Using and misusing St. Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality

by Savi Hensman


This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of theological and historical work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.


Some Christians look to St Paul as the guardian of a narrow doctrinal and moral purity, and cite his writings to ‘prove’, for example, the sinfulness of homosexual relationships. Others criticise him for the parallel reasons, seeing him as oppressive of women, gays and others. Indeed he is sometimes regarded as radically altering the faith Jesus founded, replacing freedom in Christ with rule-based religion. Neither view, I will argue, is fair to Paul, to the radical transformation he underwent, or to the contradictions with which he wrestled – personally, theologically and as a leader of a growing movement.

This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity – including, for example, the conversations opened up by Neil Elliot’s book Liberating Paul, and the work (in German) of Ulrich Duchrow and others, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.

1. Who was Paul?

A complex figure, Paul first appears in the Acts of the Apostles as Saul of Tarsus, a young religious fanatic who tries to stamp out Christianity by violence. After a dramatic conversion experience in which he encounters Christ, he becomes a Christian himself and, while Jewish himself, focuses on bringing the good news to other peoples.

His influence on the church has been profound. His letters (epistles) are part of the New Testament and are often quoted, though scholars now believe that several ‘Pauline’ epistles were actually written by other people.

According to John Dominic Crossan, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon were by the historical Paul, but Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians were probably not his work, and 1-2 Timothy and Titus certainly not by him. (Jouette M Basler suggests that, while 2 Thessalonians and Colossians could possibly have been by Paul, there is overwhelming evidence that Ephesians, 1-2 Timothy and Titus were not.)

Difference in authorship explains some of the contradictions which have puzzled many readers, though other differences arise from the range of specific problems he was addressing, and the nature of the Wisdom tradition which helped to shape his approach.

2. Wisdom’s call and Paul’s response

The Wisdom tradition runs through much of the Hebrew Bible, and is particularly marked in what are known as the Wisdom books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The later Jewish books of Wisdom (of Solomon) and Sirach (the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus) are included in some Bibles and regarded as Deuterocanonical works of value (though not Scriptural) in certain other Christian traditions, and were influential in Paul’s day.

The name of Solomon – the scholar-king with wide knowledge of natural history (1 Kings 4.29-34) and deep understanding of the human heart (1 Kings 3.16-28), whom people travelled from afar to hear – is often associated with Wisdom. Some now associate the figure of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) with the Holy Spirit. Through observation, experience, learning and reflection, this tradition sought a deeper understanding of the universe, how God is at work in it and how people ought to live.

In the words of Proverbs:

Does not wisdom call?

Does not understanding raise her voice?…

“To you, O my people, I call,

And my cry is to all that live….

I love those who love me,

and those who seek me diligently find me”…

The mind of the wise makes their speech judicious

and adds persuasiveness to their lips.

(Proverbs 8.1, 17, 16.23)

Some passages in the Wisdom books are subjective (for instance the lament in Psalm 55 at betrayal by a friend and the sense of futility in Ecclesiastes 2), or are based on outmoded knowledge. For example, unlike the time when Psalm 19 was composed, it is known today that the sun’s journey does not cover the whole of the heavens: the universe is far larger. However an illustration based on flawed science does not necessarily invalidate an argument.

Indeed people in the twenty-first century have much to learn from those in earlier eras who, without modern scientific equipment, found out so much about the workings of the universe and, without computers or even printing, sought knowledge so diligently and made efforts to communicate it widely. And it is useful to remember that, to many even in the ancient world, religion was not seen as solely a matter of revelation detached from reason.

In Acts 17, Paul is portrayed sharing the good news in radically different contexts – with a mainly Jewish audience in Thessalonica, then Beroea, and later with Gentiles in Athens. In Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue and “argued with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead”. So Paul drew creatively on the Hebrew Bible, reinterpreting it in the light of new experience.

In Athens “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. But he did not launch into a fierce denunciation of Gentiles’ wicked ways. Instead he entered into debate with philosophers and accepted an invitation to the Areopagus (named after the god Ares).

