In the September issue of the Gospel Advocate, Matthew Morine challenged the claim that women may be authorized to speak to a worship gathering including men because of their giftedness. The article is available on the Internet here. Matthew writes,
The argument is that if God has “gifted” a woman with the ability to speak in public, God must want women to speak before men and women. …
The Pepperdine keynote speaker said that every role of church leadership should be available to women. Why? Because they have been gifted. This idea of giftedness authorizing preaching or leading highlights the current culture of our time. Instead of going to the Bible for the answers on this debate, those who advocate this change are appealing to the entitlement mindset within America today.
In this article, I want to focus on the substance of Matthew’s concerns regarding women leading in worship. What does the Bible really say?
Famously, most discussions of the role of women in church relate to two passages,
(1 Cor. 14:33b-35 ESV) As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 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.
(1 Tim. 2:11-14 ESV) 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
No matter what someone concludes about women in Gal 3:28, Judges 5, Genesis 2, or 1 Cor 12, the hierarchic camp (those who believe women may not speak in the worship service or exercise authority over a man) will insist on these passages, even if the other passages are shown to be plainly inconsistent with a hierarchic reading of these two passages.
Fortunately, we covered 1 Tim 2:11-14 in this earlier post. That leaves 1 Cor 14:33b-35 to deal with before we get to giftedness. And it would take several posts to thoroughly cover the arguments made on both sides of this passage. Let’s try a really broad-brush discussion — but even that will take up this and the next post.
1 Cor 14:33b-35
In the New International Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee argues that the text is not in the original epistle penned by Paul but was added by a scribe later. This is not “liberal” but the kind of question that even the most conservative scholars consider in reconstructing the original, First Century text from hand-copied manuscripts that are always more recent than the original (we have no original texts of any book of the Bible). The gist of his argument is that (a) the passage contradicts 1 Cor 11 (where Paul addresses women praying and prophesying in the assembly), (b) there is no suggestion that women may not speak earlier in chapter 14 when prophecy and tongues are under consideration, and the text is, up to this point, gender-neutral, (c) the passage appears in different places in different ancient manuscripts, as though the scribes were unsure where to put this text, (d) none of the earliest church fathers quotes this passage, and (e) the chapter reads quite well without the passage. The argument is very technical, and there are many interesting theories on both sides. Very conservative scholars may be found on both sides of the question.
A quotation from the Corinthian congregation?
First Century Greek lacked punctuation of any kind. In fact, it was written in all caps with no spaces between the words. Therefore, whether a passage is a quotation is always a matter of interpretation. Anyone who grew upon the KJV, as I did, has noticed that several passages in 1 Cor are now translated as quoted from the questions posed by the Corinthian church to Paul or relayed to him by Chloe. For example, 1 Cor 6:12-13 and 7:1 are now considered quotations and not at all expressing Paul’s position — based entirely on context. Paul is actually disagreeing with these quotations.
It is possible, therefore, that verses 34-35 are Paul’s quotation of the position of the church, which he contradicts beginning in v. 36.
The “or” in English that begins the two questions in v. 36 translates the one-letter Greek word eta, which usually indicates a strong contrast, possibly translated along the lines of “Are you kidding?” or “Surely not!” This is why the KJV translates, “What?” The first definition given by BDAG, the most authoritative biblical Greek lexicon, is “separating opposites which are mutually exclusive.” If so, then Paul is strongly contrasting the churches’ usual practice with what was just said. He’s disagreeing with the anti-woman views of the Corinthian church. See this post for further detail on this theory.
This theory (as well as Fee’s theory that the text is inauthentic) is supported by “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.” Notice that whoever wrote these word assumes that the women may have no interest in learning at all, and if they did, their husbands would be sufficient teachers, even though their husbands may be new Christians or unbelievers. This doesn’t sound like Paul, who repeatedly expresses the greatest of respect for women. Nor is it Christ-like. Consider —
In Jewish law a woman was not a person; she was a thing. She was entirely at the disposal [of] her father or of her husband. A woman was forbidden to learn the law; to instruct a woman in the law was to cast pearls before swine. Women had no part in the Synagogue service; they were shut apart in a section of the Synagogue, or in a gallery, where they could not be seen, and were allowed no share in the service. A man came to the Synagogue to learn; but, at the most, a woman came to hear. In the Synagogue the lesson from Scripture was read by members of the congregation; but not by women, for that would have been to lessen “the honour of the congregation.” It was absolutely forbidden for a woman to teach in a school; she might not even teach the youngest children. A woman was exempt from the stated demand of the Law. It was not obligatory on her to attend the sacred feasts and festivals. Women, slaves and children were classed together. … Rabbi Jose ben Johanan is quoted as saying, “ …Everyone that talketh much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from the works of the Law, and his end is that he inherits Gehenna.”
William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon—The Daily Study Bible (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pa., 2nd ed. 1960), page 77.
Barclay also notes that among the Jews, a strict follower of the Jewish Talmud would not even speak to his own sister in public.
Nonetheless, Jesus did not comply with the cultural norms of Judaism regarding women.
Martha was apparently the elder of the two sisters and the householder, since it was she who received Jesus into her house (Luke 10:38). For apparently unmarried women to have received a teacher into their home and engaged him in dialogue represents an unusual social situation in 1st-century Palestine.
A practical woman, Martha was distracted with the many demands of hospitality during Jesus’ visit and petitioned his assistance in obtaining her sister’s help. Her request apparently merits a mild rebuke from Jesus (Luke 10:41–42, whose Gk text exists in several variant readings). Jesus’ words do not denigrate Martha’s household service, but imply that the female disciples of Jesus, as the male disciples, are first called to be hearers of the word (cf. Luke 11:27–28). Some commentators take the repeated “Martha, Martha” of v 41 as an indication that Jesus’ seeming rebuke is, in fact, a call to discipleship (cf. Gen 46:2; 1 Sam 3:4; Acts 9:4; etc.).
Raymond F. Collins, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 4, 573–574.
Jesus treats Mary as a full disciple, who should learn from her Rabbi in preference to the traditional female role of cooking etc. Jesus broke from contemporary culture to teach women as a rabbi, even though it just wasn’t done.
Jesus not only taught Mary as a disciple, he traveled with female disciples, such as Susanna.
Susanna traveled with Jewish men. In view of Jewish attitudes about the behavior of women in public, there is little doubt that Susanna’s actions were considered scandalous. Yet the indications are that Jesus approved of women supporting his ministry and accepted women as well as men as traveling companions or disciples. While women often financially supported prominent teachers in early Judaism, the idea of Jewish women becoming students of a prominent rabbi or teacher was unknown and unacceptable prior to and during Jesus’ era. Thus, Luke 8:1–3 must be viewed as an indication that Jesus’ kingdom agenda had some socially radical consequences.
Ben Witherington III, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 6, 246.
If Jesus treated women as disciples, fully capable of learning, even at the risk of appearing immoral or scandalous to the surrounding, male-dominated culture, Paul would have done the same, making 1 Cor 14:34-35 suspect as being Paul’s own words. Thus, these two theories work very well to reconcile Paul with Jesus as well as chapter 14 with chapter 11. But there are other approaches a serious student should consider.
[In the next post, we’ll consider how 1 Cor 14:33b-35 might be reconciled with Jesus’ treatment of women and 1 Cor 11, assuming the text to be authentic and to reflect the teachings of Paul.]