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.

8 thoughts on “Women: Directives and Praxis”

  1. As always, this is good fodder for discussion.

    Per 1 Cor 14:29 and 32, could 1 Cor 14:34-35 (if it was originally in that passage) be understood as referring to the public critiquing/weighing of prophetic messages offered by others? If so, the contradiction with chapter 11 is not as apparent. Of course, other points you have raised beyond this one would still need to be addressed.

  2. In 1978, when I was caught in the dilemma of a traditionalist faith and an unmistakable call to teaching ministry in the church, the question that spurred me to investigate was this one: Why would Paul say one thing (1 Tim 2, 1 Cor 14), but do another (Rom 16)? It rocked my world at the time, and “the rest is history.” Nevertheless, humility is required. As you suggest, the reason why anyone might be disqualified from teaching ministry might be 1) inadequate doctrinal foundation, 2) ungodly motives, or 3) “a weak brother” who cannot handle being taught by a woman (yet!). In my seminary teaching, I have had the lovely and invigorating opportunity to address all three of these with my students.

  3. Great post, Daniel. A few thoughts. Fee’s position view on 1 Cor 14 has not really gained wide-spread approval, among textual critics and commentators it is a minority position with little evidence. However, I find one history rooted interpretation quite persuasive. In the first century (and still now in many places) men and women sat on different sides of the church. And equally important, the services took place in the proper language of the culture, not in the local patwa, or dialect, but in the higher social language (i.e. the classical language). Usually it was the men who understood this language while women spoke the local dialect. During worship services women could not understand much of what was going on. This would result in talking among themselves and asking their husbands questions from across the aisle, thus disrupting the service. Because of this Paul instructs these women to be silent, and if they ”want to inquire about something they should ask their husbands at home” (14:35), so as not to disrupt the service. This interpretation fits well with 1 Corinthians 14, which is concerned with order and decency.

    Also, I believe I remember you saying you reject Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. How does that affect your understanding of the cultural situation in 1 Timothy 2? The so-called “New Roman Women Movement” and Artemis cult in Ephesus seem to be a likely backdrop for Paul’s restriction. However, a second-century date would ruin that argument.

  4. Hello Daniel,

    You make a compelling point in so far as you frame this in terms of ‘absolute prohibitions’, but I think that almost sets itself up as a false-dilemma.

    For example, there can be exceptions to a rule, without overturning the rule itself. So 1 Cor 14 can be taken pretty plainly with 1 Cor 11 being an exception in the case of receiving a prophecy. The very context of 1 Cor 11 you appeal to is explicitly teaching women are subordinate to men, so context even here is critical. And it’s noteworthy to point out that a prophecy isn’t the same as being a teaching figure in the sense of ordained clergy.

    As for Romans 16, I think there are a few significant assumptions you’ve not addressed, for example:
    (1) The use of the term ‘deacon’ in 16:1 could be taken either to simply mean assistant OR to a minor clerical role that is focused on certain things not suitable for men (e.g. nude female baptisms) but still subordinate to and on a lower rung than male deacons and male elders and male bishops.
    (2) The term “apostle” in 16:7 doesn’t likely apply to a women, but rather a woman who had a good reputation among the 12 Apostles. Even if not, a similar approach could be taken as with 16:1 above.

    So when you say “Romans 16 becomes significant,” care should be taken that it (a) recognizes the tiny and even dubious quality of evidence for female clergy on par with males, and (b) gives sufficient consideration to the abundant and clear references to male clergy and female subordination.

    Personally, I believe it’s dangerous and even question begging to build up an entire theology around Rom 16:1,7 and Fee’s idea that 1 Cor 14 was a later addition. Fee’s idea suffers from the two-fold problem of (a) defaulting to the assumption there is a contradiction in ch11 and ch14 rather than seek reasonable harmonizing readings, (b) assuming 1 Cor was tampered with, (c) that 1 Cor 14 was tampered with but ch11 was not.

    It seems to me there is a case of “missing the forest for the trees” here, for Paul is not just saying these things willy-nilly, but grounding his opinion on claims like this:
    “2:12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 2:13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 2:14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived,”

    Such talk is understandably harsh to modern ears, but it’s *context* for which Paul is speaking and framing his teaching. Verses like 2:13-14 are ultimately non-sequitor and even cruel if one approaches this subject as a matter of a blind ‘equal opportunity’.

  5. Interesting post. Would you mind to elaborate on the references in Romans? Although I am a an up-and-coming Greek student, my knowledge is still limited. However, it seems to me that the reference to Phoebe being a deacon fine, due to the Greek diakonon, that means deacon or servant; however, the reference to Junia seems weak. The text says that she was a fellow prisoner with Paul and was “outstanding among the apostles.” Does this mean that she necessarily was am apostle?

    A sincere seeker of the truth

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