that matters of faith and spirituality have nothing to do with politics.  But as we can see from the letters of Paul, spirituality and faith – and the theological stances on which faith and spiritual life are built – had consequences for the politics and practical everyday life of the Church and the world in Paul’s time.  And they continue to have such an impact in our time.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.” The strands of our lives as Christians must be woven into one coherent whole, where spirituality and faith shape our politics, and our politics in turn reflect the ways we have been shaped by faith and spirituality. 

We can see from Paul’s letters that the early Christians did not agree about all things, whether in matters of faith or in matters of practical political life within the Church or in the wider world. They debated the place and role of women.  They argued about money and work, and how people of wealth and people of meager means should live together within the community of faith. They wrestled over matters of sex and sexuality. And they tried to work out how Jews and Christians – who disagreed about whether Jesus was Messiah or not – could both be beloved of God.  For them to live together in the midst of such conflicts meant that love and mercy had to triumph over judgment. And it means the same for us.  We will never agree about all matters of faith and politics, but if we can allow the mercy and love of God to infect us deeply enough, we can find ways to live in harmony with one another in the midst of our disagreements. What a model that would be for our divided world. To play off of one of Paul’s ideas, if we were to live in love and harmony with one another despite our differences, perhaps the world might become jealous (Romans 11:11) of what we have and want to join us in living this challenging but beautiful life of communion with Christ and with one another.

– The Rev. Bill Rich


"Magdalene—The Seven Devils" – Marie Howe (b. 1950)

“Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out” —Luke 8:2.

The first was that I was very busy.
   The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.

The third — I worried.
   The fourth – envy, disguised as compassion. 
   The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid, 
   The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 
   The mosquito too – its face. And the ant – its bifurcated body.

Ok the first was that I was so busy. 
   The second that I might make the wrong choice, 
   because I had decided to take that plane that day,
   that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early 
   and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
   The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street 
   the house would blow up.
   The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer of skin 
   lightly thrown over the whole thing.

The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living

The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.

The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that was alive and I couldn’t stand it,

I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word – cheesecloth — 
   to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that 
   entered me when I breathed in

No. That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened? How had our lives gotten like this?

The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it – distinct, separate from me in a bowl or on a plate.

Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.

The second was that the laundry was never finally done.

The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did. 
   And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was 

Someone using you as a co-ordinate to situate himself on earth.

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
   to anyone.

Historians would assume my sin was sexual.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.

The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying. 
   The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.

And that I couldn’t stop hearing it — years later — 
   grocery shopping, crossing the street —

No, not the sound — it was her body’s hunger 
   finally evident–what our mother had hidden all her life.

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots, 
   the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.

The underneath — that was the first devil. It was always with me. 
   And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any of this —



"The Gospel According to the Other Mary"  – John Adams



"St. Junia the Apostle" (Modern Icon – origin unknown) 

 COM 2016 4 14 Blog Pic


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