Monday, May 29, 2017

On woman spiritual leadership

6 He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." (Mark 7:6-8)
When this passage or the parallel at Matthew 15:7-9 (or Isaiah 29:13) is read in a church Bible class the comments from the class go along the lines of assuming that we ourselves are not the ones who enforce traditions that we cannot distinguish from real Biblical doctrine. It is a good thing we are not like those King-James-Version-Onliests!

The truth is that we are up to our necks in tradition and we cannot tell the difference between Biblical doctrine and our traditions.

(Calm down, Neil. You may lose your readers. Breathe.)

There is a lot we do that we think is straight out of the Bible and it is mere tradition. Most of it is harmless but some if it is very harmful. I am speaking in this article about the way we treat our female members. The particular problem tradition I am about to address is a feature of most Restorationist churches but also any other male-leaders-only groups.

Our justification for treating our women the way we do comes from two Bible passages:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
1 Timothy 2:12
Below, I will examine these passages briefly and critically; but they need deeper examination beyond the scope of a blog article. My goal is to show that these verses do not forbid woman leadership in the church. Without those two passages, we don't have Biblical authority to silence women.

Before we dive in, I want to present some of the ways these verse are (mis)applied in church situations. It may be easier to face our convictions and later realize they are personal biases than to examine the Scriptures first and then check ourselves for biases. The following rules are typically applied in "complementarian" churches.
  • A Christian woman can teach Bible classes composed of other Christian women but she cannot teach Bible classes if there are Christian men in the room.
  • Christian women can teach secular topics to any audience; but if the topic drifts into the spiritual, there had better not be any Christian men present.
  • Christian women can teach young boys and girls; but if any of the young boys become Christians, then either the teacher of the class needs to be replaced by a Christian man or the young Christian boys need to be transfered to a class being taught by a Christian man.
  • (This one is really difficult for me to tolerate). Young, non-Christian boys are encouraged to step into pseudo-leadership roles‒roles such as leading singing and/or reading Scripture‒from which women Christians are barred.
First Timothy 2:12 says this:
I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Even if we interpret this verse literally and grossly out of context, it is impossible to conclude any of the above four bullet-points! The verse says nothing about whether or not the man or woman are or are not Christians! To apply this verse or the one in 1 Corinthians 14 that way is very shifty hermeneutics!

There are many ways these two passages can be explained without conscripting them into the service of church patriarchy.

As far as silencing women goes, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are the easiest to dismiss as non-applicable; so I will dismiss them right now. Here is the passage with a little context. First Corinthians 14:29-36.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints,
34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
First Corinthians 14 is all about keeping a little orderly sanity to the church's worship services. Paul is particular suspicious of tongues as being extra disruptive. In fact, ungifted attendees think tongue-speakers are crazy.
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (1 Corinthians 14:23)
Paul concludes in verse 40, "... but all things should be done decently and in order."

Notice too that the key verses 34-35 sound remarkably like verses 28-33 regulating tongue speakers and prophets.
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints....
Under certain circumstances, tongue speakers are to keep silent because they only disrupt and they edify nobody. Paul also suggests a rule that prevents more than one prophet from speaking at the same time (vs. 30-31). The same problem of worship disruptions is again resolved.

Paul is suggesting ways to reduce the amount of disruptions during the worship services.

When we come to verse 29 we learn that only two or three prophets should speak per worship service and everybody else‒or perhaps only the other prophets‒will weigh what is said. Verse 32 suggests that the prophets are able to regulate themselves so that they work together in an orderly way. All this evidence clarifies our understanding of the women thing. Verses 34-35 has to do with keeping the "weighing what is said" period orderly. It is very likely that "let the others weigh what is said" means the rest of the church. In any case, what Paul intends by those verses is another suggestion for reducing disruptions. So, some of the women (the married ones) are asked to keep silent during the Q&A session. Considering that many married women at the time were married young and had inferior educations compared to that of their husbands, we suspect these women were bogging the conversation down by asking tons of silly questions that their husbands were perfectly capable of answering for them later.

