Women: Directives and Praxis

A few days ago I did my usual falling behind in responding to blog comments, but didn’t want a query about women as deacons, preachers, and apostles in the NT to go unanswered, so here it is.

The claim I made there, and want to rehearse here, is that the practices of women’s participation in the early church demonstrate that the directives against their speaking, teaching, did not regulate women’s actual practice in the first century.

The most important passage to assess is 1 Tim 2:11-12:

A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. (NET)

Notice that the woman is required to be quiet. And she is forbidden from doing two things: teaching and exercising authority over men.

If this is a binding rule for all churches, then there should be no women speaking in public worship (let’s restrict it to worship just to keep the bar moderately high, even though this isn’t explicitly stated in the text); there should be no women teaching men (let’s make it harder on ourselves and say, “no teaching men about the things of God”); and no woman should be in a position of leadership authority (again, we’ll add “in the church” to make it harder on ourselves).

Let’s pile on a bit more. Here’s the other important passage, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.

Once again, the prohibition is stark: women must be silent in church. Here the context is explicit.

What this means is that any indication that the apostles knew about and promoted or otherwise endorsed either women speaking in church, or women teaching men, or women exercising authority in the church–any one of these will falsify the apparently universal applicability of the prohibitions that have traditionally served to restrict church leadership to men.

1 Corinthians itself undermines the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a universally applicable norm.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells women who prophecy in church how to conduct themselves appropriately. In other words, they were not silent in church, and Paul didn’t think they always should be.

This also means that the regulation in 1 Timothy 2 that women keep quiet was not universally practice–not even in the Pauline churches.

Romans 16 becomes significant inasmuch as it demonstrates not only that women were actively involved in Paul’s mission (co-workers and the like), but that, specifically, a woman was a deacon (Phoebe in 16:1) and also an apostle (Junia in 16:7). In other words, whatever “authority” there was in the church, there were women who were holding such positions of leadership.

It is against such stark prohibitions that the role of Priscilla as an instructor of Apollos becomes significant. Here again is a woman doing exactly what she should not do if 1 Tim 2 is normative across the practice of the early church.

So what do we do with this ambivalent data–data that one the one hand vehemently objects to women speaking and teaching and leading, and data that on the other hand assumes that these things are happening and that for the good of the church?

Two different things. First, there is a text critical issue in 1 Cor 14. Why does Paul seem to contradict himself between women speaking in ch. 11 and mandating silence in ch. 14? Gordon Fee has argued that the verses in ch. 14 were added by a later scribe, and this has won wide-spread approval.

That leaves us with 1 Tim 2.

There are various ways we might go with this verse. It is part of our canon. But it seems to me that the way that is closed to us is enforcing it universally across our churches. This was not done in the NT, by the apostles and their communities, and it should not be done in ours.

The text might indicate that there was a particular issue that demanded a particular course of action to correct an abuse; it might indicate that there are times or cultural contexts when concessions need to be made rather than clinging to the ideal of equality.

But practice is instructive as we look to apply the imperatives. If we are looking to the NT to set the trajectories for the church into our day, the actual practices of Paul and his churches must not be rendered silent by one post-Pauline imperative.

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