Teaching series from Romans

Paul's View of Women

Romans 16:1-16

Teaching t07951

Introduction

As we close out our study of Romans, chapter 16 includes a long list of greetings (read 16:1-16). While at first glance this may appear superfluous for us, it gives us an up-close-and-personal glimpse into Paul's view of women.

Today, many so-called scholars have characterized Paul as the architect of male chauvinism and misogyny in western civilization. The truth is that Paul, following in the foot-steps of Jesus, was a revolutionary liberator of women. In order to appreciate this fact, we need to compare Paul's view of women to that of his own culture and other major world religions. So before we examine this passage more closely, let's survey . . . 

Paul's world

Paul was raised in a conservative Jewish home in a Greco-Roman city (Tarsus). Both of these cultures had a low view of women.

GRECO-ROMAN SOCIETY:

Three reasons for gratitude, to be repeated by Greek men: “ . . . that I was born a human being and not a beast, next a man and not a woman, thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.”1

Epictetus, a first-century AD philosopher, asserted that "Woman's world is one thing; men's another."2 He also spoke of women with such adjectives as "worthless," "weeping," and "silly."3

The noble Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) classified women as innately inferior to men.4

Charles Carlston sums up the Greco-Roman world’s view of women: “ . . . on balance . . . the picture drawn is a grim one. Women . . . are basically ineducable and empty-headed; vengeful, dangerous, and responsible for men’s sins; mendacious, treacherous, and unreliable; fickle; valuable only through their relationships with men; incapable of moderation or spontaneous goodness; at their best in the dark; interested only in sex--unless they are with their husbands, in which case (apparently) they would rather talk. In short, women are one and all ‘a set of vultures,’ the ‘most beastly’ of all the beasts on land or sea, and marriage is at best a necessary evil.”5

JEWISH SOCIETY: In spite of its Old Testament heritage, the Judaism of Paul's day was scarcely better in its view of women than the Greco-Roman culture.

Although the Old Testament narrates and praises many female heroes (Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Rahab, etc.), the Apocrypha (1 Macc. 2:51-60; 4 Macc. 16:20-23) praises only Old Testament male heroes without any mention of women. The Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus also contains these misogynous statements:

Ecclesiasticus 25:19 Any iniquity is insignificant compared to a wife's iniquity.

Ecclesiasticus 22:3 It is a disgrace to be the father of an undisciplined, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.

In the first-century Jewish world, things weren’t much better. Consider these two contemporaries:

Philo, a famous philosopher, held that the proper relationship of a wife to her husband was to “serve as a slave,” and that the only purpose of marriage was procreation.6

Josephus, a historian, reflects the Jewish consensus when he says, "A woman is inferior to her husband in all things. Let her, therefore, be obedient to him . . . "7

The Talmud, the record of rabbinic teaching from this period (and Paul's specific religious background), deprecates women in a number of places:

Like the Apocrypha, it praises male Old Testament heroes without any mention of women (Sirach 44-50).

Jewish rabbis prayed, "Blessed be He that He did not make me a Gentile; blessed be He that He did not make me a boor (slave); blessed be He that He did not make me a woman."8

“He that talks much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and will at last inherit Gehenna.” (Mish Aboth 1:5)

“Every man who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her promiscuity.” (Mish Sota 3:4)

“Let the words of Torah be burned up, but do not let them be delivered to women.” (Jer Sota 19a)

“All we can expect from them is that they bring up our children and keep us from sin.” (Bab Yebamoth 63a)

Longenecker summarizes the role of women in synagogue life: “In the synagogues . . . women were separated from the men by a screen and allowed to take no part in the service, except, at most, on one occasion yearly, to read one of the lessons (Tos Megilla 4:11; Bab Megilla 23a).”9

Other religious perspectives on women

If you think that other religious perspectives provide a higher view of women, you will be disappointed. When we turn from Paul's cultural milieu to other religious perspectives on women, we find that the same view dominates. Apart from the Bible, the religions of the world (with few exceptions) have a rich legacy of justifying the oppression of women.

