Female undergraduates have expressed frustration to me over and over again about how Paul’s writings about women have been used against them.
“I hate Paul” is what many have said.
Ideas about women really do matter, as I discussed previously.
What about female pastors?
This is the most shocking statistic (at least for me) in a recent Barna Group poll about U.S. views of women in leadership: While 79 percent of American adults are fine with a female priest or pastor, only 39 percent of those identifying as evangelicals are.
The statistic improves to 62 percent with the category “practicing Christian,” but this still lags noticeably behind the national average. Many evangelicals continue to be uncomfortable with women in ministry.
But why? Why are evangelicals so uncomfortable with women in leadership roles, especially ministry roles?
I think Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group, hit the nail on the head: “There is a long history among evangelicals of emphasizing motherhood and family as a woman’s primary calling. While the broader culture, and much of the Christian church, has shifted away from this, evangelicals seem more reluctant to do so. This reluctance is often tied to a scriptural reading that insists men are to occupy primary leadership positions within the family and church and, by extension, society.”
In other words, it is because of Paul. Or, at least, how evangelicals interpret Paul.
Evangelical Christians, especially since the mid-20th century, interpret Paul as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between men and women.
Men lead. Women follow. The Bible tells us so.
But what if the Bible doesn’t say this?
What if evangelicals have been reading Paul through the lens of modern culture instead of the way it was intended?
When my undergraduate students tell me that they “hate Paul,” I counter them. It isn’t Paul they hate; they hate how certain interpretations of Paul have been used against women.
My 2018 challenge to all evangelicals, men and women alike, is to re-examine how you read Paul.
If your bookshelf is full only of John Piper, Wayne Grudem and other members of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, why don’t you read something else? Like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Payne, Scott McKnight or Ben Witherington III?
As a historian, I know how much culture influences the way we see the world, including the way we read biblical text.
There is a reason that medieval Christians emphasized vastly different Bible verses than modern Christians. It is because medieval culture was different than modern culture.
Are you open to the idea that the way you read Paul is influenced less by what the Bible says and more by what your conservative upbringing (culture) tells you the Bible says?
If so, read slowly and carefully through Romans 16, where more than 10 women involved in ministry alongside and in support of Paul are listed.
Beth Allison Barr is associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where she blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @bethallisonbarr.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.