I’ve gotten great feedback on my posts so far. I hope my readers have been as challenged and encouraged as I have. I anticipate that this post will generate more push-back than the others. For some reason, many have made one’s adherence to certain social guidelines for gender the measure for holiness and biblical living. Anyone who would step out of the lines of these gender roles is viewed as one who rejects God’s Word or, worse – liberal(!).
However, as I will argue here, it is possible to hold to sola scriptura and come to a different conclusion.
Since this series concerns the practices of the church, I will only deal with the “limiting passages” which address women in the gathering. Perhaps another time we can discuss gender roles in the home.
Two main passages are used to limit the woman’s ability to take part in leading the gathering: 1 Cor 14:33-40 and 1 Tm 2:9-15. We will deal with each in turn. First, however, I want to point out a few of the passages in which women are stepping outside of their “roles.”
Judges 4-5 – Deborah leads the nation of Israel as its highest human authority.
2 Kings 22 – Huldah, a prophetess, is chosen by Israel’s King, Josiah (one who did right in the eyes of the Lord) to interpret Scripture. She was chosen over her male contemporaries (Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk).
Esther broke all of the rules and saved the Israelites
Rom 16:1-2 – Paul commends Phoebe the deacon (the feminine form, “deaconess,” doesn’t exist in Greek). The word diakonos is not merely used for “deacons” as we currently understand them. The word simply means servant or minister. It is the exact same word Jesus uses to describe the leaders of God’s Kingdom (Mt 20:25-26; Lk 22:25-26)! It is also used to refer to Timothy, Tychicus, and other male leaders.
Rom 16:7 – Junia is listed as an outstanding apostle. Chrysostom (344 AD) said of her,
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles–just think of what a wonderful song of praise that is! . . . Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”
Acts 18:18-28 – Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos (note: Priscilla is listed first, which is immensely important in the Greek language). A church met in their house (Rom 16:3-5). Rachel Held Evans put it best, “It would be hard to imagine that Priscilla, a gifted teacher, would have been prevented from speaking in her own home!” This is especially true when we consider the open-participatory nature of the early church gatherings.
Speaking of which, note these passages which direct all the church to participate in teaching, singing, prophesying, speaking in tongues, interpreting, admonishing, encouraging, and disciplining without gender discrimination: Matt 18; 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25, etc.
There’s more where that came from. In light of this, I find it interesting that we have so much evidence for female leadership and only two passages which seem to deny them leadership and no one wants to question whether the limiting interpretation might be wrong. Would it really hurt to consider?
I don’t think so. Let’s consider together. . .
1 Cor 14:33-40
1 Corinthians, especially chapter 14, deals with order in the gathering. Verses 33-40 state that women should keep silent and not speak at all. Those who use this passage to limit the participation of women express that their view comes from a “plain reading” of the text. However, it should be noted that such a reading necessarily makes Paul out to be a liar. Merely three chapters earlier, Paul, breaking from the social roles for women in his culture, allows women both to pray and prophecy in the gathering. Prophets are among those in Ephesians 4 whom Paul lists as those who “equip the saints for the work of ministry…” a work which many attribute primarily to elders. Here, women are given that same leadership opportunity.
So, which is it? Can women participate vocally and publicly or must they keep silent and not speak? As with all Scripture, context dictates how we should interpret this passage. Several interpretations exist for this passage.
The first, and unfortunately most widely accepted, is to take this statement in isolation from everything else Paul says and not permit women to do even the things Paul himself allows (i.e. prayer and prophecy).
The second view holds that Paul is reprimanding the Corinthians for thinking that they can create or follow rules contrary to the Law of Grace. It is said that in v 34-35 Paul is quoting and correcting a teaching in the area. This view is entirely plausible. The structure of the passage might be that Paul is quoting pharisaical Jews and then refuting the quote. The “or” which comes directly after the statement against women’s participation can be used as an introduction to the refutation. It might then be paraphrased thusly,
“God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. (Here is an example of the confusion that is going around) —‘The woman should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church’ — WHAT?! Do you think that the Word of God came from you?! Did God give you some special revelation that he failed to give the rest of us?! If anyone thinks he’s a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are commandments from the Lord–not these pharisaical teachings!”
This interpretation might very well be correct in light of Paul’s very clear allowance of the participation of women in leading the gathering. As well, the “or” clause is a very good indicator that Paul is refuting the statement, not promoting it.
