The most important passage in St Paul’s letters which refers to women as holders of authority in the church is chapter 16 of the letter to the Romans. Paul mentions there several important women by name:
- Phoebe, a deacon
- Prisca, a helper of Paul
- Maria, ‘who has worked very hard among you’
- Junia, an ‘apostless’
- Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis, ‘workers in the Lord’
More important woman, indeed, are mentioned in Romans 16 than important men. Count the names and see.
Paul’s other letters provide some small pieces of information about female authority-figures in the early church. Phil. 4.2-3 refers to two women (Euodia and Syntyche) as fellow missionaries or helpers of Paul, while 1 Cor. 16.19 speaks of a married couple who hosted a church community in their house (Aquila and Prisca) in such a way as to suggest that the husband and wife were seen as being on an equal footing.
In general terms, men are more prominent than women in the Pauline epistles, just as they are in the New Testament in general. This should come as no surprise given the attitudes towards women which prevailed in the ancient world. The surprising thing is that women are as prominent as they are.
What about 1 Corinthians?
The notion that Paul was a misogynist is based in large part on a notorious passage from his first letter to the Corinthians:
[W]omen should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14.34-35, NRSV)
In fact, some scholars have persuasively questioned the authenticity of this passage. It seems to interrupt the flow of the letter, and it contradicts Paul’s testimony earlier in the same letter that women functioned as prophets in the early Church (11.4-5). Most tellingly of all, it appears in four different places in the manuscripts of 1 Corinthians, which suggests that it started life as a marginal note made by a scribe which subsequently got incorporated into the text of the letter (but in different places).
Aquinas on 1 Corinthians
As an example of the use which has been made of the foregoing passage in 1 Corinthians, we may take St Thomas Aquinas' commentary on the book:
He says, therefore: I will that men use the gift of prophecy in this manner, but I do not want women to speak in the church, so that the women should keep silence in the church.... And Chrysostom assigns the reason for this, saying: "Woman has spoken once and subverted the entire world"....
He assigns the reason for this, saying: for they are not permitted to speak, namely, by the authority of the Church, but their function is to be subject to men. Hence, since teaching implies prelacy and presiding, it is not suited to those who are subjects. The reason they are subject and not in the forefront is that they are deficient in reasoning, which is especially necessary for those who preside. Therefore, [Aristotle] says in his Politics that corruption of rule occurs when the rule comes to women....
He says, therefore: I say that women should be silent in the church, but if they wish to learn the things about which they doubt, let them ask their husbands at home.... The reason for this is that it is shameful for a women to speak in Church and not only unbecoming; for in women the natural feeling of shame is commended. If therefore they ask and dispute in public, it would be a sign of shamelessness, and this is shameful to them. Hence it also follows that in law the office of advocate is forbidden to women.
The pseudo-Pauline epistles
The notorious passage at Eph. 5.21-33 (‘Wives, be subject to your husbands’, etc.) was almost certainly not written by Paul, and probably post-dates his lifetime by some years. Something similar can be said of the sexist statements in 1 Timothy.