There, he engaged with them on their own intellectual as well as physical terrain, saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands”.

Paul went on to explain that God made all nations from one ancestor, intending that “they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

So he was able to affirm and build on what was positive in their culture, while challenging aspects which he believed alienated them from the living God.

In Paul’s writings too, he acknowledged the importance of Wisdom, for instance in Romans 11, where he drew on Hebrew Scripture, including Job:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counsellor?”

In 1 Corinthians 1-2 Paul contrasted worldly with true wisdom:

since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe… Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages.

He went on to write that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” This resembles Wisdom 9: “Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”

1 Corinthians 8 declares that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The author of Colossians (possibly Paul) extols Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There are echoes perhaps of Wisdom 7-8, in which Wisdom:

is a reflection of eternal light,

a spotless mirror of the working of God,

and an image of his goodness.

Although she is but one, she can do all things,

and while remaining in herself, she renews all things…

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,

and she orders all things well.

According to Sirach 1:

Wisdom was created before all other things,

and prudent understanding from eternity.

Thus the Christ to whom Christians are joined may be seen as an embodiment of divine Wisdom.

When considering what Paul said and wrote on particular topics, it is instructive to take account of his wider approach of seeking to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, how God was and is at work, including in the lives of believers. Indeed in 2 Corinthians 3, he informed his readers that “you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”.

3. Paul and women

As has often been pointed out, Paul’s attitudes to women were seemingly contradictory. This is explained to some extent by the different authorship of some ‘Pauline’ epistles, but not entirely.

Paul wrote appreciatively about female fellow-evangelists and church leaders, including the deacon Phoebe, and Junia, “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16). He also stated in Galatians 3 that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Some regard this statement as being solely about spiritual equality, without implications for social relationships, but this distinction is questionable: for instance Paul was critical of Jewish believers who shied away from eating with Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wrote on marriage in terms of mutuality. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11 he declared:

I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head… a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.

(We should note that this is contrary to Genesis 1, cited by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, in which both man and women are created in God’s image. Peter Williams and others have suggested an alternative reading of this ‘headship’ language, pointing out that in Hebrew anthropology, the source of decision-making authority is the gut, not the head, and that ‘head’ was understood as denoting source or origin. In which case Paul is here citing the Genesis account of woman being created out of the rib of a man – itself meant as an alternative to violent Mesopotamian myths that required the destruction of the feminine as the condition for creation – and stretching it into an argument about propriety and church order. There may be something in this, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul ends up with a depiction which is inherently subordinationist, even if this is not the intention.)

There are strong cultural factors at work here. In Paul’s day women’s hair was believed to inflame men’s passions and going about with free-flowing hair was frowned upon, rather like going topless in some societies today. He was concerned not to stoke the prejudice which Christians were already likely to face from those around them, as well as being swayed by the prejudices of the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of his day, in which gender distinctions and male dominance were heavily emphasised.

In chapter 14 he went on to urge, in the context of avoiding disorderly worship:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Confusingly, he then advises the Christians in Corinth (presumably of both sexes) to “be eager to prophesy”. It has been suggested that the practical concern he was addressing arose when women and men were sitting apart (as customary in worship) and wives called out to their husbands, disrupting the service.

In addition the authors of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and Titus urged female submission.

It would seem likely that Paul experienced a tension between, on one hand, the freedom of a new community where barriers were broken down in Christ and roles determined charismatically and, on the other hand, the pressure of social and cultural expectations, as well as practical challenges.

However, especially when taken out of context, these passages appeared to endorse women’s inferiority. They could also be read as criticising anyone who sought to change gender, since this could be perceived as either abandoning one’s God-given dignity if born male, or improperly aspiring to a higher status if born female. Later teachers and leaders, including the authors of other ‘Pauline’ epistles, tended to shy away even further from the radical implications of being “one in Christ”.

Far more evidence is now available of the suffering and waste resulting from sexual inequality and rigid gender roles, and the benefits to church and society as well as individual women of recognising their gifts. The fruits of scholars’ knowledge and many people’s experience should be taken into account: as Sirach 6 puts it:

If you love to listen you will gain knowledge,

and if you pay attention you will become wise…

If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him;

let your foot wear out his doorstep.

