Sunday, February 11, 2007

1 Corinthians 14 and Women in Ministry

It's time for my bi-yearly visit to Constance Cherry's women in ministry class to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Whether by providence, chance, or a division chair's design, the women in ministry class always is scheduled at the same time that I teach 1 Corinthians and David Smith teaches 1 Timothy. So Constance has each of us come for a day and share on the only two verses in the entire Bible of any potential significance at all against women in ministry: 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15.

I have the really easy one. I always start out with the same line: "What does 1 Corinthians 14 have to say against women in ministry? Absolutely nothing!" But to fill up the rest of the hour, I go on anyway.

Headship Passages
There are a few places where we find "household codes" in the NT where the wife is said to be subject to her husband: Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3. But these, in the end, are irrelevant to the women in ministry question. Why?

1. Because husband-headship does not preclude a wife, let alone a single woman, being a minister.

[I might say that I personally view husband headship as more of a cultural than creational matter, but I don't want to muddy the waters of this particular discussion with a more controversial issue. Even assuming that husband-headship is "transcultural," it is, in the end, irrelevant to the question of women in ministry.]

For one thing, a husband could not legitimately use headship authority in a way that went against God's authority. So if God calls a woman to ministry, the husband-head would not have the authority to countermand it. "You tell whether it is right in God's eyes to obey you rather than God" (Acts 4:19).

And what if (just imagine, ye feeble of mind) a husband as head obeyed God and endorsed and supported God's call on his wife. Certainly then a wife in ministry would not contradict male headship now would it?

So if a husband supports his wife in ministry, husband-headship does not contradict women in ministry. And if a husband does not support his wife in ministry and we can show that God does, he does not have the authority to oppose his wife in ministry. In either case, the husband-headship issue is irrelevant to the question of women in ministry.

2. A second reason why these passages are irrelevant to women in ministry is that the Bible treats these sorts of patriarchal structures as "most of the time" structures. That is to say, the Bible does not treat these roles as absolute structures without exception.

How do we explain the occasional Deborah or Huldah? And why does Paul's mode of operation as found in Acts and his early letters seem to involve women working with him with no specification that they only worked with women or children?

Even Aristotle, whose household codes precede and say similar things to those in Colossians, Ephesians, and so forth, allows that there are women who are a "departure from nature." This, I submit, was the patriarchal view of biblical times. Men are usually the leaders, but there are women who occasionally depart from the norm. And to get off track again, Acts 2 seems to imply that we should expect a whole lot of these "departures" in the age of the Spirit, for "sons and daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17) and "in Christ there is not 'male and female'" (Gal. 3:28).

Side issues, but here to make it clear that it really all comes down to 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 as the only possible objections to women in ministry. Wow! How completely whacked out of focus Grudem and friends are and all the well intentioned people they've misguided!!

1 Corinthians 14:34-35
1. First thing I note about these verses is that they primarily seem to picture a husband wife relationship. The words for woman and man here also mean wife and husband, and that is the relationship that seems primarily in view.

So when 14:34 mentions "the Law" saying that women are to be subjected, what is it referring to? I think by far the best candidate is Genesis 3:16, where Eve is subjected to Adam in consequence of her sin. I'll overlook the blasphemy of applying this verse to the time after Christ, it only says, "as even the Law says"--a light comparison without teeth.

Why would it be blasphemy to apply this verse to the husband wife relationship? Because Christ atoned for all sins, not just some or just the sins of Adam! A redeemed women is no longer under the condemnation of Eve. She is in Christ. We can argue over a creational order of male and female, but not over a post-Fall order. That's blasphemy, as if someone were saying, "Nice job, Christ, in atoning for most sins. Too bad you couldn't take care of all of them." Blasphemy!

But the Genesis allusion points to a husband wife relationship, as does the comment, "let them ask their own husbands at home."

2. The second thing I note, and this is the most important, is that Paul cannot be talking about spiritual speech like prophecy or he has contradicted himself within the space of three chapters. In 1 Corinthians 11, he is discussing women praying and prophesying in church. Any woman praying or prophesying with uncovered head dishonors her "head," that is, her husband.

