Why women should not be silent in the churches

Last week, I wrote a short post called ‘Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?‘. The post wasn’t intended to mount an argument for one position or another. Rather, it was written in response to questions I have been asked from inside and outside the church that I pastor, St Barnabas Broadway. The theological position of any pastor and teacher matters. Because Barneys is a church in which the theological method of thousands of potential leaders is shaped, what I teach has a particular kind of importance (not more, mind – just particular).

Since then, and at time of writing, the above article has been viewed 4,698 times.

I’ve been contacted numerous times to ask why I am so quick to set aside the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Here is a brief response.

The wrong place to start

The key verses usually referenced as the starting point for this discussion are found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

1 Tim 2:11-12 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

When I say the ‘starting point’, what I mean is that these verses are sometimes (though not always) treated as a relatively clear and straightforward baseline from which all conversation diverges. Any other passages may be called upon only to clarify or qualify the clear intent of Paul’s instruction.

There are two problems with this approach.

Firstly, the section in which Paul treats on this issue is, in Timothy, very brief. Paul clearly assumes a great deal in background knowledge on the part of the letter’s recipients.

Secondly, the context of these verses is both difficult and contested. The explanation that Paul offers immediately following his instruction is widely considered one of the most challenging passages (even in the underlying Greek!) in the New Testament.

1 Tim 2:13-15 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.

I want to suggest, therefore, that 1 Tim 2 is the wrong place to start this conversation

A better beginning

A better place to begin is in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor 14, we read:

1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

As a side note, this dismisses the argument that Paul’s instruction to Timothy was somehow rooted in the peculiar religio-cultural context of Ephesus. In 1 Tim 2, he appealed to creation, and in 1 Cor 14, to the law, and in both cases placed a particular limit or focus on the ministry of women in the public assembly of the church.

However, let’s return to the main point, which is this: there is great advantage in starting with 1 Cor 14 (within, of course, a biblical theology that encompasses the whole counsel of God). The main benefits of 1 Cor 14 are that:

  • The passage in which the text is located is a substantial and continuous argument, running from chapters 11 to 14.
  • The passage in which the text is located is relatively transparent (at least in comparison to 1 Tim 2).

A surprising start

Here is the curious thing about 1 Cor 11-14. Although it appears to land in the same place as 1 Tim 2 – with a prohibition on women conducting any kind of public word ministry in the congregation – it starts with a clear expectation that women will be speaking in the church. I say ‘in the church’ because Paul’s regulation of prayer and prophecy by women in 1 Cor 11:1-16 is in continuity with vv.17ff, which is about the assembly.

Whatever else this may mean, it is clear that Paul must have a specific, rather than broad, context for women being silent. He expects women to conduct word ministry within the congregation. In fact, I would suggest that he expects more than prayer and prophecy. Prayer and prophecy, along with speaking in tongues, simply happen to be two of the Spirit-led ministries of the Lord that Paul is most interested in addressing in this letter to the church in Corinth. Accordingly, the letter is situational, rather than systematic, and doesn’t treat of the different ministries with anything like equal emphasis. I suspect, therefore, that when Paul goes on to mention

1 Cor 14:26 ‘….a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation…’

he is simply continuing an informal and non-exhaustive list of various kinds of ministries of the Word that extend his original list of prayer, prophecy and tongues.

But there is still a context in which women are to be silent. What is it?

The context for silence

Here is my view, which finds support from scholars as various as D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer and Anthony Thiselton.

Paul’s instruction is that women are to remain silent in the testing of prophecies and other supposedly Spirit-led utterances in the congregation, where that testing is part of a broader body of authoritative activity such as ‘teaching.’

Here is the fuller context for the key verses:

1 Cor 14:29    Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

The context to Paul’s command that ‘women should remain silent’ is prophecy. This is very significant to our question, since Paul can’t possibly mean that women should be silent and not prophecy, since he has already affirmed and regulated prophecy by both men and women in 1 Cor 11. What makes the most sense to me is that he is proscribing the involvement of women in the testing of prophecy. Testing is the act of evaluating and assessing the content of the prophecy.

