We assume that before his conversion Paul had taught a patriarchal model of marriage. [Note: For an outline of what that was see Appendix A] In our day he would have been called a male chauvinist.
[Note : The chauvinism of Nicolas Chauvin was a militant commitment to the supremacy of France under Napoleon. It is now used for other attitudes including an unreasonable attitude to women. Throughout this book we will see that an attitude becomes reasonable or unreasonable from the point of view of the model we have adopted.] Many women assume that Paul continued to be a male chauvinist after becoming a Christian. But in this passage from a letter to the church in Corinth we are astonished to find Paul teaching a total mutuality between husbands and wives: "Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self control. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. To the married I give this command - not I but the Lord - that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say - I and not the Lord - that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife." [1 Cor. 7:1-16]
We have quoted this in full because it seems to be the original charter of our very modern idea of genuine mutuality in marriage. Some of Paul's ideas may be hard to understand, but here we find a rabbi presenting a vision of a tenfold mutuality between husbands and wives which would have been unthinkable in a patriarchal model of marriage.
Old Testament men like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon felt free to have other wives and concubines but this new mutuality assumes the same kind of monogamy as we do. In patriarchy a woman was owned by her husband. In no sense could it be said that she had a right to him. But Paul begins his chapter on marriage with the principle of mutual possession. In a modern wedding service he and she both say "to have and to hold" based on the apostle's words "Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband."
The apostle also specifies a total mutuality of sexual giving and receiving. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband." Even now in many parts of the world only men have sexual rights. Paul's idea of women having a say in the expression of her sexuality is incredibly modern.
Thirdly as opposed to patriarchal authority, both the man and the woman are to offer their body in loving service to the other. "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." The old marriage service used to capture this spiritual dimension in the mysterious words "with my body I thee worship." But where did Paul get such an astonishing idea?
Paul expects a mutuality of prayer in a Christian marriage, though he does not want this to become excessively monastic. "Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again."
The apostle commends his own vocation of celibacy, but he recognizes the ordinary sexual needs of women as well as men. "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self- control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." We cannot imagine Paul being concerned for the sexual needs of widows before his conversion.
Neither party in a Christian marriage should contemplate breaking up their agreed mutuality. "The wife should not separate from her husband ...and the husband should not divorce his wife." The mutuality here is in stark contrast to patriarchal practice where only the man can initiate a divorce. Although he indicates this is only a personal opinion, Paul also has a strict mutuality in mind even where the other partner is not committed to a Christian model of marriage. "To the rest I say - I and not the Lord - that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him." Here when Paul distinguishes his own opinion from the Lord's this suggests that he received a model of marriage that originated from Jesus himself.
Perhaps the most striking mutuality between men and women is in the statement that "the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." If either the wife or the husband has faith in God, her holiness or his holiness counts for the whole family. Whatever being holy means in this case, it is hard to conceive of a stronger statement of mutuality in an apostle who is often maligned as a male chauvinist.
There is the right of Christian women, as well as men, to allow a partner to leave if he or she has no spiritual commitment to the marriage. "If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound." If however there is any way to maintain peace with a partner who does not share one's faith the outcome could easily be a glorious change in attitude. "It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife." We wonder how a Pharisaic rabbi could ever arrive at the idea of a woman saving her husband?
In every one of these ten cases Paul declares a complete mutuality of rights and loving responsibilities between wives and husbands. And this very modern vision of mutuality is mentioned without surprise as if it was already part of a new model of Christian marriage.
How long did it take for Paul to change from patriarchy to mutuality? Our guess is that Paul wrote his letter to Corinth during his third missionary journey, and this might have been about twenty years after his conversion. We imagine he had many discussions and struggles as he changed his mind. And even later in this same letter he still thinks it is necessary for married women to recognize the headship of their husbands by wearing a veil on their head. [1 Corinthians 11:1- 5] Is this evidence that he still had some patriarchal attitudes which would change in due course? We prefer to think that his definition of headship in marriage is unlikely to be a denial of his previous statement that "the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does," [1 Corinthians 7:4] Which must mean that in some senses a married woman has the same kind of authority as her husband.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians women often object to "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." [Ephesians 5:22] But they may not notice that the passage begins with "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," which requires a submission of each person to every other member of the Christian community. It is in that context that we have by way of example three pairs of mutual submissions in the church. Wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. [Ephesians 5:21-6:9] The submission of wives was already well known in the ancient world. What is new is the huge submission of "Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church." Which would suit most married women just fine.
Similarly the submission of children and slaves had been taken for granted. But now there is the recognition of the submission of parents for many long years to their children's needs and the added difficulty of "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger." Similarly the enthusiastic service of slaves "as to the Lord" is to be balanced by the corresponding submission of "Masters, do the same to them." [Ephesians 5:25, 6:4 and 9] In this passage the headship of husbands, parents, and those in any kind of management is certainly not a one-sided autocratic authority.