(Or, in the era of modern communication, search out the relevant journal articles or websites as well as listening to others in person before reaching firm conclusions.)

4. Paul and homosexuality

Paul’s stance on sexuality has also been the subject of much debate. This is complicated by the fact that the modern concept of homosexual orientation was probably unknown in the ancient world, though of course some people engaged in sexual relationships with those of the same biological sex (and might today have been regarded as LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans).

Ancient Jewish law forbade sex between men, a practice largely seen as associated with other, idolatrous nations, though not sex between women. The Greeks and Romans tended to approve of sex between males only if one was clearly socially inferior to the other (e.g. a youth or slave penetrated by an adult freeman), while a man who chose to “play the woman” would face mockery or worse.

1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and the pseudo-Pauline 1 Timothy 1.8-11 are often quoted as forbidding gay sex, yet there are widely varying views on how the relevant terms should be translated, let alone what weight they should be given today. 1 Corinthians 6 includes a list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, including malakoi and arsenokoitai, while the latter term is part of a list in 1 Timothy 1 of those to whom the law applies. The term malakoi (soft/weak/unmanly) may or may not have sexual connotations, while the obscure arsenokoitai may refer to male prostitutes, pimps or men having sex with men in general.

In the Authorised (King James) version, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

This might indicate that Paul set the bar higher than Jesus, who was himself labelled as a glutton and drunkard by the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 11.19), and who warned them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21.31). Indeed Paul’s warning would appear to be at odds with other Pauline teachings such as Romans 10.9 (“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”).

However it is understandable that Paul would want to affirm the positive changes made by people joining the church and, like other Wisdom writers, encourage virtuous living. It is unclear what bearing 1 Corinthians has on equal relationships between adult men.

Romans 1 possibly comes the closest to addressing what might be regarded today as homosexuality. To quote the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth… Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles…

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error…

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

The main thrust of the argument is that those who condemn them are also sinners: “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself” (Romans 2.1), in the context of an argument against legalism. He chose behaviour which pious Jews would abhor in order to drive home the notion that both Jews and Gentiles were reliant on God’s grace, and could be saved by faith. So using the passage legalistically misses the point.

Nevertheless the theory Paul seems to be espousing deserves attention: of idolatry leading to ‘perverse’ heterosexual behaviour, probably anal sex, giving men a taste for ‘unnatural’ sex which they then indulged with one another. (It is also possible, though unlikely, that the passage alludes to lesbian sex.) After all, it is not impossible for the direction of desire to be influenced by social ideals, e.g. of feminine or masculine attractiveness.

He seems to refer to the theory in Wisdom 13-14 about the origins of immorality:

all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;

and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists…

the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication,

and the invention of them was the corruption of life…

they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure,

but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery,

and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,

confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favours,

defiling of souls, sexual perversion,

disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.

The behaviour of some members of the Roman ruling class in the first century, including Emperor Nero and his family, would have given further credence to this belief. However, in Romans, Paul questioned whether even those who worshipped one God were as righteous as they supposed.

As has been pointed out in recent decades, Romans 1 does not appear to fit LGB people, partnered or otherwise, whose orientation has not arisen from idol-worship and who are no more prone to vices such as envy and malice than their heterosexual neighbours.

In addition, far more is known now about sexuality than two thousand years ago, for instance that same-sex acts or pair-bonding occur in many species. Also, across cultures and throughout history, a minority of people have been mainly homosexual in orientation, and physical intimacy and/or marriage have often taken place between partners of the same biological sex. However how same-sex desire is perceived and expressed has varied considerably. As Paul sought out and learnt from the most plausible theories of his day, we would do well to do the same today.