This means two things. Firstly, the content of prophecy is not authoritative in the life of the church because of the form of the act. Just because it looks like it is of God, does not mean that it truly is of God. Secondly, it means that there is a higher order of Word ministry that is able to set aside lower forms.

This higher order of ministry is authoritative and restricted. What could it be? I want to suggest that it is that thing which Paul calls ‘teaching’. Almost without exception in the New Testament, ‘teaching’ refers to the work of those in authority. I would suggest that it is particularly associated with the office of the elder in the church. Since elders are only to be men, it would make sense that women are not to practice an activity that is the responsibility of male elders.

Back to 1 Tim 2

Now, Scripture does not contradict itself. The Bible isn’t a set of complex and conflicting human accounts of their encounter with the divine, but the divinely inspired and infallible Word of God.

In other words, if 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are discussing the same thing, then they must come to the same conclusion.

I would argue that this falls out quite naturally when 1 Tim 2 is read in light of 1 Cor 14, rather than vice versa. When Paul prohibits women from teaching and exercising authority over men, he is restricting them from those authoritative, standard-setting Word ministries that are properly the province of elders, who may only be men.

Aside from this, godly women – alongside men – are not merely allowed but expected to participate in Spirit-led ministry of the Word in the congregation.

The glass ceiling

But this leaves a very real elephant in the room. Doesn’t this devalue women?

Richard Rorty, the late great American philosopher imagines “a child found wandering in the woods, the remnant of a slaughtered nation,” and asks if such a lost person should have “no share in human dignity.” He explains:

it does not follow that she may be treated like an animal. For it is part of the tradition of our community that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity. This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.

This is of enormous significance.

In the ancient world, up until pre-Enlightenment, it was widely held that your value was based on birth. This was the concept of aristocracy. At the top were the patricians, and at the bottom, the slaves, and only a little above that were women. Women were part of the household over which the father exercised pater families, which included power over life and death.

This particularly affected children, especially girls. A chilling letter from a pagan husband to his wife captures the casual nature of these values among the pagans:

Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.

As society changed, the aristocracy became a plutocracy (how wealthy you are) and a technocracy (your bureaucratic power) and it is now, theoretically at least, a meritocracy. Persons are valuable according to what they can do. This is a dispiriting and dehumanizing vision of humanity. It inevitably leads the marginalization of the very young and very old, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

In a meritocracy, no matter how much we’d like to pretend we believe in the equality of humankind, the CEO is worth far more than the janitor. This is the inevitable consequence of believing that your value lies in what you do.

Christians, on the other hand, are taught to value people because God values people. Humans are made in God’s image, irrespective of the shape that image has taken. And this means that there is no connection between what men and women do (or what children, the elderly, the poor or the disabled do), and their worth in the eyes of God.

In my next article on this theme, I will discuss the relationship between Paul’s list of Spirit-led ministries of the Word, and the activity of preaching.

 

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Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?

In recent days, a number of people have asked me where I stand in the issue of women preaching in church. This is a question that matters to me. It matters because I’m the senior minister of one of the most recognisable Anglican churches in the country. It matters because my church, St Barnabas Broadway, has a history of women in the pulpit. It matters because I hold brothers and sisters to be precious on both sides of this argument. It also matters to me because I’m convinced, for whatever reason, that God has gifted me as a trainer of preachers. I have a small group of capable men and women who gather with me on Friday afternoons to develop as public ministers of God’s word. My vision is to see Barneys as the most prolific producer of compelling proclaimers of the gospel in Australia. Among those being trained are women. And so it’s important for me to know: what kind of preaching ministry do I think I’m training them for?

A confession

Firstly, let me make it clear that this is not an exegetical study. I don’t want to use a blog to step into the current war of words about the meaning of the word ‘didasko’, or the more vigorous discussion about books and responses. This is much more a personal confession, in the Augustinian sense – a brief statement of what I believe and practice, so that those near me may know clearly where I stand.

