“You’re Too Big For That” Part 2: The Problem of Paul
“You’re Too Big For That” Part 2: The Problem of Paul

Welp, looks like between my last post and this one, TeacherBae has been reprimanded. Once again, a Black woman faces penalty for having curves. It saddens me to report that the curvy Atlanta woman that prompted Part I of this conversation about voluptuousness in churches and schools may now face disciplinary action regarding her outfit choices in the classroom. Think about the message being sent when an attractive woman is punished for being attractive: cover up, or there will be problems. An attractive woman might get a similar message in church spaces, and they will use the good book to do it. In the name of Jesus. There are black church spaces that will be quick to remind women to keep their curvature covered, and some will provide their own covering for the women they deem are dressed inappropriately while sitting in or near the pulpit because heaven forbid you should be a distraction to somebody with the body God gave you. Biblical texts like 1 Timothy 2:9-10 have been used to control and to police women’s dressing habits without ever holding men to a similar standard or taking into account how difficult it is to find clothing that is not only inclined to not accommodate a Black woman’s curves but, more often than not, accentuate them. (Raise your hand if you have ever sewn a slit in a skirt or dress down for church.) The bigger questions, as I see them, are two-fold: why do we pick and choose certain antiquated cultural norms of the Bible to uphold when we certainly do not live by ALL of them, and why do we wield holy weapons against women we consider SEXY?

Let’s talk about the text first.

I’ve already blogged at length about how the Bible has been and continues to be used to protest women leading and preaching in the church. It will always burn my backside to see the Bible used to suppress the gifts and callings of women in ministry.

Unfortunately, too often the writings of the Apostle Paul are used to make the case against women preaching and leading. There is a long history of oppressors using the Bible to co-sign their own oppressive tendencies; for example, American slaveholders used “servants, obey your masters” to endorse their desire to NOT do any manual labor but rather, purchase human beings to do it. It is peculiar to me that we look at implied racism in the biblical texts with a magnifying glass, but look at the sexism through rose-colored glasses. The academic, theoretical practice of asking the question, who benefits from one interpretation of a text over another? is a method of critical thinking known as the hermeneutic of suspicion. It is easy to uphold a theology that suggests God condones slavery when you have a vested interest in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. They benefit. As such, a church culture that is dominated by women in numbers, but men in leadership, might too have a vested interest in readings of the Bible that suggest that God co-signs on men and men only being in charge of the church, and women doing all they can not to distract them from it.

Large pockets of Black church culture seem to favor the writings of Paul over the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, many of the biblical texts used to deny women the privilege of preaching are taken from the writings of Paul. Yes, the Apostle Paul is important to what we now practice as Christianity because his efforts helped spread the news about Jesus, he provided a framework for understanding Jesus (Paul’s version of Christianity was one strand of many different strands of Christianity in the ancient world, by the way), and his commitment to spreading the word as widely as possible helped to cross ethnic lines and solidify the understanding that salvation is for everyone. But what Paul isn’t, is Jesus. And his words should be understood in the context of their time.

Remember please, that patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible, not the message of the Bible. The privileging of men and maleness in ancient Palestine is not prescriptive or even conducive for a 21st century reality. And if you want to use the words and thoughts of Paul to do it, what do you do with the contradictions? Would the same Paul who suggested women keep silent in the church have meant that literally if he himself actively endorsed and upheld women in ministry? Here is just a quick list of women in ministry…in the ancient world…that Paul endorsed:

Prisca (or Priscilla, depending on your Bible version), wife of Aquila, a church leader prominent in the growing church at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 16:19, Paul gives warm greetings from Prisca and Aquila ‘with the church in their house.’

Phoebe, a deacon at Rome, that Paul favored so highly he trusted her to carry one of his letters. He also refers to her as a co-worker. Paul also refers to Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis as workers in the Lord. (Romans 16:5, 8-9,12)

Junia, referred to by Paul as an apostle, one who is ‘prominent among the apostles and that she served time IN JAIL with him. (Romans 16:7)

Please note this list is not exhaustive. So when people point to texts like 1 Timothy 2:9-10 as a mandate for how women should act, and cover their curves accordingly, keep in mind that hermeneutic of suspicion I talked about. Who benefits from policing women’s bodies? And let’s quickly examine the verses immediately following verses nine and ten; they go on to list the qualifications for male leaders which include things like being above reproach, married only once, hospitable, not a lover of money, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle. Just a bit of selective application, to say the least.

So there you have it. Double standards. And the backlash against what a curvaceous, lovely woman who works with children puts on her body reveals the same double standard, that somehow the ogling onus is on her to keep covered up, and the onus is NOT on requiring young men and boys to understand that women are not on this earth for their optic consumption.  Are we really claiming that the body God gave her is inappropriate and should be hidden from children? I heard a lot of fussing about the impact her figure MIGHT have on little boys, but did not hear much regarding the impact telling her to cover up might have on soon to blossom little girls. What message does that send them about their bodies? That their bodies are sources of shame?

If God created the human body, and said that it was good, why are we rendered so uncomfortable with all things sexy and sensual, particularly when it is manifested in a beautiful Black woman?

Let’s go through the list:

Black women have a bad history of being stereotyped as being lusty creatures in order to justify the violent sexual assaults they endured during slavery.

Black women are held to a beauty standard different from our reality.

Black women can struggle to find clothing cut to accommodate our glorious curves.

Respectability politics have been used in social spaces to silence women.

The Bible has been used to silence women.

And there is just one more thing.

I think we should just go on and own the fact that we may have internalized some of the negative thinking about us that we are besieged with regularly. Patriarchy encourages women to compete with each other. We must resist the urge to project resentment toward the women who can adhere to what society says is attractive and sexy. Let’s own the fact that one reason we envy women who are comfortable in their own skin because we are, and are made to feel, so uncomfortable in our own. It is far easier to tell a woman to cover up and tell her that she is dressed inappropriately than to wrestle with our own insecurities. That is why some of us can scream, your dress is inappropriate! The Bible says be modest! and just skate on by that braided hair and gold jewelry part of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 because we are not exempt from selective application ourselves.

Let’s do better. We can do better. Let’s be certain that God loves every bit of us, every square inch of us, and believe that we deserve massive amounts of love in spite of the messaging we get about our ‘persistent lack of desirability’ because it is not the truth about us. It is not a holy thing at all to make yourself small in your own eyes. Love yourself more. Love yourself because it is a sacred act to love yourself. Maybe if we love ourselves a bit more, we will be offended less. Let’s make every effort not to smear our own resentment about ourselves on other people. We’re too big for that.