EARLY GNOSTIC TEACHING:

Gnosticism was the first major counterfeit form of Christianity to infiltrate the church beginning in the late first century AD. It was a reworking of Christianity into salvation by spiritual insight and self-knowledge, very similar to New Age thinking today. The most popular ancient Gnostic work is The Gospel of Thomas, which the Jesus Seminar includes in its "Bible" as the "fifth gospel." Besides the fact that it a second-century work falsely attributed to the disciple Thomas, it also reflects the misogyny of Greco-Roman culture:

"Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'" (114)

How different this is from the Jesus of the New Testament, who included women among his disciples (Lk. 8:2,3), defended women against injustice (Jn. 8:1-11), taught and ministered to women, and chose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection (Mk. 16:1-9)!

HINDUISM: Consider this summary from the Carmody's--world religion scholars who have no Christian bias.

“Even if she had been a child bride or had never consummated her marriage, the widow was not to violate her duty to her deceased husband and remarry. If she did, she would bring disgrace on herself in the present life and enter the womb of a jackal for her next rebirth . . . In such a social position, many widows felt they had little to lose by throwing themselves on their husbands funeral pyre (suttee). (Even suttee, though, was not simple. If the widow did not burn herself out of pure conjugal love, her act was without merit.) . . . the Tantrist interest in tapping shakti energies often led to the exploitation of women by men. Thus, the males sometimes tried to gain powers of liberation (moksha) by symbolic or actual sexual intercourse, with the result that the females became instruments rather than equal partners . . . In Hindu society, women were not generally eligible for moksha; the best that a woman could hope for was to be reborn as a man . . . the overall status of women in Hinduism was that of wards . . . Worse than the ward status, however, was the strain of misogyny (hatred of women) running through Hindu culture. The birth of a girl was not an occasion for joy. Hindus attributed it to bad karma and frequently announced the event by saying, ‘Nothing was born.’ . . . Hindu religious texts frequently imagine a woman as a snake, hell’s entrance, death, a prostitute, or an adulteress. In Manu’s code, slaying a woman was one of the minor offenses.”10

ISLAM: Recent reports of FGM and wife-burning are unfortunately consistent with the misogyny that is indigenous to Islam.

“ . . . women’s rights were not equal to those that the Quran gave males in either divorce or inheritance. Moreover, the Quran does not even consider the possibility that women might assume leadership roles in the community, receive an education equal to that of males, teach law or theology, or engage in polygamy (as males could) . . . The Muslim woman was considered erotic and empty-headed. Thus she was subject to purdah (seclusion and veiling) . . . concubinage, and the harem. Women were not to be taught to read and write (‘a great calamity’), they were morally ‘bent’ because they came from Adam’s bent rib . . . 'It were best for a girl not to come into existence, but being born she had better be married or buried.' Recent Muslims, especially Africans, have defended clitorectomy and kindred operations, frequently with the following sort of rationale: 'Circumcision of women releases them from their bondage to sex, and enables them to fulfill their real destiny as mother.' . . . Another revealing view of women in Islamic society comes from the imagery of the Garden. For many men, the best part of the heavenly Garden was the hur: dark-eyed, buxom virgins. In addition to his earthly wife, each male in heaven could expect to have seventy hur. They would never be sick, menstruating, pregnant (unless he wished), bad-tempered, or jealous. He would be able to deflower a thousand each month and find them all intact when he returned to them.”11

This is one of the most tragic features of our fallen world--men using their superior physical strength to follow in Lamech's foot-steps.

"But the Church is also guilty of this kind of misogyny!" Yes, it is. By the early second century, we have evidence of church leaders like Tertullian blaming all women for humanity's fall and calling women the 'gateway to hell.'"12 But there is a crucial difference. These religions' misogynous views come directly from their founders and scriptures; the Church's misogynous views developed in spite of its founder and scripture. Jesus' treatment of women was in stark contrast to other rabbis of his day (see above), and Paul reflects the same attitude, as we see in these greetings . . . 

