But about Paul…

Sharing this because women-in-the-Bible and women-in-leadership has come up a couple times on facebook recently. From an old edition of the “Morning Star”, the student paper/newsletter of Wycliffe College. Volume 30 Issue 20. Copied without permission. :P

Can Women’s Ordination Be Affirmed in the Face of Even the Most Difficult Pauline Texts?

By Glen Taylor  –  March 3, 2015

I want to share my own exegetical pilgrimage on this issue as a biblical (though primarily an OT) scholar. My hope is to demonstrate that it is possible to support women’s ordination while at the same time not ignoring a single passage that might seem to preclude women’s ordination. (Practically speaking, since “ordination” is not known or used in the NT, I will use it as a byword for being an elder/ presbyter. On ordination per se, Principal Sumner has written a fine book.)

Assuming that most would agree that there is much in Scripture to support women’s leadership (including as teachers) in the church — Genesis 1, Judges 4 – 5, five named OT prophetesses (and another five in the NT), Jesus’ attitude towards women, Galatians 3:28, the translational understatement of the role of women as deacons in the NT and the early church, etc. –– I shall address the two most seemingly contrary Pauline passages. My hope is that if women’s ordination can be sustained in light of these texts, it will be accepted more widely across the board.

1 Cor 14: 34b – 36: “ As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says .”

Responses to this text that I don’t find compelling include localizing this reference to Corinth alone, which is hard to reconcile with the scope given in v. 34a. Nor is it helpful to me to trash Paul’s outlook (for example to say he’s a misogynist) because what he writes is part of Holy Scripture and from him also come countless invaluable truths.   What I do find helpful is that Paul’s stricture on women speaking in church can’t be a blanket one; this is because, earlier –– and in the same discussion of churchly practice, namely chapter 11 –– Paul explicitly favours women praying and prophesying in church (e.g. 11:5). (The odd reference to head – coverings here shouldn’t keep us from seeing that Paul is otherwise condoning women praying and prophesying in church.)

Also helpful is to remember that the Greek word for “women” is the same for “wives.” Indeed, most if not all of Paul’s discussions of the role of so – called “women” in the church are rather about the role of “wives” in relation to their husbands in the church. (This is another difficult issue, but not ours here).

So what is Paul saying here? I think Paul is talking specifically of “wives” arguing with their husbands during the church service about their (the husbands’) prophecy or scriptural interpretation. This view explains the verse that follows (36): “If they [wives] want to inquire about something, they should ask their own men [clearly “husbands” here] at home , for it is inappropriate for a woman to speak in church.” For Paul then, marital squabbling apparently made for disorderly church meetings in the same way as speaking in tongues without an interpreter or self – centered gluttony at the Eucharistic table.

1 Timothy 2:11  –  15: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. 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 and propriety.”   

There is no question: this is a challenging text for which I can offer no easy answers.

I don’t find it helpful or compelling to excuse this passage on grounds that it is late or not originally Pauline; Scripture it remains. No more helpful (to me at least) are appeals to the limitations of culture (such as arguing that women’s educational levels at the time were low); Paul appeals to creation, which is broadly based. Besides, what isn’t cultural in one way or another?

What I do find helpful relates to the following two possibilities:

1) that here too the writer has in mind wives and husbands more than women and men. This is suggested by the reference to childbearing, a wife’s role, and to   Adam and Eve, a married couple. (The issue of Eve’s womanly susceptibility to deception remains a problem. More on this at the end.)

2) that the call for a woman to be modestly adorned in the immediately preceding context of vv. 9  –  10 (not quoted above), far from adding to the problem, is actually redemptive, for it occurs in a context which, like 1 Cor 14, relates to propriety in public worship. And, as with 1 Cor. 11, the context here implies women leading in worship. This is because Paul’s call for women to dress modestly in I Tim. 2:9 follows directly from his call in v. 8 for men similarly to adopt a refined demeanor in leading worship  (specifically, prayer; cf. 1 Tim. 2:1 which heads the chapter up with prayer as topic).

