Paul leaves off at the end of Chapter 6 proclaiming our bodies as members of Christ’s. We belong to Christ.
Questions have been put to him about how then to live in the Way he preaches. Marry or not marry. Eat with our friends who are not following the Way? Eat with others who serve food prepared for idols? How to conduct oneself when we worship together, believers and unbelievers, men and women.
Paul’s response goes on for a while. And I get the sense that as he addresses each of these issues, especially about marriage, that Paul is tripping all over himself, struggling to answer, but then amend his suggestions, for they are only suggestions, so as to cover all bases. And if you want a chuckle read the final sentence in Chapter 7, verse 39-40. He thinks!
It would be easy to skim over these chapters or skip over them entirely. But one of my pet peeves is that because we have taken much of what follows out of context we have mistaken Paul and his meaning. Taking bits and pieces of his suggestions about women and their place in marriage and out, at the worship service, their place in relationship to men in general one would think Paul debasing women. For our day and age he does. If I needed a marriage counselor it would not be Paul. We have to remember that Paul is living in and addressing a very different audience than those of us today reading his letters. And we need to keep reading when Paul says women have no rights over their bodies. He goes on to say the husband has no rights over his body as well. Taken in the context of the larger letter we might take away a different sense of what Paul is getting at here. We are all, whether married or not, working toward our salvation together. I’d like to think here Paul is talking about the mutual consent of each person to be a help mate in achieving life in Christ. And it is up to each us to discern which state suits us best in achieving that goal.
In Paul’s day, women were only protected, cared for if they lived in their father’s house or their husband’s house. There was only one other alternative and that would be working the street, or rather, walking the shore line, watching for the boats to come in. In Judaism divorce was permissible. Mostly men, could get a writ of divorce from their wives if she was found to have committed adultery or some such offense. So what Paul is saying here to men is that you can’t through your wife out if you don’t like her cooking or anything else for that matter. The stipulation against divorce is for woman’s protection.
All of Paul’s rhetoric here is aimed that one thing: Whatever you do, however you live he wants his audience to be free of worry, free to focus on building the body of Christ. There is in his language about marriage and for the whole community the sense that there is a mutual belonging. If your wife is an unbeliever, then keep her, perhaps by your good example she will become a believer. In other words, we all achieve salvation together. What we might miss when Paul talks about women covering their heads in public worship, is that, in spite of women not being able to study or read scripture, they could participate in the services, praying and even prophesying at their gatherings.
Paul’s message is time conditioned. I’m not making excuses for him. Women reflecting man’s glory, being created for man’s sake, shows we’ve come a long way, baby. Mostly we know our churches doesn’t view women that way, because Jesus didn’t view women that way. Although, I’m afraid, it’s still a man’s church, a man’s world, and the real tragedy is that after two thousand years, some still use these outdated views of women, Paul’s sound bites, to promote in both the public (read political) and private spheres the devaluing and denying basic human rights to women.
As I reflected on these chapters, I’m thinking how is this going to help me grow in Christ. Just like the early church would discontinue Jesus’ table fellowship without exclusivity, Paul does not here reflect how Jesus treated women. The church for many centuries followed Paul not Jesus.
Jesus respected women, care for and about them, healed them, would not let the self-righteous religious male establishment stone them, allowed them into his company, even when his disciples wanted to deny them access. Women went around with him and took care of him. And Paul might have had an experience of the rise Christ. He may have considered himself the thirteenth apostle. But in the garden on Easter morning the first person who saw Jesus was a woman. The first person he talked to was a woman. The first person’s name he spoke was a woman’s. And the first person he commissioned to go and tell the good news that he lives, was a woman.