Paul's greetings in Romans 16

16:1,2 - Phoebe is a deaconess (diakonos) in the church of Cenchrea, a “helper (prostatis) of many” including Paul. She is the likely courier of this letter, and is heading up arrangements for Paul’s visit to Rome (15:32).

16:3 - Prisca (short for Priscilla) is listed before her husband, which is unusual and probably denotes that she played a more visible role. She is a “fellow-worker” who took the lead in completing the theological training of Apollos (Acts 18:28).

16:6 - Mary has worked hard (kopiaw) for them. This is the same word used to describe good leaders in 1 Thess. 5:12.

16:7 - Junia is probably feminine. She is probably married to Andronicus, and they are “apostles”--probably missionaries--who have done outstanding work.

16:12 - Tryphaena and Tryphosa are probably sisters, and Christian workers (kopiaw). Persis ("Persian lady") has worked hard (kopiaw) and is beloved by Paul.

16:13 - Rufus’ mother has a warm relationship with Paul.

16:15 - Julia and Nereus’ sister are greeted as saints.

10 references to women (out of 27)--with regard as high as any of the men greeted. Does this really sound like a man who was threatened by women, or who hated them, or who believed they were incapable of spiritual ministry or leadership? No, this is consistent with the same man who wrote the Magna Carta of the New Testament--Gal. 3:28 (read).

Oneness in Christ between men & women

Paul isn’t saying that there are no legitimate distinctions between men and women (androgyny). In other passages that go beyond the scope of this teaching, he upholds certain distinctions in marital and church roles. What he is saying is that men and women are fundamentally equal in the eyes of God, and he swam against the tide of his culture by forming churches that expressed this truth.

Men and women are created equally in God's image (Gen. 1:27). Although Adam was created first, God is neither male nor female. Somehow, male and female humans together demonstrate God's Person.

Men and women are equally sinners saved by grace (Rom. 3:23,24). Neither is uniquely responsible for the others' sins, and both receive the same standing before God (including the promise of eternal life) through faith in Christ.

Christian men and women are equally indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who transforms us into the same image of Christ (Col. 3:10,11). Men are not more inclined to be godly, and the profile of spiritual maturity is the same character qualities.

Christian men and women are equally gifted by God and called into significant ministry in the church (Rom. 16:1-16; 1 Cor. 12:13ff.).

This is not just abstract theology. This is truth that can change your life by bringing you into a relationship with the living God, and by changing the way you relate to men and women. Let's listen to Amanda's story of how this happened in her life . . . (VIDEO).

Footnotes

1 Attributed to Socrates by Diogenes Laertius (Vitae Philosophorum 1.33) or to Plato by Plutarch (Marius 46.1) and Lactantius (Divine Institutes 3.19.17), cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), p. 70.

2 Epictetus, Dissertations 3.1.24-25; cf. 1.16.19-24, cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, p. 70.

3 Epictetus, Dissertations 3.24.5,53; cf. 2.4.8-11, cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, pp. 71,72.

4 Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, p. 72.

5 Charles Carlston, “Proverbs, Maxims, and the Historical Jesus,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 99 (1980), 95-96.

6 Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, p. 73.

7 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion II. 25 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1981), p. 632.

8 Credited to R. Judah b. Elai (c. AD 150) in Tos Berakoth 7:18 and Jer Berakoth 13b; and to R. Meier (c. AD 150) in Bab Menahoth 43b.

9 Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, p. 74.

10 Denise L. Carmody and John T. Carmody, Ways To the Center (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984), p. 84.

11 Denise L. Carmody and John T. Carmody, Ways To the Center, pp. 332,333.

12 Cited in Denise L. Carmody and John T. Carmody, Ways To the Center, p. 295. For the full quote, see Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today, p. 90.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt