Women in the Church:

Objections Considered

by Mark M. Mattison

As we have seen, the general tenor of New Testament teaching indicates that ministry in the church, including leadership ministry, was broad enough in scope to include women. Despite these many Scriptures, however, the case for women in ministry is often derailed at the point of two perplexing proof-texts which are frequently hailed as "clearly" settling the issue. It is to these difficult texts that we now turn.

 

Introduction

When I was in Bible college I took a course called "Difficult Texts." Many Bible colleges have courses like this one. Frequently a "difficult text" is simply a Scripture that doesn't jive with what we believe; hence the epithet "difficult." The text has got to be explained in such a way as not to interfere with our doctrinal system. (For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is rife with examples of "difficult texts.")

1 Corinthians 14:34,35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are, I believe, genuine difficult texts. They are not difficult because they must be "gotten around" or because they obviously teach what we don't believe. They are difficult-in-themselves; that is, they contain features which are genuinely difficult to interpret in context. Both contain elements directly contrary to Paul's teaching and example, and both contain perplexing statements. It is not sound exegesis to use two enigmatic texts to controvert the teaching of numerous clear texts; hence, though the Scriptural teachings on this topic are difficult to synthesize, I believe the preponderance of evidence rests with the egalitarians. Nevertheless these two texts are not going away.

When Peter wrote that Paul's letters "contain some things that are hard to understand" (2 Pet. 3:16, NIV), he wasn't kidding. Commentators continue to find some of Paul's teachings vague and enigmatic. Partly this is because Paul was usually involved in ongoing dialogues to which we are no longer privy. It is like walking into a room to find Paul already well immersed in a phone conversation; we hear only half the story. We're not always sure to whom Paul is talking, or when he is repeating what the other party (or parties) have said, or what is their common point of reference. In earlier issues we have dealt extensively with the "works of the law" in Paul's writings and how the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early Jewish literature help us to "fill in the blanks" as it were, filling out the cultural and religious context of Paul's polemic and placing his teaching into context. Part of the value of ongoing theological and historical research is that new discoveries are made and these often help us to understand better the text of Scripture. I believe that both of the problematic texts before us have potentially satisfying explanations in light of their specific setting.

 

"It Is Disgraceful..."

The New International Version of the Bible depicts Paul laying down a universal principle for all churches about women's participation in the church. It reads:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home ; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Cor. 14:33-35, NIV).

This perplexing statement stands in sharp contrast to the preceding and following passages. Paul has just written that every member of the body is to contribute to the service (v. 26), and he goes on to write that tongues and prophecy should not be forbidden in the body (v. 39). Furthermore, the passage quoted above runs contrary to Paul's estimation of specific women in his letters to the Romans and the Philippians. How can women evangelize, teach, toil at his side, exercise apostleship, manage churches, and host house churches without speaking?

These considerations suggest to many commentators that Paul's strictures to the Corinthians were local and specific, not universal and timeless. But what about Paul's statement about "all the congregations of the saints"? A cursory comparison of several Bible translations will demonstrate an ambiguity in the placing of that phrase. Many translations stand with the NIV in placing the phrase at the beginning of the paragraph in question (NEB, RSV, NRSV). However, a number of translations place the phrase at the end of the previous paragraph (KJV, RV, LB, NASV, Phillips), a legitimate way to translate the text (as is well known, the original manuscripts were devoid of punctuation, spaces, or paragraph breaks). The NASV, for example, renders the passage like this:

...for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church (vv. 33-35, NASV).

This way of rendering the text resolves part of the problem; it removes the necessity of treating vv. 34,35 as a universal, timeless commandment for all churches in all ages. Nevertheless problems remain. Even if Paul's commandment was local and specific, the text is still problematic. After all, Paul does not write "It is disgraceful for a woman to interrupt in church," or "It is disgraceful for a woman to be disruptive in church"; he writes, "It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." Why?

It is very possible that an understanding of the historical context will shed light on this statement. We know that there were many factions in the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11,12; 3:3,4; 11:18). Frequently in this epistle Paul cites arguments from one faction or another and follows the citations with arguments of his own. Obvious examples include 1:11ff and 3:4ff; the NIV correctly places quotation marks around the citations from the Corinthians. Similarly, in 6:12,13 Paul first quotes Corinthian slogans and follows them with brief responses:

"Everything is permissible for me" - but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me" - but I will not be mastered by anything. "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food" - but God will destroy them both (NIV; cp. 8:8; 10:23,24).

