The role of women in the Christian faith has always been matter of debate. Whether women are equal to men in the eyes of the church still presents itself as a major question as we move into the 21st century. Women are still not allowed to serve as priests or hold major positions in the churchs hierarchy. This inferiority is something that is seen as tradition and rarely do people question it. However, in Pauls letters he alluded to a different role that women should take on. He presents the idea that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord as long as they have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Although he was not the first to ever express these beliefs, the idea that Paul presented was quite radical for his time and may not have been taken with the same authority as some of his other teachings. However, the basic formula that Paul used in some of his letters was also presented by subsequent writers years after he was finished with his ministry.
The most straightforward presentation of Pauls view on the role of women is in Galatians 3:28, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. This statement brought up the idea of baptism and the key role it plays in the life of a Christian. Paul states that when you are baptized in the name of Jesus all worldly distinctions are no longer important. A person is not to be viewed based on past religion, life before baptism, or gender, he or she will now be viewed simply as a follower of Christ. By following Christ a person is baptized into a single body, no divisions are to be made due to past traditions.
This formula for equality that Paul presents in Galatians 3:27-28 is echoed in many of his other letters. However, it is not presented as directly, there seem to be some omissions and changes. While writing to Corinth, Paul again expresses the idea of equality and togetherness through baptism in the name of Jesus. In 1 Cor 7:17-24 Paul gives much attention to the Jew and Gentile relationship, as well as the slave and free man. However, in dealing with gender Paul simply writes, In whatever condition you were called, brother and sisters, there remain with God. Paul is not being as explicit as he was in Galatians. Why he backs off the strong argument he made in Galatians is debatable. However, later in the first letter to Corinth Paul seems to retreat even more. In 1 Cor 12:13, Paul again presents the idea of everyone being baptized as one in Jesus. Nevertheless, he makes no effort to mention the gender issues directly. He does allude to it by writing, For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (1 Cor 12:13) but never addresses the male and female issue officially. Paul simply deals with the Jew or Gentile and the slave or free in this verse, these are the same two distinctions as he did in 1 Cor 7:17-24.
The effort Paul makes to have his teachings stay somewhat consistent from one letter to the next lends support to the idea that the formula Paul uses was an outline that predates his writings. It can be considered that this passage could have been a pre-Pauline baptismal formula that Paul cites. It could be that Paul simply adapted the formula by adding the male/female phrase as an effort to fully portray his own views. It is possible Christians at the time would know that formula this was used in baptisms. Thus, by manipulating the formula, Paul may have been attempting to show people that the church could change and adapt to meet the needs of the people. Paul was going beyond what predated him by incorporating male and females into the formula. It can even be seen that Paul was going against teachings that were presented in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1:27 says that God made humanity as male and female and Genesis 1:31 states this creation was very good. By presenting a different idea than that of Genesis, Paul goes against some of most time-honored teachings. He is not concerned with the Law like most other Christians at the time. He wants the church to grow as one solid unit in the name of Jesus.
This formula certainly has roots in pre-Pauline Baptismal says. However, it is also quite possible the Paul is citing a teaching of Jesus Christ himself. In chapter twelve of Mark, Jesus speaks of a woman who was a wife to seven brothers. He says that in the resurrection she will be wife to none of these men. Instead, For when they rise from the dead they are like angels in heaven. (Mark 12:25) Jesus could be making that point that once he has died and is risen that all will live with equality through His name. In heaven, all will sit equally and one human being will not possess someone who has lived according to the teaching of Jesus. Instead all will live as angels with God. Pauls writings may make an effort to adapt this saying of Jesus to the early church. The words of Jesus as well as the words one would hear at a baptism held a great deal of power and influence in the early church.
Although Paul is working off a pre-existing formula, the changes he makes from letter to letter brings about the question as to why Paul would write something in Galatians and then not continue with the same theme in subsequent letters. There are quite a few possibilities as to why Paul would diverge from what he had written in Galatians. Paul may have received negative reactions from certain groups that were both involved with the church at the time, as well as those not affiliated at all. Pauls writings in regards to equality, especially those involving women, were quite radical for the time he lived. Paul knew that Christianity was an up and coming religion just gaining a foothold at this point. He knew that the religion could ill afford to upset certain higher authorities that might not agree with Pauls view of equality for women in Christianity. The fear of destroying a movement that he believed so strongly in over a single issue was to great a risk. He knew that criticism from people outside the early church would not help the movement. Likewise, since it could be viewed that Paul was challenging creation beliefs, internal criticisms most likely also existed. It could have been for these reasons that Paul rethought what he expressed in his writings after Galatians.
