The role of women

Women participate fully in all aspects of meetings, except that they do not teach scripture in mixed gatherings. The two passages about women in the church are 1 Corinthians 14:31-39 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14. Look first at 1 Corinthians 14:

31 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. 34 Women should remain silent in the congregations. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in a gathering. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy…

If women must be totally silent in church assemblies, verse 34 contradicts an earlier one (1 Corinthians 11:5) about women praying and prophesying in gatherings that are obviously mixed. (Female prophets are mentioned also in Acts 21:9.) God does not contradict himself, so the dilemma must be resolved. Verse 34 goes on to state that women must not speak but “must be in submission, as the law says”. What law is that? It is not the Law of Moses written in the Pentateuch, which nowhere states that women may not speak in mixed gatherings. This prohibition seems to have existed in synagogues, for Jewish tradition or ‘oral law’, written down later in the Talmud, contains multiple statements against a woman’s voice. The key to Paul’s passage is that he immediately becomes sarcastic with the Corinthians (in verse 36): Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?… What I am writing to YOU is the Lord’s command. This makes sense if verses 34 and 35 are words that the Corinthians have asserted – probably from Jewish converts – which Paul is quoting back at them in order to refute them. Verses 34 and 35 are not Paul’s directives, and they should be written inside quotation marks. Paul is refuting them in order to explain that women are free to speak.

What of the second passage, 1 Timothy 2:11-14? It reads:

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Verse 11, when read with verse 12, means that a woman should not challenge the authority of the teacher. The Greek word for ‘quiet’ in these verses does not mean totally silent. A woman who disagrees with a teaching is free to say so provided that she maintains an attitude of respect to the (male) teacher. Next, verse 12 states that Paul, who was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not permit a woman to teach, at least in mixed gatherings. In the apostolic church, ‘teach’ meant ‘teach scripture’. The reason Paul gives shows that this is a general prohibition, for Paul cites the situation between the first couple: in Genesis 3, Satan had gone after Eve, not Adam, to deceive, and Satan would have chosen the easier to deceive. Eve promptly distorts – and leads Adam on to break – one of only two commands then received, not to eat from a particular tree. (The other command is to steward the earth, in Genesis 1:28.) Peter recognises the same principle when he says that a woman who comes to faith is not to win her husband to it by instruction but by showing him greater love, of which she becomes capable (1 Peter 3:1). Women are free, of course, to take part in the discussions of scripture that follow a teaching. But they should also not give topical Bible teaching to a mixed adult audience.

The question of women speaking has nothing to do with whether a service is going on, or has ended or not yet started. The idea of a service stems from liturgy, which is not in the Bible but was introduced into meetings partly for pedagogical reasons. In a meeting in somebody’s home with no liturgy, there is no clear boundary between social talk and talk for Christian purposes. It would make no sense that women must fall silent as soon as they enter someone else’s home, or even a room in their own home. Holy Communion was taken in home meetings according to Acts 2:46; imagine a meal at which half the people around the table may not give their testimonies or say a word even with their husbands present! The boundary is clear, in contrast, between Bible teaching and other Christian speaking, such as prophecy.

The passage in 1 Corinthians 11 about head coverings is sometimes taken to mean that women should wear some kind of cloth over their hair in church assemblies (verse 5), and men should not (verse 4). There is more to this passage then meets the eye, for Israel’s High Priest was expected to wear a turban in the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:39). Consider Paul’s words in the context of home meetings. In Mediterranean countries 2000 years ago, married women wore cloth coverings over their hair in public as a cultural norm denoting modesty, but in their homes their hair was uncovered. 1 Corinthians 11:15 states that a woman’s long hair is given to her as a covering over her head. So, provided that her hair is not as short as a typical man’s (11:14-15), it acts as the covering called for in verse 11:5, and she need not wear any cloth over her head.

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