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.