Similarly, in 14:34,35, Paul could very well be citing the argument of a faction which tried to argue (on the basis of old covenant Law) that women should not participate in church at all.Reference1 This argument would certainly be contrary to Paul's direction in v. 26. Paul would then have followed this citation with a rebuke (vv. 36-38) and a restatement of his direction (v. 39). In order to convey the sense of this reading, I reproduce here Phillips' translation:

Well then, my brothers, whenever you meet let everyone be ready to contribute a psalm, a piece of teaching, a spiritual truth, or a "tongue" with an interpreter....For in this way you can all have opportunity to give a message, one after the other....for God is not a God of disorder but of harmony, as is plain in all the churches.

"Let women be silent in church; they are not to be allowed to speak. They must submit to this regulation, as the Law itself instructs. If they have questions to ask they must ask their husbands at home, for there is something indecorous about a woman's speaking in church."

Do I see you questioning my instructions? Are you beginning to imagine that the Word of God originated in your church, or that you have a monopoly of God's truth? If any of your number think himself a true preacher and a spiritually-minded man, let him recognise that what I have written is by divine command!...In conclusion then, my brothers, set your heart on preaching the word of God, while not forbidding the use of "tongues" (1 Cor. 14:26-39, Phillips, emphases and quotation marks mine).

 

"I Do Not Permit a Woman"

The second difficult passage under consideration is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. There Paul writes:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV).

Once again Paul's direction strikes us as a universal truth, dispassionately and systematically drawn from the creation account, much like Jesus' teaching on marriage (cf. Matt. 19:4-6). However, the questions generated by this text are even more acute than those of 1 Corinthians 14:34,35. Is Paul really arguing for the superiority of men based on the order of creation? And would not the curious shift of blame for sin in verse 14 contradict Paul's own teaching that sin entered the world through Adam? (Rom. 5:12) Finally, how could women "be saved through childbearing" (v. 15)? Could not single women and barren women be saved too? Or is Paul writing about salvation in a different sense - promising physical protection to Christian women in labor? Could this saving "childbearing" be an oblique reference to Genesis 3:15? If it were he could hardly have put it in a more obscure way.Reference2 Commentators have dubbed this verse one of the most difficult in the entire New Testament.

So then this passage which seems so clearly to proscribe the ministry of women in actuality is riddled with interpretative problems - at least from where we stand, two thousand years and half-a-globe removed from the source. Can some consideration of the historical context shed any light on this passage too? I believe so.

 

Gnosticism in Ephesus

We know that paganism and witchcraft flourished in Ephesus. Many sorcerers who became believers in that city "brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand d rachmas" (Acts 19:19, NIV). Much more evidence abounds in the Pastoral epistles that the Gnostic movement - the ancient counterpart to the modern "New Age movement" - was flourishing in that city in Timothy's time. Consider the following points of compari son:

There can be little doubt that many of Paul's arguments in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were carefully crafted with Gnostic teachings in mind. Can an understanding of Gnostic teachings open up the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-15? I believe that it can.Reference3

 

Eve and Adam or Adam and Eve?

On the Origin of the World is a modern title given to an unnamed Gnostic work from the Nag Hammadi Library (Codex II, tractate 5). Though this document was not composed in the first century, it contains common Gnostic reinterpretations of the Genesis account. In this work, Adam's companion Eve is but a likeness of the heavenly Eve who enlightens Adam: "After the day of rest, Sophia sent Zoe, her daughter, who is called 'Eve (of Life),' as an instructor to raise up Adam, in whom there was no soul" (NHC II,5,115,31-34). The heavenly Eve then turned herself into the tree of knowledge (116,27-33). The jealous creator-gods commanded the human Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree (118,16-24), but the wise serpent, the bisexual man created by heavenly Eve, exposed their deceit and helped the earthy couple by encouraging them to eat of the tree (118,24-119,19).