The third view, to which I find myself most drawn, asks the right question: what kind of speech is Paul restricting from women? The “plain reading” simply doesn’t work. Paul doesn’t really want women to be completely silent. He must then be speaking of a specific issue. Paul’s letters are occasional–meaning, they address specific occasions and should be understood in that light. His letters to the church in Corinth are answers to questions the church previously asked. Since we don’t have their questions, we are listening to one side of a personal conversation. We cannot isolate this text from Paul’s main point. When we do this we make the Bible say something it never meant to say. So, these letters should be interpreted with great care and attention to what contextual information we have.
In this passage we can deduce that the women were asking questions, interrupting and creating disorder in the gathering. This is by no means stretching the text. It is widely known that women were largely uneducated and viewed as second-class citizens. Social custom allowed women minimal exposure to the outside world. Even then, they were not to speak with men who were not their husbands. Ancient writings, even outside Christian and Jewish sources, shows that strange women were to be avoided like a disease. Women were essentially a necessary evil.
Christ changed all of that. In the Kingdom of God women are equal. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. There is no “male and female.” However, there was still a major barrier between men and women; namely, education. When someone taught in the assembly the men could keep up because they grew up learning the Law and Prophets. The uneducated women would have to stop the teaching to ask questions because they didn’t even know the basics. Paul then proposes a solution. They should listen in the gathering. The emphasis is not on their silence, but on their learning. When they get home they can ask their educated husband to fill in the details until they are caught up. Ancient sources also tell us that it is inappropriate for a student who is a novice to ask his teacher questions during lecture. Only advanced students earned that right. This is because the novice needed to be silent and learn first. Paul is simply using social classroom etiquette to address a problem in the church gathering.
The second or third options are much more plausible than the first when looking at Paul’s overall message.
1 Tm 2:9-15
This is another passage in which women are told to be silent. As we discussed above, Paul doesn’t want women to be silent. He wants them, at the very least, to pray and prophesy. Most translations make Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach…” I believe that the same issues of education are in play here. The tense of the verb translated “I do not permit,” is present, active. Ben Witherington III explains that this is very important for interpretation. It isn’t an ongoing instruction. It is a current and temporary one, literally translated, “I am not permitting…” Witherington states, “[this verb] doesn’t ever, in any Greek text that I know of, mean ‘I would never permit…'” Once again, the emphasis is not on her quietness, but on her learning. Just as with all novice students, both male and female. They need to be quiet until they learn enough to engage in the discussion.
But, what about Paul’s denial of the woman’s authority over men?
Actually, the text does not say, “I do not allow a woman to…have (Greek: echein) authority (Greek: exousia) over a man…” Instead, Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to domineer (Greek: authentein) a man.
Some background might help us understand this text. Ephesus, the city in which Timothy worked, was the home of the Artemis cult (see Acts 19:11-41). It was a girls-only club of sorts. The priests of Artemis were all women. Since this religion was dominant, the women of the area were as well. There is no question, then, why Paul puts a temporary restriction on female teachers. The prominent women of the area were domineering, false teachers! Note the fact that almost all of this letter to Timothy is instructions on how to deal with false teachers. No doubt, these false teachers included the priestesses of Artemis. Paul’s solution is to educate the women in the truth before they teach so that the church can be safe from the false teachers of the area.
What is this appeal that Paul makes to the sin of Adam and Eve? Prominent New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, notes that it is a very simple example which strengthens Paul’s call for the education of women. Adam sinned deliberately; Eve was deceived. He is not saying that all women are prone to deception and, therefore, must not be allowed to teach. Rather, he is giving an example of a deceived woman leading a man into sin. The women of Ephesus were deceived by the Artemis cult and should not have the chance to lead their brothers by these false teachings. After all, they did not have a Bible in order to compare and test the teachings.
As for the statement on salvation through childbirth, Artemis was worshiped as the protector of women in childbirth. Thus, Paul’s statement is an appeal for women to trust in God for their protection rather than Artemis.
To some, my conclusions will seem to stretch the text. I’m sure I will be accused of overlooking the “clear teaching” of Scripture in order to promote my own “agenda.” But, I could retort with the same. To use these two passages in isolation from the context and vast evidence we have of women leading in Israel and the church is to overlook the “clear teaching” of Scripture on the freedom women have in Christ and the need we, as the church, have of their wisdom.