Men and women

So, then, here is where we begin: with my conviction that men and women are different. Different not only in who they are (in general, and as ‘kinds’), but different in how they are called to love and serve. This view is usually known as ‘complementarianism’. In the Christian community, it is associated with conservative evangelical belief. However, it is worth noting that amongst the latest wave of secular feminism, there is a strong argument being made for the importance of difference. Earlier feminism made the claim that women can do everything men can do (which, in terms of capacity, is hard to dispute). Contemporary feminisms (there are a plurality) observe that this appears to have resulted in masculinity becoming the standard by which ‘successful’ femininity is judged. Eva Cox, a prominent Australian feminist (and no Christian!) has argued, rightly I think, that this has resulted in a subjugation of womanhood to culturally male values, and that we need a new set of measures of ‘success’ that allow for parenting decisions and different priorities. So, I believe that men and women are in some contexts called to different roles. This doesn’t include the workplace, or the sporting field, or even the military, in my view. However, it does include families (as husbands and wives), and churches. Please hear again that I do not believe that these roles are necessarily rooted in capacities – in technical language, gender is not merely an extension of biological sex.

Soft complementarianism

My understanding of these different roles will strike some as hopelessly regressive (a new apartheid). Others will understandably see a dangerous, creeping liberalism. This I can live with. It has always been my policy to be one person, in private and public, and this includes contested beliefs. I have called my position ‘soft complementation’ because I feel no need to stake out the middle ground. It is always better to call oneself names (‘soft’) than call one’s brothers and sisters names (‘hard’). And, besides, I don’t for a moment believe that those more conservative than me are remotely hard. Many of them are profoundly gentle, sensitive and grieving about the hurt this debate has caused, and full of a deep love for God’s church. They should be honoured for defending what they believe to be biblical. So, let me first summarise my position, and then I will explain: I am convinced that God desires a public word ministry by women in the mixed assembly of the church that includes preaching under the authority of a male elder. (Now, may the fireworks begin!) Briefly broken into pieces, here are my assumptions:

  1. The New Testament reserves a particular role in the life of the church, that of elder, for certain men (elder is not a description of age, but of office).
  2. Part of the task of elders is to preserve the life and doctrine of the church through authoritative teaching.
  3. The church is called to submit to the elders set over them.
  4. Men and women alike are expected to exercise a ministry of the word to one another in the assembly, which includes (but is not limited to) activities such as praying and prophesying.
  5. This general ministry of the word is not authoritative and, when exercised in the public assembly, is to be tested by the elders.
  6. Eldership in the Anglican church is established by ordination to the presbyterate.
  7. There is no general agreement around what constitutes prophecy in my church tradition, which is evangelical and Reformed Anglican, according to the 39 Articles.
  8. In a community of grace, our bias should be towards loosening, not tightening, and so I am happy to presume that the ‘word ministries’, which include prophecy and praying, include something very much like preaching, until it is demonstrated otherwise.
  9. Therefore, women (and non-elder men) can and should preach in the mixed assembly.
  10. However, it is also true that authority is not only ex officio, but socially constructed.
  11. Therefore, non-elders (and that includes men and women alike) should preach less often than elders.

Origins

There is one more thing that may be worth saying here. I was trained under Phillip Jensen through Campus Bible Study at the University of New South Wales. I love him dearly, am thankful to God for his ministry, and continue to partner with Phillip from time to time in important initiatives, and seek his counsel on difficult issues. However, I am not Phillip, and his views are not my views. That is as it should be. My own reading of the Scriptures has led me a little away from what I was taught at CBS. This was allowed, by the way, and those who characterise CBS or St Matthias as a sausage-factory for hardliners are simply ignorant. However, we are all shaped by our heritage. What this means is that while I support preaching by women in the congregation as a matter of biblical conviction, I have not always found it an entirely comfortable experience. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the place that trains the most women for preaching, and trains them the best, is CBS. But CBS does not train women to preach to mixed congregations. This means that women preaching before mixed congregations are unlikely to have the best training currently available. And, in turn, this means that, if you are a man, then you are less likely to hear a woman preach who has had the same investment in her preaching as most male preachers have experienced. Secondly, my considered position hasn’t entirely overridden my own story and consequent ingrained preference. And here is the most important sentence of this article: I choose to do what I think is right, not what I most enjoy or prefer. And that is what leadership is all about.