If we think about it, it does not make a whole lot of sense that Paul would call for the silencing of only the married women. What? So the unmarried women can chat up a storm during worship? Everybody is invited to learn. The women with spiritual husbands are encouraged to ask the basic questions outside of the services. Verses 34-35 do not forbid women from speaking at church. Otherwise, the injunction would contradict another passage in the same book.
... but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. (1 Corinthians 11:5)
Did you catch that? Women prayed and prophesied in the worship services in Corinth! The only thing Paul had to say about women leading the church in these capacities is that, at least in Corinth, they should veil themselves.

There is a lot that can be said to understand 1 Corinthians 14 better; but for now, we can be quite certain that the meaning is not to silence women in public roles at the Christian worship services.

First Timothy 2:12 also has nothing to do with silencing women in worship. Here it is in context:
8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;
9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,
10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.
11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.
12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;
14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
This passage is difficult to begin with, which raises questions about whether it should be applied to the subjugation of anyone in the church's membership.

To begin with, look at all the injunctions that we comfortably ignore. Many of us are comfortable praying at church without lifting our hands (a common prayer posture in New Testament times). We are comfortable with women braiding their hair and wearing jewelry. But when it comes to women serving in leadership roles at church, some argue that it is a blanket rule applying to all churches.

Secondly, if the injunction against woman authority is a blanket rule for all churches, what does Eve's deception have to do with it? How does childbearing salvation apply and what does that even mean? The confusion surrounding verse 12 should raise suspicion that the way the verse has been applied to keep women out from in front of the church is likely incorrect. Could it be that Paul was teaching something other than the general silencing of women? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the specifics of Paul's real meaning are a little difficult to pin down. This is one of those passages on which we can be pretty certain what it does not mean while being less certain about what it does mean.

So what is 1 Timothy 2:12 about?

My view is that there were some heresies that had worked their way into the church in Ephesus and they derived from a blending of sound Bible doctrine and the local pagan Artemis cult. One version of the Artemis birth myth is that Artemis was born shortly before her twin brother Apollo. She immediately went to work as a mid-wife to assist in delivering of her brother. I can imagine this birth myth easily blended with the Bible's creation account and had Eve formed before Adam. Growing out of that assumption was a view of female preeminence over males. Some women lorded it over the men (the meaning of "have authority" in verse 12). The heretical doctrine that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Timothy 2:16-18) motivated some women to unchastity (1 Timothy 4:3; Mark 12:25) and immodesty (1 Timothy 2:9) and to promoting an antediluvian diet (1 Timothy 4:3; Genesis 1:29; 9:3). I have gone through the book of Ephesians while keeping a lookout for evidence of Paul addressing this particular heresy. They are indeed there. I was a little surprised to find them, actually, since Ephesians is one of those books for which the authorship is disputed. I wrote up my findings in a more lengthy study that I will link below.

Other theories about the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are that Paul is addressing a particular woman and a particular man, possibly a married couple, in those verses. The Greek certainly supports that understanding.

Another view is that Paul was suggesting a temporary injunction, specific to Ephesus, in order to give time for the women to spiritually grow before they assume leadership roles.

It is unfortunate that we have to resort to theories about the 1 Timothy 2 text; but one thing we should avoid is pretending that we are confident about the text's meaning and that the meaning is to keep woman out from in front of the church!

We must recognize that God provides each local church with gifted individuals who are able to build up the church (Romans 12:4-8). If we gag some of those individuals because we are upset by what they believe (like me and my egalitarian convictions or because they are women), we are very possibly resisting God's efforts to work within the local body of believers.

Suggested resources:
My more detailed write-up on this subject:
ODT format Word format

Keener, Craig. "Women in Ministry: Another Egalitarian Perspective." Two Views on Women in Ministry‒Revised Edition. Zondervan, 2005.

Towner, Philip. 1-2 Timothy & Titus. InterVarsity Press, 1994.

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