More positively for LGB people, at a time when there was heavy emphasis on procreation, and the single and childless risked being marginalised, Paul upheld the acceptability of being unmarried (as Jesus had done), creating space for sexual minorities. He also encouraged a sense of ‘family’ that went beyond biological bonds, urging Christians to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12.10)

Though almost certainly celibate himself, he was also realistic about the fact that most people were not cut out for lifelong abstinence. His suggestion that “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn” was not the most enthusiastic endorsement of marriage! However it is still an important practical point that partnership allows people to channel desire constructively.

He thus prudently steered a path between the extremes of taking all sexual feelings at face value and suggesting that people could easily refrain from ever expressing their sexuality physically.

There is now extensive evidence that heterosexual marriages entered into by lesbian and gay people, though occasionally successful, are often tokenistic, short-lived or damaging to both partners; and that permanent celibacy works well for only for a minority of people, LGBT or heterosexual. In contrast, same-sex partnerships can be stable, joyful and a source of love which overspills to others in the community. It could be argued that “it is better to marry than to burn” could apply to same-sex as well as opposite-sex marriage.

5. Wider principles and ethical trajectories

Other writings by Paul are indirectly relevant when wrestling with ethical issues linked with gender and sexuality.

He made it clear that, in his view, moral conduct was not a matter of following arbitrary commands supposedly issued by God. In Romans 13, he wrote:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

In Galatians, likewise, Paul strongly criticised legalism: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ… the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Love is not a sentimental notion: Paul writes at some length about what this might involve in practice (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13), and elsewhere suggests criteria for determining whether the Holy Spirit is at work in particular relationships and situations (Galatians 5.22-23).

There is an overlap with Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ in Matthew 7.12: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

In addition, he advocated – and strove to build – a community not fundamentally based on hierarchy or competitiveness, an approach that remains radical even today. For instance he portrayed the church as a body with Christ as the head:

just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12

Thus exclusion of any comes at a cost to all. And, within this ethos, there is no reason to suppose that improving the status of women or LGBT people will necessarily result in reduced status for men and masculinity, or heterosexuals and heterosexual marriage.

He also went to considerable lengths to challenge the marginalisation of converts and insistence that they adopt Jewish law to be fully included in Christian worship, to the point of challenging the main church leaders (Galatians 2.11-14, Acts 15). Attitudes and measures that discourage some groups of people from joining, or fully participating in, the church should not be lightly adopted.

6. Learning from Paul

Paul’s writings are sometimes cited by both supporters and opponents of women’s equality. Likewise, in debates on sexuality, he is often quoted by those who regard same-sex partnerships as wrong, while others believe such passages are not relevant to committed and equal relationships today.

However, perhaps even more important than Paul’s perspective on specific issues is how he reached his conclusions. Using particular passages as a new ‘law’ that means that other Christian views can be rubbished and the fruits of experience, learning and reflection ignored, misses the point of much of what he taught, and how he himself worked.

Steeped in the Wisdom tradition, he set an example of grappling with difficult issues. Christians today would be well advised to learn from him to study Scripture diligently yet approach it creatively, engage critically with surrounding cultures and advances in knowledge, and seek to determine whether particular acts or omissions involve harming one’s neighbour. The building of a community in which all are valued and brought to fullness of life, through the grace of Christ who died and rose again, is also of crucial importance, even if this involves challenging the seemingly important and self-righteous.

If indeed the refusal of full equality is demonstrably causing damage at both a personal and community level, we might be well advised to follow the advice in Sirach 4.26:

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,

and do not try to stop the current of a river.


See also:

* James Alison, “But the Bible says…”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1: [The author is a Catholic theologian and author. He is noted for his application of René Girard’s anthropological theory to systematic theology and also for his theological work on LGBT issues.]

* Savi Hensman, ‘Thinking theologically: Bible, tradition, reason and experience’

* ____________, ‘Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love’:

* Noel Moules, Sex, orientation and theological debate: an evangelical response

* Neil Eliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God And the Politics (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

* Simon Barrow, ‘St Paul: uniting past and future’, Ekklesia, 1999.

This essay was first published at Ekklesia. Used with permission.

© Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious/theological issues – writing in the Guardian newspaper, among other places. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate. Her regular blog is here: Her column can be found at:

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