In part, he writes:
In her new book, Paul Among the People, classics scholar Sarah Ruden writes the common view of the Apostle Paul as an “oppressor of women” could “hardly be more wrong.” With the exception of a handful of high-born matrons, the Roman world often treated women worse than it did cattle …
Thus, when Paul wrote that the “husband should treat the wife’s body as his own,” he inverted the way marriage was seen in the classical world. As Ruden put it, the ridiculous idea that some promote that Paul saw women as “sexual and domestic servants” could only be the result of a “brain fever.”
Paul’s teaching about equality in the Church was, if anything, even more revolutionary. The distinctions between slave and free, high-born and plebian were so much a part of the classical world that Paul’s teaching was scandalous. It was so scandalous that the pagan critic Celsus called Christianity a “religion of women, children and slaves.”
I think Colson’s remarks are an incredibly helpful reminder. So often, we read Paul from a modern perspective, and we forget what kind of world he lived in. As a result, Paul comes off sounding very weak in some places and overly harsh against women in others. From a modern point of view, Paul doesn’t go near far enough.
However, when we remember the world in which he lived, suddenly we begin to hear Paul differently. In Paul’s world, women had few, if any, rights, and equality was non-existent. In that context, most of Paul’s comments are incredibly empowering to the women of his day. And the few comments that cause us so much trouble need to be heard against that broader backdrop.
It’s much like Paul’s views on slavery. From a modern perspective, Paul doesn’t go nearly far enough. He still treats slavery as a functional institution. However, in his day, Paul’s ideas were radical: that a slave is a human being and is equal in value to his master. What’s more, you can hear Paul moving in the direction of the abolition of slavery, that all ought to be free.
In both instances, it’s important to remember where culture and society were on these issues and to note the direction that Paul and the church were moving. That doesn’t mean that Paul would agree with all of our views on gender and sexuality today. But, it does mean that Paul isn’t quite the misogynist he’s so often made out to be.