On a more specific level a certain situation in Corinth could have given rise to Paul reevaluating his stance on the role of women. In Corinth there were some women who were not upholding traditions and instead were wearing their hair unbound. At the time a woman who wore her hair unbound was often seen as type of cult member. Paul most likely understood the dire effects that this could have on the early church. If other people saw this unbound hair that was often connected with worshiping of oriental divinities, the Christian faith would lose creditability in the community. It would present an image of ritual madness, an image that the early church was not trying to portray. Paul wanted to make sure that the Christians in Corinth were not putting themselves at risk due to the actions of some women. He therefore reaffirmed the idea that women must have their hair bound up as a sign of prophetic power. He is not making attempts to control the women of Corinth but certainly bring to the attention of all that certain things must be upheld as a sign of proper worship.
No matter the reason why Paul slightly changed his writings, it is obvious that he took the role of women quite seriously in many different aspects of life and faith. These roles included both married and celibate roles, which Paul defines differently. Paul deals with the idea of marriage in 1 Cor 7. He clearly states that in a marriage of two Christians both sexes have obligations to each other, Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. Although this is not saying that the woman is equal to the man in all aspects of the relationship, it does give the women equal sexual rights. Much like in a marriage role, both man and woman have important roles in the church. However, the role of a married woman in the church is not seen to be as important as a single woman. Once a woman is married she is to have different priorities in life. Taking care of her husband and eventually children is more important than other things.
On the other hand, Paul writes And the women who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. in 1 Cor 7:34. Paul is somewhat limiting the role of married women in the church, by affirming that unwed women are to play a key role in the Lords community. It is under this belief that Paul lived his life without marriage and does not discourage others from this lifestyle. He felt that marriage could ultimately take away from the amount on could give to God on a daily basis. If one was distracted and held down by worldly interferences, they may not set God as the first priority in their lives. Those women who were not preoccupied with the needs of their husbands and family could be called to missionary work in the community.
The role of women that Paul expressed in Galatians can also be found in subsequent early Christian writings. One of these is know as the The Nag Hammadi. These texts contain a large number of primary Gnostic scriptures — transcripts that most believed were entirely destroyed during the early Christian struggle to define orthodoxy — scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth. The Tripartite Tractate, which is part of this collection, also presented radical ideas and was often seen as heretical in the early church. It was for this reason that most copies of it were destroyed. However, it too voices the same opinion as Paul did in Galatians, For the end will receive a unitary existence just as the beginning is unitary, where there is no male nor female. It is possible that writers these tests knew Pauls writings. The writers attempted to convey a message that was quite similar to that of Pauls. However, they did not tone down the writings like Paul did. The fact that most of The Nag Hammadi was destroyed shows that some people in the early church were not ready for the ideas that were presented.
There were also famous writers that used Pauls teachings to convey their beliefs to the people of their time. These writers were able to reinforced Pauls beliefs while presenting their own message. Clement of Alexandria uses Pauls opinions to try and eliminate distinctions drawn between men and women in the church. Clement encouraged the teaching of both men and women in his school at Alexandria. This was a theme that was slowly growing in the early church but still had quite a way to go.
The letters of Paul served as a comprehensive guide for most of the early Christians. He was able to confront and tackle many significant issues that concerned the churches he established. One of these sensitive issues was the role of women in the early church. Based on the idea of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, Paul contested that all people were equal and should serve God through their faith and actions. He used both a baptismal formula and the teachings of Jesus to convey his message to the people of his time. This view was one that had not been openly presented prior and probably resulted in controversy. Therefore, aware to the needs of the early church Paul adapted his teachings while still holding his basic beliefs in tact. Pauls teachings still have contemporary consequences when dealing with the role women in present-day Christianity. This text can be seen as something that the world is now ready to fully implement in the 21st century. While Pauls view that women were equal in the church was radical at the time, it is now an accepted view by most educated people. Therefore, Pauls teachings that God made us all equal through baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ may carry on into new roles of women in years to come.