Thus far in this series on gender roles in the church, we have examined the biblical evidence for women in ministry and formal discipleship during Jesus’ earthly tenure and for female apostles and deacons during Paul’s post-conversion work. In these next two installments, I will deal with what are, to be sure, the most often cited and (I believe) the most misused passages concerning the Lord’s intention for women in ministry: the prohibitions Paul gives in I Corinthians and I Timothy.
*Remember our goals here: to take cultural context into account and to harmonize all of the New Testament passages related to our topic. A TEXT WITHOUT A CONTEXT IS JUST A PRETEXT FOR WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO MEAN (a pithy little adage that I first heard from Dr. Ben Witherington III).
I Corinthians is a letter of instruction Paul addressed to the first century church at Corinth. In 11:4-15, he writes:
4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. 5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. 6 For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head.7 For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.11 In any case, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
The main thing I want to point out about this passage is that Paul overtly recognizes that women prophesy in church. This is a big deal. Prophesying involved receiving a direct word from the Holy Spirit and speaking/teaching it to the other people present at the church gathering. Paul instructs the women to have their heads properly covered during this practice and during their public prayers. His concern is that the women have an outward signification of being under an authority when they prophesy and pray in the church.
If you proceed to chapter 12, Paul has more to say about the gifts of the Spirit:
1With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. 3 So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.
Take note that Paul is addressing “brothers and sisters” (NET is the version I am using here; some versions use the term “brethren,” which is understood to refer to all believers).*** He makes no gender distinction when it comes to the various gifts that a Christian can receive from the Holy Spirit. The gifts are produced “in everyone.” AND Paul says that “to each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.” He does not say that women are gifted only for the benefit of other women!
In this same chapter, beginning with verse 27, Paul has this to say about the hierarchy of spiritual gifts:
27 Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? 30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? 31 But you should be eager for the greater gifts.
Notice that the gift of prophecy is second only to the gift of apostleship, and is above the gift of teaching. He had already recognized that women prophesy in church, and now he’s indicating that this is an even greater responsibility than teaching. He addresses the entire church, men and women, as “Christ’s body” and says that they should be “eager for the greater gifts.”
Now move forward to chapter 14, beginning with verse 1:
1Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. 6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
Again, Paul is highlighting the great gift and responsibility of prophesying, and says that “one who prophesies speaks to people.” He does not make any gender distinctions here, and says that “one who prophesies builds up the church.” Verse 6 is very informative in this regard as well. Paul addresses “brothers and sisters,” reminding us that his instruction is for all members of the body, not just the men.
In verse 26, Paul says:
26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.
Again addressing “brothers and sisters,” Paul says that “each one” has a lesson, revelation, tongue, and interpretation that are given for the edification of the church as a whole. He is concerned that the worship service be kept orderly, rather than everyone trying to speak at once. He says:
31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged
All can prophesy and all can learn and be encouraged by the prophesying, regardless of the gender of the one prophesying. This must happen by taking proper turns rather than everyone speaking at once.
But then we come to that hard passage that is so often cherry-picked for its seeming prohibition of women holding any sort of verbal instructional role in the church. Beginning in the middle of verse 33, Paul says:
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.
After reading the earlier parts of Paul’s letter, these verses are very jarring. What in the world? Is Paul contradicting everything he said before? We can’t simply take these few verses at literal, plain face value without causing major friction with Paul’s earlier instructions and exhortations. A responsible, rigorous hermeneutic harmonizes and reconciles. So how are we to understand these verses?
Often when we’re dealing with texts that seem, at least on a superficial level, to conflict with one another, knowledge about the cultural context is an enormous help. I believe that to be the case here, and since I am not an expert on culture in first century Corinth, I must lean heavily upon the scholarship of some who are.
Dr. Ben Witherington wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Durham on the topic of women in early Christianity. I learned much from his book, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, and a lecture he gave on this topic at Baylor University. (I highly recommend listening to that lecture!) Dr. Witherington says that Paul is dealing with a specific problem in the Corinthian worship service that needs correction, and that understanding the nature of the problem will shed light on the scope of the given prohibition.
In Greco-Roman pagan religion, which the Corinthians were familiar with, there were figures called Oracles who functioned like a prophet or a medium. One would approach the Oracle and ask questions, seeking wise counsel or information about the future. In verse 35, Paul seems to indicate that the improper speech going on was a disorderly habit of questioning during the prophesying of others in the congregation. This understanding harmonizes very well with the earlier verses about keeping the worship service orderly, with members speaking in turn. Apparently, the women of Corinth were causing disruption with questioning, and Paul admonishes them to keep silent and ask their husbands questions at home. The worship service was not to be a Q&A session. Says Witherington:
Paul is not ruling out the use of proper speech in worship but he is ruling out a form of insubordinate speech. The silence has to do not with all speech but with a specific kind indicated by the context…Paul corrects the abuse not by banning women from ever speaking in worship, but by silencing their particular abuse of speech and redirecting their questions to another time and place…This passage in no way contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, nor any other passage which suggests that women taught, preached, prayed, or prophesied in the churches. (pp. 177-178)
N.T. Wright has also offered a viable explanation for how to understand the silence verses in their proper context (he credits Ken Bailey). In the Middle East, women and men sat separately in church and the services would be conducted in classical Arabic, a language the men would have understood, but not the women (who would have only spoken the local language). Wright says:
As a result, the women, not understanding what was going on, would begin to get bored and talk among themselves…the level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, “Will the women please be quiet!” whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet, and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home…[Paul’s] central concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is for order and decency in the church’s worship. What the passage cannot possibly mean is that women had no part in leading public worship, speaking out loud of course as they did so. This is the positive point that is proved at once by the other relevant Corinthian passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2–11, since there Paul gives instructions for how women are to be dressed while engaging in such activities, instructions which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if they had been silent in church all the time. (Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 4, 2006, p. 7) Emphasis, mine.
I believe Witherington and Wright have both offered reasonable avenues for using cultural context to harmonize all of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. Though the explanations differ, the bottom line is the same: Paul is correcting misconduct in the order of worship, and that misconduct could be resolved if the disruptive women would keep silent and ask their questions at home.
Paul’s overall intent is for all the churches to conduct worship services that are structured and well-ordered, not chaotic. He did not mean to rule out the orderly and proper speech of women in the church; he openly recognized that they would speak aloud when exercising their spiritual gifts in the presence of the entire body of believers.
As a final note, I find it interesting that those who take passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 as applying to all women, in all churches, at all times, in all places almost unanimously treat the verses about headcoverings and gender hair length as only applicable to the first century church in Corinth. Isn’t that completely inconsistent?
In my next installment, I will discuss the relevant passages from 1 Timothy.
***For a full discussion of why “brothers and sisters” or a gender-neutral understanding of “brethren” is most appropriate in these passages, see Mark Strauss’ book, Distorting Scripture: The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy, chapter 6.