Another Gnostic book, The Apocryphon of John, was probably written shortly after the last books of the New Testament. In this book's reinterpretation of the Genesis account, the acts of sex and childbearing are attributed to the chief evil ruler: "Now up to the present day sexual intercourse continued due to the chief archon [ruler]. And he planted sexual desire in her who belongs to Adam. And he produced through intercourse the copies of the bodies, and he inspired them with his opposing spirit" (NHC II,1,24,26-31). Hippolytus, one of the Church Fathers, describes Gnostics who had a negative view of sex (Ref. V,4), and Clement of Alexandria cites a Gnostic work named The Gospel of the Egyptians in which the Lord forbids procreation (Strom. III,9). Paul comes down hard on these false teachings in 1 Timothy 4:1-5,7.

1 Timothy 2:11-15 can now be read in an entirely new light, not as a point of canon law but as a specific response to a localized threat in the Ephesian church. In a city where Gnosticism was thriving and even beginning to make inroads into the church, radical feminism and anti-family values were very real threats. Paul's argumentation in vv. 13-15 may then be construed this way: "Eve was not superior to Adam; if you want to argue based on the chronology of creation, remember that Adam was created first, then Eve. And Adam wasn't enlightened by Eve; on the contrary, Eve was deceived, and she sinned grossly. And women who bear children will indeed be saved, provided they are faithful."

In order to further neutralize the radical feminist threat, Paul forbade women to teach in the Ephesian church (vv. 11,12). I'm not certain that this localized and temporary measure should be applied without exception to all churches in all ages. A comparable case is Paul's stricture against circumcision in Galatians 5:2. Paul informs the Gentile Galatian Christians that if they allow themselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to them at all. This despite the fact that "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything" (6:15a, NIV) and despite the fact that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Paul would not allow circumcision in Galatia because of the Judaizing threat; similarly, he would not allow women to lead in the Ephesian church because of the Gnostic threat. Both judgements were made in very specific historical contexts.

None of this is to relativize the authority of Scripture; on the contrary, it is to better appreciate the full teaching of the Scriptures in their God-given contexts and to more accurately apply their teachings in our own day. Furthermore our concern is to discern the balance of the Scriptures, not to play them off against one another in bouts of proof-texting. The interpretations suggested here for our difficult texts, 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, would very well balance the Scriptural testimony for this subject and answer numerous exegetical questions.

 

Conclusion

I obviously have not dealt with all of the arguments (pro and con) surrounding the issue of women and ministry, nor do I wish to feign intimate familiarity with the whole issue. In this brief article I have dealt specifically with women in the church; I have not tried to comment on the related complex issues of women in society or the relationship between husbands and wives. Nor have I tried to argue that there are no differences between men and women.

What I have striven to demonstrate is that Christian ministry as spelled out in the New Testament is designed to encompass all the people of God, men as well as women. A Scriptural appreciation for the priesthood of believers is necessary to seek a balanced position, as well as a nuanced study of the New Testament generally. The general flow of New Testament teaching, I believe, supports a positive view of women in ministry and even in (properly conceived) leadership functions. Objections to this view usually hinge on a couple of difficult texts and a strong appeal to history and traditional church values. Traditionalists suggest that our rethinking of this issue is a result of inroads made by worldly values. That is one possibility; another is that the traditional view was itself an early victory of worldly thought.

The main thing is that we seek to transcend the barriers that exist between brothers and sisters over this issue, somewhat along the lines of Romans 14:5ff. These issues will not be resolved in the body of Christ anytime soon, not even in the house church movement. For that reason tolerance and loving dialogue is all the more critical, particularly when we disagree. "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5b, NIV).

 

Notes

1Cf. Del Birkey, The House Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), pp. 100,101.

2Besides, it is the death and resurrection of Christ that is the basis of our salvation, not the birth of Christ.

3I am particularly indebted to Daniel Smead for reminding me of relevant Gnostic anthropogonies and demonstrating points of contact with 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Daniel also pointed me to Bruce Barron, "Putting Women in Their Place: 1 Timothy 2 and Evangelical Views of Women in Church Leadership," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1990, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 451-459, and David R. Kimberley, "1 Tim. 2:15: A Possible Understanding of a Difficult Text," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1992, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 481-486.


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