This chapter is the first of four that deal with interrelationships within the church at Corinth. Later in chapter 11 Paul will discuss communion. Chapters 12-14 deal with spiritual gifts and tongues in particular. In the early part of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is dealing with women in the congregation who are apparently causing conflict and tension by praying and prophesying without their hair veiled--the sign of a single woman. They were dishonoring their husbands before other men, angels, and God the Father. The context and the nature of the problem--prophecy isn't something you do alone--lead us to see this as a worship issue.

But if women are praying and prophesying before other men here, then the silence 14:34 enjoins cannot be silence of a spiritual sort. It has to be noise that causes disruption to the worship. Indeed, the noise at issue would seem to be questions addressed to men who aren't their own husbands (let them ask their own husbands--not someone else's). Philo the Jew talks about a worship service where women and men were segregated--a plausible scenario for other synagogues as well. The disruption of asking questions with such segregation would also contribute to our understanding of this passage.

And so this passage cannot address spiritual speech by women. And thus this verse has nothing to say against women in ministry. That simply isn't something these verses address.

Textual Issues
I want to end this snippet as a scholar. Perhaps most scholars take 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as original to 1 Corinthians. But a significant minority, including myself, do not think they come from Paul's hand. This is not a conservative-liberal issue, for faith filled scholars like Gordon Fee and Richard Hays agree with me. And of course conservative-liberal labels have nothing to do with truth. The truth is the truth period and doesn't care what label you attach to it.

And anyone who uses a modern translation de facto accepts that there are any number of places where the medieval Greek text (the one behind the KJV) has readings that were not the same as the first editions of these texts.

I have not based my appropriation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 off of the textual question because then someone might dismiss my argument on this issue. As you can see above, the conclusion stands or falls regardless of whether these verses were original.

But I think it is not very likely that they were original. Why?

1. These verses are displaced in a few manuscripts. They appear somewhere in all manuscripts, so they externally have very strong evidence in favor of their authenticity. Indeed, I think they must have been added before the end of the first century (someone might argue that Paul himself put them in the margin about the same time he wrote 1 Timothy, being sorely ticked at certain women in Ephesus).

In some manuscripts they appear after verse 40. One explanation for this phenomenon is to suggest that they were placed in the margin and then later copyists put them in at more than one location in the main text.

2. In keeping with the displacement, the train of thought works much smoother without them present. 1 Corinthians 14 is about prophesy and tongues. The wife comment is a digression if original.

Here's how it would read:

"The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints. Or did the word of God go out from you alone or meet you alone? If someone thinks to be a prophet or spiritual, let that person acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the command of the Lord."

The comment on women being silent is a digression from the train of thought.

3. The church at Corinth is a church at Corinth. It is not a group of churches, plural. It therefore makes little sense for Paul to tell the Corinthian church for them to let women be silent in the churches. They are not churches and Paul is not addressing churches. This minor anomaly bespeaks transplanted material.

4. Verse 36 similarly returns to a masculine audience--the word for alone is masculine plural. That works okay, but it was women that Paul said earlier to let be silent and to ask at home: "let women ask."

5. Finally, there is the tension between these two verses and 1 Corinthians 11. I have suggested that these verses cannot be talking about spiritual speech or Paul has contradicted himself in the space of three chapters.

But these verses sure sound like a total prohibition of speech--"it is shameful for a women to speak in church." In other words, if these words are original, it seems almost impossible to fit them together with what Paul has said earlier. Given the other evidence, the near impossibility of fitting these words together with what Paul has said earlier leads me to conclude that he probably didn't say them at all.

[I might add tangentially that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to play out such a scenario in a church today and keep the more central principles of the gospel, although it was probably more possible in Paul's day]

And so I end where I began. The only verse in the entire Bible that potentially offers any substance against the idea of women in ministry is in 1 Timothy. Certainly 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 provide no argument against it.