Paul's analogy of a local church as a body with many kinds of function is in any case incompatible with a patriarchal wielding of authority. [Note: Set out in 1Corinthians 12:4-14:33 and Ephesians 4:11-16] It requires a mutual submission of members with many different gifts, of whatever sex or age or class, to one another. Listeners submit to whoever is teaching or giving a prophecy. Pastors submit to the flock. Those with gifts of healing attend to the sick. All are to serve and love all others in the family. And the mutual submissions of husbands and wives to one another is one part of this surprising new kind of organism.
We might compare headship and functional differences in any sport. In Canadian football the quarterback and coach have a headship in certain respects, but only within the total mutuality involved in being a winning team. The coach is responsible for training the team. The quarterback has to submit his throw to the catcher. And the linebackers have to fight in the scrum. Similarly in every marriage couples have to structure their daily lives according to their training, place of work, the needs of children, and a host of other factors. Some functions may be fixed by body structure like breast feeding or his or her physical strength. Other tasks may depend on preferences like gardening or keeping accounts. He might undertake to keep the car serviced. She chooses to keep track of birthdays, hospitality and social occasions. As each does her or his part the other has a particular submission for that situation. But if he or she has an accident or falls sick the usual arrangements have to be restructured immediately.
When we have made a model shift to this ideal of community there may still be a need for a time to submit, at least to some extent, to the cultural norms of the country one is working in. A woman who normally feels free to wear shorts or a swimsuit will in Arabia decide to wear certain kinds of clothing and head covering in public places until the current customs are changed.
There is also a necessary sequence of change. Jesus for example told his disciples to "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans." But the same Gospel ends with the great commission to teach all nations. [Matthew 10:5 and 28:19] If Jesus needed to allow for a progression in making the good news known, we imagine Paul must have had a sequence of change in mind for his converts from many different cultures into the new churches. The attitudes of husbands to their wives, and wives to their husbands, would need time to adapt to the new vision.
Similarly we have to read Paul in the light of the need to tailor the new model to each particular situation that arises. Which suggests that "women should be silent in the churches" cannot be a universal rule for all church situations. Having stated clearly the principle of mutuality earlier in the letter Paul is dealing with women misusing their new freedom to chatter during services. We ourselves noted a similar chatter during Greek Orthodox services in Crete and Cyprus. [Note : 1 Corinthians 14:33-36. There is a huge discussion among scholars about the cultural situations that underlie this text. We found a particularly helpful explanation by Kenneth E. Bailey, "Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View." Anvil, 11.1, 1994, 15-24.]
Paul's ruling comes in a passage where all Christians, both male and female, are members of the same body and apparently exercise all the spiritual gifts. [1 Corinthians 12:4-11] There were certainly some cases of women being prophets in the Old Testament, and Philip the evangelist had "four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy." [Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22, Act 21:9] So the male chauvinist exclusion of women from any kind of public ministry cannot be what Paul had in mind in this text. All the other parts of the new model would make that impossible. Although we have no evidence to explain how Paul shifted so radically from patriarchy to mutuality we cannot resist hazarding a guess as to the kind of situations which might have helped him change his mind. It must have been a traumatic experience to find himself in a Christian community where women as well as men were being baptized. [Acts 5:14] This meant that they became disciples of the Word of God on the same basis as men. Following the example of Jesus women were being taught the Old Testament, which was strictly forbidden by the rabbis. We like to think that another turning point might have been Paul's arrival in Philippi to evangelize Europe. He had seen a vision of a man of Macedonia asking him to come over and help. But when he got to Philippi Paul discovered that the man of Macedonia was really a woman. Lydia was the first convert, the first church met in her home, and the first communion service was probably at her dining room table. [Acts 16:9-15, 40] After a few months Paul might have seen the new model of marriage in action when he stayed with Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth. She was obviously a liberated woman, who later took the lead in inviting a famous Alexandrian theologian to her home in Ephesus and "explained the Way of God to him more accurately." [Acts 18:1-4, 18-21]
But we are only guessing, and we will never know exactly how God managed to transform Paul's attitude to women. He himself exhorted us to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God." [Romans 12:2 margin] We are sure that such an astonishing model shift cannot have occurred suddenly in one flash of illumination. And at each stage the old model embedded in his mind would resist change, and the new would seem too radical for comfort. That has certainly been our experience. It also seems certain that he must have derived this amazing new vision of what marriage was about from Jesus, the Son of God himself. Either he learned it second hand from the apostles, or other Christians, or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, or more probably by all of these reacting on one another.
The problem for us is that the mutuality in marriage that Paul set out in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 is not as easy as it sounds. What if David's idea of freedom is the danger of climbing high mountains, and Heather longs to walk barefoot in the sand and swim in warm salt water? Do they decide that his freedom is important and she should learn to put up with his idea of joy? Or do they alternate and go to the Mediterranean in the summer and the Alps the next winter? Or is the solution to take separate holidays? Making the arrangements for one holiday a year might be manageable, but in our passage Paul seems to expect a daily and costly mutual submission "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish for the rest of our lives."
We will leave to a final chapter Paul's explanation of how the Holy Spirit can inspire and empower us for this and all other kinds of costly loving. But first we need to explore Jesus' paradoxical statement about divorce actually causing the other to commit adultery. That will prepare us to consider how each partner's expectation for the marriage influences his or her definition of what would adulterate it.