One of my daughters called me the other day. She asked me some questions about why we read words like, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:12) and apply them in our present context but read words like “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes . . .” and do not apply them in our present context.
I thought about all that I had to say on this topic and decided that I would at least start by saying something on this site. There are many other portions of the Bible that could be added to this list of “why this but not this?” Furthermore, we ignore much of the Bible with the practicalities of what we do: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” (1 Corinthians 12:5) or “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). On the other hand, we put a much greater emphasis on some verses than seems warranted:
“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 Corinthians 14:34-35)
This latter text is very interesting for, we do not actually apply it by requiring that women be silent in our meetings of the church, yet we use it as evidence in other discussions about how we will conduct ourselves in our gatherings and in the leadership structures. Some biblical scholars have good evidence to suggest that these verses are an editorial commentary added by a scribe1; but, even if we allow that they are part of Paul’s original writing, we must read them next to words of Paul in which he encourages both men and women to teach, pray, and prophesy. Fee says, “these verses [1 Corinthians 14:34-35] stand in obvious contradiction to 11:2-16, where it is assumed without reproof that women pray and prophesy in the assembly.”
More must also be said about the sloppy way in which we interpret our Bibles. I have previously blogged on how easy it is to open a few passages of scripture, read them, and then ask, “What does the Bible have to say about this?” It is much harder, but much more accurate, to “appeal instead to the ‘broad sweep of Scripture’ and to generalities regarding justice, love, and common humanity.”2
What else would I want my daughter to investigate? I would want her to understand this statement by the Spirit filled, evangelical scholar, Gordon D. Fee.
Perhaps the worst thing the evangelical tradition has done on gender matters is to isolate them from the bigger picture of biblical theology. Indeed, I think we are destined for continual trouble if we do not start where Paul does: not with isolated statements addressed to contingent situations, but with Paul’s theology of the new creation, the coming of God’s eschatological rule inaugurated by Christ – especially through his death and resurrection – and the gift of the Spirit.
Two texts in particular serve as a proper starting point here. First, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, where Paul argues with the Corinthians who are calling into question both his gospel of a crucified Messiah and his cruciform apostleship. He responds that the new creation brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection nullifies one’s viewing anything any longer from the age old point of view (Gk. kata sarka, “according to the flesh”). Christ’s death means that the whole human race has come under the sentence of death (v. 14), so that those who do live (in God’s new order) now live for the one who died for them and was raised again (v. 15). The result, he goes on, is that from this point on, to view either Christ or anyone/anything else from a perspective that is “according to the flesh” is no longer valid (v. 16). Why? Because being in Christ means that one belongs to the new creation: the old has gone, the new has come (v. 17). It doesn’t take much reading of Paul to recognize that this radical, new order point of view – life marked by the cross – lies at the heart of everything he thinks and does.3
I want my daughter and all of us reading this post to begin to understand the culture into which the gospel came. Again, I call upon the excellent thinking of Gordon Fee.
As Demosthenes says in an offhanded, matter-of-fact way: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children.”
The idea that men and women might be equal partners in marriage simply did not exist, evidence for which can be seen in meals, which in all cultures serve as the great equalizer. In the Greek world, women scarcely ever joined their husbands and his friends at meals; and if they did, they did not recline at table (only the courtesans did that), but sat on benches at the end. And they were expected to leave after eating, when the conversation took a more public turn. It is especially difficult for most of us even to imagine our way back into such a culture, let alone to have any sense of feeling for it. Which is what makes what Paul actually says so counter-cultural in every way. . .4
I want my daughter to look at passages like Acts 16:3-5 in which Paul greets Priscilla and then Aquila and praises them because they risked their lives for him. He also greets the church that meets in their, not Aquila’s, house. This is sure evidence that some things have already been transformed by the gospel. In Colossians 4:15 Paul greets Nympha and the church that meets in her house. In Acts 16:13-15, 40 we see that the first believers in Philippi met at Lydia’s house.
I would suggest that my daughter read other great books on the subject such as Finally Feminist by John G. Stackhouse Jr. Then, I would ask my daughter to pray with me and ask that God might make each of us a suitable vessel for all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That, regardless of gender or the church context in which we reside, that each of us might work within those confines and teach, prophecy, counsel, pastor, lead, and love the people of God. May there be joy, love, grace, and unity in the churches of the Body of Christ.
1 On the inauthenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 272-281.
2 Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 50 and also at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3403
3 (Hancock 2003, 64)
4 (Fee 2000, 68, 69)
Fee, Gordon D. Listening to the Spirit in the Text. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
Hancock, Maxine, ed. Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003.
Stackhouse, John G. Jr. Finally Feminist. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.