Misreading St Paul on women…

‘women will be saved through child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness and self-control.’ 1 Timothy 2:15 

photo credit: duane_j

I remember studying that passage in my theology undergraduate class at university and prickling with anger. So, I thought to myself, men are saved by the cross and women are saved by having babies?!  I remarked wisely to my lecturer after the class that it was clear that the misogynistic attitudes of the age in which St Paul’s lived had not been purged away by his new faith. This was surely biological determinism painted onto the canvas of Christianity? She heartily agreed, however as soon as I had made the remarks I felt a voice somewhere in my heart protest. I knew I was missing something that would flip the whole passage around.

The truth is I was reading the passage with secular eyes. I was seeing child-bearing and motherhood, because of its obvious challenges and sacrifices, as something to be despised. Being a mother is hard because it demands the totality of the person, body and soul. The sacrifice a mother makes for a child goes beyond that of the father as she literally gives her body for the life of the child. She says to her unborn child ‘this is my body given for you’. After the child is born she says to the baby ‘take eat, this is my body’.

Motherhood is a radical way in which woman can imitate the total gift of self that Christ made of Himself. Through child-bearing women’s bodies become eucharistic. Is it any wonder then that St Paul says that motherhood, lived in union with Christ, can be redemptive? For St Paul imitating Christ is key to being His faithful disciples. He writes in Philippians “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

Self-emptying in order to serve others is what we are all called to in our various situations and walks of life. Women, by virtue of their amazing capacity to bear another human person within their bodies, are able to live this in a very radical way through their parenthood. Of course St Paul was by no means saying that women can only live this self-giving love through motherhood. If he believed that would he write a paean of praise to men and women who devote themselves to the celibate life? ‘Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do… An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.’ (1 Cor.  8 , 1 Cor 32)

Saint Paul is not, as I thought, restricting women to their biology. He is in fact doing the opposite by showing how the female body can be the means by which women claim the salvation Christ has won for them. We must never forget that Christianity is a religion of the flesh. The great Church Father Tertullian wrote, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”.  We are redeemed through the flesh of Christ and one day hope to be resurrected in our flesh. Saint Paul knew this profound truth and he meditated upon what this meant for women. This is not biological determinism, this is theological destiny.


Are you asking the right questions?

photo credit: pedrojperez

‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. Surely life is more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, however much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?’ 

Every Wednesday, those who gather for the Pure in Heart holy hour hear these words spoken. Matthew 6:25-34 may not be an obvious choice of scripture for Pure in Heart to take as its emblem; there is no mention of sexuality, chastity, purity or morality. If these were the only words of Jesus’ that you were to ever hear, you would think his only concerns are that we live like the rest of creation – in the moment, utterly dependent on the Father’s providence, and to recognise our inherent beauty and worth. Yet these things lie at the heart of purity, beneath the lifestyle choices we make.

The roadblock: fearful questioning

As we journey deeper into God, we hear the Lord inviting us, ‘You trust in God, trust also in me’ (John 14:1). We long to do as He did, putting His whole life in the hands of the Father. Though we may desire this, so much fear stands in the way. In his book In the House of the Lord, Henri Nouwen observes we have become so accustomed to being fearful we no longer notice it. He explores how our fear reveals itself in the types of questions that preoccupy us:

‘Fear engenders fear. Fear never gives birth to love. If this is the case, the nature of the questions we raise is as important as the answers to our questions. Which questions guide our lives? Which questions do we make our own? Which questions deserve our undivided attention and full personal commitment? Finding the right questions is as crucial as finding the right answers. A careful look at the Gospels shows that Jesus seldom accepted the questions posed to him. He exposed them as coming from the house of fear [Nouwen lists some examples]. To none of these questions did Jesus give a direct answer. He gently put them aside as questions emerging from false worries […] Therefore Jesus always transformed the question by his answer. He made the question new – and only then worthy of his response.’ 

The scripture that came to my mind when I read this, reinforced by hearing it week after week, was Matthew 6: 31-33. Jesus exhorts us, ‘do not worry, do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?” It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.’ Nouwen’s prompt to take a good look at the questions I ask with my life exposes the ways I still live like a gentile within. It all comes down to the questions that lie in the heart. It is entirely possible to go to Mass, have a committed prayer life, live chastely, and still be uncertain whether God will provide.

The way forward

The good news is that prayer and sacraments are the means by which God gently uncovers our unbelief as well as our great worth. Jesus knows when he asks us to lose control that this terrifies us. He saw through His disciples’ questioning to the fear that lingered in their hearts even though they had dropped their nets to follow Him. As with them, He wants to help us replace questions born of worldly anxiety, fear and self-sufficiency with questions that empower us to live like God’s children. My heart sincerely desires to give God all of my trust and to be surprised by his loving care for me, but do I give him much opportunity? Often I don’t, but sometimes I do.

Trust in God is itself a gift received, but like all virtues, it grows when we practice it in little things. We can exhaust ourselves straining to hear answers to big questions like, ‘Where should I live? What work should I do? Where is my husband/wife/community?!’ We desperately try to trust God in all these things, but do we trust him when we’re running late and the bus hasn’t shown up? Do we trust Him when we get exasperated with own weaknesses that His grace is nevertheless at work within us? If we seek His kingdom first, everything else follows. The point of all this personal growth is never oneself. However, it is only a heart that loves and trusts God that is free to love. Shortly after reading Nouwen, I came across this short video of Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, of the Sisters of Life:


As an answer to prayer I didn’t even know I’d made, she gave me a question to steer my heart towards the future: ‘The most important question in your life is, “What will you do with your love?”’ For all of us, especially the young who are discerning God’s call, ‘what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed’ (1 John 3:2). I encourage you to put aside your fretting, your attempts to figure it all out, and ask how you will love God today – with this body, this heart, this life you have, through the people He has placed before you.