To clarify and elaborate, in 1 Tim 2: 8 Paul desires men “to pray” in church with uplifted hands that are holy and with spirits that are free of anger and contention. Immediately following this in v. 9  ––  and thus presumably also on the topic of leading public prayer  — Paul desires women “to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship.”

My point is that Paul is likely dictating appropriate demeanour, first for men and then for women in leading public prayer and worship. (In addition to the context of v. 9, consider also the last two words of v. 9: epangellomenais theosebeian . Traditionally rendered “women who profess worship” these words can also be rendered “women who conduct worship.” (“Conduct” could also be translated “declare” or “narrate” which support the point even mores so; what is problematic for this view is that theosebeian probably conveys a sort of worship that, like “piety,” one can’t lead others to do.) The context alone remains sufficient to suggest that Paul first instructs men on how they should lead prayers, and then women on how they should do the same.

In sum, 1 Tim. 2: 11–15 is admittedly very challenging. Yet, its preceding context strongly implies, as did also 1 Cor. 11 in relation to chapter 14, that what Paul later says about a woman being silent and learning in submission cannot be understood as a blanket silence applying to women in general (which would thereby de facto disqualify them from exercising leadership in the church); on the contrary, Paul assumes clearly in Corinthians and very possibly in I Timothy that women are playing active “up front” roles involving prayer and worship. And in both cases, as one can see from his respective elaborations, he appeals not to a theology of women in relation to church leadership but to wives in relation to their husbands.

Yet, finally, what about a woman not teaching or having authority over a man, but rather learning in quietness and full submission (1 Tim. 2:11  –  12)? Does this have no bearing on women’s ordination? I believe it does, but not so as to warrant disallowing it.

Assuming that Paul here precludes not just wives teaching (their) husbands, but women teaching men, how can Paul’s appeal to her susceptibility to deception and sin not be an impediment to female leadership in the church?

I cannot read Scripture any other way here: Paul claims women are susceptible to deception and prone to sin. Granted; but who can deny that men are not also susceptible to the same? (When Dr Marion Taylor wrote her commentary on Ezekiel for the Women’s Bible Commentary, she was troubled to find that Ezekiel regarded women as wicked. Yet, Marion soon came to conclude that Ezekiel thought no better of men!)

It being the case that men and women are prone to error and sin, the problem is surely not (at least necessarily) to deny women leadership and teaching roles in the church, but to ensure that all church leaders  —  both women and men  —  are held strictly accountable to others, which can easily be done by recourse to such things as doctrinal norms, shared leadership, and denominational discipline. In other words, by a) broadening Paul’s concern to include male leaders, and by b) establishing ecclesial means for addressing the inevitable foibles of  both male and female church leaders , the truth of 1 Tim. 2: 11  –  13 can be honoured all the more, not less. (Witness the havoc often wreaked by many male , lone – ranger pontiffs!)

Finally, is Paul actually implying that women are more susceptible to deception than men? Perhaps. But might he be no less implying in v. 8c that men are more prone to angry outbursts than women? This is likely a stretch for 1 Tim 2:8, but it is certainly not for the primeval history (early chapters of Genesis) to which Paul appeals in the case of Eve’s vice. As is often overlooked, chapter 4 of Genesis contains a test tailor  –  made for the male (Cain who in failing the test killed his brother Abel), namely to control his anger. (Gen. 4:6 –  7 contain several parallels to the test of Eve and Adam in chapter 3).

As with Eve and deception, so with Cain and his anger: each fails the test. (Adding Cain makes the score in fact only one failed test against the woman, Eve, and two against the men, Adam and Cain!)

In the end (or from the beginning!) men qualify for ordination no more than women  –– except  through the regenerative and transforming work of Jesus Christ which comes through faith in Him. Thus Paul can say in Galatians 3:25  –  28: “But now that faith has come . . . in Christ Jesus . . . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


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