Hallelujah for the dawn of the new covenant and the age of the Spirit, an age when our sons and daughters prophesy!


Bill Barnwell said...

On a related post on my blog, some guy recently condemned me and my teachings, while quoting proverbs about refuting fools, and then ended with this: "Well, at least in light of the falling away, the time of the Lord's return grow ever closer."

And this attitude represents probably most conservative Evangelicals. Any deviation from the Grudem position is "liberalism" at best and heresy at worst. They are incapable of considering that other theological conservatives can have Biblical positions to the contrary, assocating all pro-women in ministry supporters with new age denominations. They can't possibly fathom extending the applications of redeeming passages over time. The role of women must be as it was in the 1st century, though the roles of slaves should not be. Much of this is linked to fundamentalist understandings of inspriation (Which is in most Evangelical churches now) which pretty much doesn't allow this sort of hermeneutic and prefers its own wooden approach. What's interesting, like you say, is that if they were consistent their churches would like much different.

For those who argue against women in ministry based on these and other passages, I want to know if: (1) They allow congregational singing with women, (2) If they let women in their choirs, (3) If women are allowed to give announcements up front, (4) If their women are wearing headcoverings, (5) If their women have ever given a "testimony" during a worship service, etc, etc.

If they answer yes to any of these questions, then I suppose their churches also are full of lukewarm heretics who ignore the plain counsel of God. After all, Paul says there are NO other practices in ALL the churches. They better get with the program and be faithful to their KJV's lest they miss the imminent pretribulational rapture.

Ken Schenck said...

The thing is, where is there anything "liberal" about what I've written above in the main argument. I can see where someone might label the textual argument or some of the parenthetical comments as "liberal" (if so, then I suspect God is liberal), but I can't think of anything liberal in the argument above--unless by liberal one means "it's different from what I think."

Anonymous said...

Here goes, and one never knows at times what may be given that will be thrown back at you...but, my husband and I just attended a conference on Religion/Science issues this past week-end. I'm sure it would be considered "liberal", but what i so admired and felt "freedom in" was each scientist desire to be faithful to his discipline AND seek to understand God through their discipline. And with many "different" areas of science represented, their openness to one another even in their disagreement was so refreshing. I thought I'd gotten "new lungs"!!!

I think the main problem is our understanding of authority and how it should relate to areas of Biblical interpretation. God is our authority (if we believe in a "personal relationship"), but how do we understand how that authority is implemented. Does His nature control His will Or His WILL control His Nature?

Keith Drury said...

Best you have written yet on this subject!

Bryan L said...

I find Fee to be very convincing on his view of interpolation both in his book God's Empowering Presence and lectures he's given at Regent. I often see his argument dismissed by those who don't seemed to have really looked into what he's said. I find it funny how some can so casually dismiss an expert and leading Textual Critic and dismiss his evidence and arguments when they're clearly not qualified to do so and it's obvious they don't understand everything that goes into textual criticism.
Good post.
Bryan L

Ken Schenck said...

And from a "political" standpoint, Fee's evangelical credentials are impeccable, so no one can legitimately accuse him of being a pinko liberal commie...

James Petticrew said...

What gets to me is the special pleading which many churches which are against women taking an active and oral part in church life resort to. I was once with friend who belonged to the Free Church of Scotland which doesn't allow women leaders or women to speak in church, no out loud praying etc. So on the Sunday in a building women were kept silent. I then went to their "house group" and guess what, women were praying out loud and during the bible discussion not only were they talking, they were definetly indulging in what I would consider to be teaching. I later asked my friends why the difference, "oh" I was told "the house group wasn't in the church so women can speak" !!!!
What kind of crazy hermeneutic is that? A basically dishonest one I would contend.
I just read Mark Driscoll's "Confessions of a Reformissional Rev" and was deeply disappointed and annoyed with his anti-woman stance and attitude. I would love to know if any of his male leaders have been divorced or have children who are outside the faith because if he is going to apply this unbending heremeutic, it should apply to men in leadership and not just be about keeping women out of leadership.