Apostle Paul--a sexist? Not!
His ancient document instructed humanity to liberate women...the right way.

Harold N. Miller

Last week a gifted high school student told me that his circle of friends had decided the Apostle Paul "was an idiot"--that his writings show him to be sexist, homophobic, bigoted, and so on.

I responded that Paul actually wrote one of the most liberating documents for women of all time.

When we read Ephesians 5:21-33 in our century, we see it restricting and limiting women. I invariably cringe when I read "wives, submit to your husbands."

But try reading it with first century eyeglasses.

In Paul's world (Greco-Roman and Jewish) the ideal wife was portrayed as submissive and obedient to her husband, often slavishly so. Philo of Alexandria indicates, as a matter of common knowledge, that women are "endowed by nature with little sense." The historian Josephus writes that the woman "is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed."

Husbands and wives normally loved each other, of course. But ancient household codes instructed the husband on how to "rule" or "govern" his wife, not in how to love her.

Into this world comes Paul. Unlike his contemporaries he does not urge husbands to make sure the wife submits. No word of that. Instead he tells the husband to love and sacrifice himself for his wife (v25) and to care for her as he does his own body (v28). By the time Paul gets done, husband and wife--from a practical standpoint--are equal: the wife submits (gives a hundred percent) and the husband sacrifices himself (gives a hundred percent).

A case can be made that Paul, by adding sacrifice to the husband's job description, took the wisest route toward ending the master-servant form of marriage.

Our culture chose another way to move toward a mutual husband-wife relationship (one in which decisions are made together and responsibilities are assigned according to ability not gender). Instead of waiting for mutuality to grow as the man serves and sacrifices, our society opted to subtract submission from wife's job description. Instead of mutual submission, modern marriage has no submission.

Paul's instruction keeps relationships whole. Rather than working for equality by encouraging the one "under" to try to win at a power struggle, Paul works for equality by encouraging the one "on top" to choose to empty himself and become a servant. He offers a recipe for love rather than one for war.

If only we men would obey Paul. We can't blame women for not being willing to wait until men start serving their wives instead of dominating them. The responsibility lies with the men. Ephesians was written about AD 60. So women basically waited 1900 years for us to obey God and stop dominating them and causing all the wounds of patriarchalism. They finally gave up waiting -- and the result has been all the societal wounds from divorce, fatherlessness, and so on.

Maybe Paul was foolish -- if he thought men would listen. The shame is not his but ours.

This column appeared in The Leader (Corning NY)