Wednesday, December 09, 2009

1 Corinthians Disorder 3: Women and Worship

Previous posts in this series, Life Reflections on Paul and His Writings, include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth; 5b. Disunity at Corinth 2; 5c. Disunity at Corinth 3
6 How Not to Have Sex
7a. Disagreement and Disorder 1; 7b. The Lord's Supper.

Now part 3 of "Disagreement and Disorder": "Women and Worship"...
Women and Worship
For whatever reason, some of the women in the Corinthian church seemed to be a source of controversy. We already observed in the previous chapter that 1 Corinthians 7 seems to focus unusually on women in a way that makes us wonder if some Corinthian women were wanting to use the gospel as an opportunity for them to free themselves of their husbands and perhaps of sex. Perhaps these same women come up again in the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 and, if the verses are original, in 14:34-35. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is only here in 1 Corinthians that Paul mentions Aquila first and Priscilla second (16:19). [1]

In 1 Corinthians 11, the problem apparently has to do with conflict in the church from women not veiling their heads when the community is worshipping together. Although scholars have debated quite a bit about the passage, we think the heart of the problem is the fact that married women are not veiling their hair in the presence of men who are not their husbands. [2] We have evidence from other Jewish literature at the time that pious, married Jewish women wore a veil over their hair down to their shoulders (not a face veil). For example, in the Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth, the widow Aseneth is told to put the veil of a virgin back on her head when she converts to Judaism. Even though she had been married before, her conversion "revirginates" her! [3]

It is not hard to imagine how this conflict might arise. First, the fact that worship took place in houses immediately creates a tension for women because they would not normally wear the veil inside but outside. As we mentioned back in chapter 5, the Corinthian church likely met in the house of a wealthy man named Gaius when they all met together (Rom. 16:23). It is not hard to imagine especially that his wife and daughters if he had them might resist having to wear a veil in their own home! And it is not clear that the Gentile women of the city followed the practice of veiling either. We cannot know for sure, but it is at least possible that some of these tensions were between Jewish and Gentile elements in the congregation, with Jews finding temptation or offense in the absence of a veil. [4] So while men and women were often kept separate, the house church would put men and women who were not their wives in close quarters.

This hypothesis seems plausible enough, and it would seem to account generally for what Paul actually says in the first part of 1 Corinthians 11. Paul begins by affirming the Corinthians for following the traditions he left them. Whatever he has in mind, this chapter apparently qualifies them in some way. Since he goes on to give proper relationships between husband and wife, it would appear that the traditions to which he refers must have been something like Galatians 3:28, that in Christ "there is not male and female." [5] In other words, it would appear again that something the Corinthian women are doing requires Paul to qualify the empowerment of women that was apparently part of the gospel.

He invokes the cultural roles of husband and wife as they commonly played out in the Mediterranean world. The idea that the husband was the head of the wife was not an idea that Christians came up with or that comes from the Old Testament. The earliest use of this language is actually found in the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 300s BC. In his Politics, he suggests that the husband is the head of the wife and that he rules over her in the same way the ruler of a city rules over the citizens of the city. [6] He goes on to say that nature generally makes the male fitter to command than the female, although he acknowledges there are some departures from nature.

So Paul invokes the cultural categories of his day to address apparent conflict that is taking place in worship because of men and women being in such close quarters in a home. He urges the wives of the assembly to wear their hair veils when they are praying and prophesying so that they do not dishonor their "heads," their husbands. An unveiled woman is like a woman with short hair, which everyone would have agreed was shameful. It made her look like a dishonorable woman, like a prostitute. It was like taking off your wedding ring and flirting with other men, shaming her husband and possibly angering other wives who were wearing their veils.

The mention of appearing unveiled before God and angels upped the stakes. God of course has no genitalia--references to Him as male is not literal language but metaphorical to help human understanding. Nevertheless, God and angels were conceptualized as male. In fact, both many Jews and Christians at the time understood Genesis 6:1 to be about angels having sex with human women, which is almost certainly what 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 are referring to. [7] Like the men in their midst, Paul tells them they should wear the veil on their head as an indication of their honor in the presence of God and angels while praying or prophesying.

One point of great interest here is that Paul does not contest that women can pray and prophesy--which is the only "preaching" like activity we hear of in the Corinthian church. Paul is trying to resolve conflict and remove disgrace in husband-wife relationships, but he assumes without question that women will be praying and prophesying in public worship in front of men. When we think of debates today over women in ministry, it is very important to notice that Paul never connects the two issues. The language he occasionally invokes of husband headship has nothing to do in any of his writings with women ministering or "preaching" in worship.

This observation leads us to one of the two most controversial passages on women in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

"women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

These are puzzling verses. Has not Paul already assumed they can do pray and prophesy in worship? For Paul to be consistent, we must assume that Paul is not talking about spiritual speech but about disruptive chatter. This verse thus again has nothing to do with the question of women in ministry. Only one verse in the entire Bible thus seems, when read in context, to take a negative position on wives teaching their husbands, and we will look at that verse in greater depth in our second volume. [8] In general, one should not base a practice on a single verse in the Bible, especially one as suprising and strange as those in 1 Timothy 2:12-15!

In the end, however, we would join the minority of scholars (but nevertheless, a list with a number of evangelical, faith-filled names on it) and conclude that these two verses are not likely to have been in the copy of 1 Corinthians that Paul sent the Corinthians. Anyone who has used different versions like the New International Version and the King James Version will know that these translations occasionally differ in text from one another. The reason is the fact that there are some variations among the thousands of copies of the New Testament that have survived from the ancient world.

In the case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, although these verses do appear in all the manuscripts we have, they do not always appear in the same place. Curiously, some manuscripts have them after verse 40 at the end of the chapter. A good explanation for this phenomenon is the suggestion that they were not originally in the text of 1 Corinthians but that they were written in the margin of a very early copy of the letter. Then later copiers put them in the text at more than one place.

This is a slight manuscript basis for suggesting they were not original, but there are much stronger reasons for drawing this conclusion from internal evidence. The main one is that these verses do not really fit here in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul is talking about the use of tongues and prophecy in worship. If these verses are not read, the train of thought is perfectly smooth:

"For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints, or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord." (1 Cor. 14:31-37).

The two verses on women are unexpected and do not really fit the train of thought.

But the nail in the coffin is the switch from the context of 1 Corinthians to a different context. 1 Corinthians addresses the church, singular, at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2). It does not address churches, plural. But the two added verses tell the churches of God, plural, to make women keep silent. Because we as Christians read 1 Corinthians as Scripture, as God's word to us, plural, it is easy to miss this significant shift. But Paul is telling the singular church at Corinth to be orderly like the other churches of God. If he then went on to tell women to be silent in other churches, it would have left the Corinthians asking themselves, "Who is he talking to? Isn't this letter to us?" It is thus very unlikely that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were even in 1 Corinthians in the first place.

The issue of women in ministry is a strangely live one in the church today, ironically even in churches of my own tradition, the Wesleyan tradition. We were ordaining women in the late 1800s, long before so called liberal churches did or before feminism was popular. We did so, along with many charismatic churches, because of our strong sense that the Day of Pentecost implied that women had the Spirit just as men, and that Acts 2:17 was serious when it said that the sons and daughters of those with the Spirit would now prophesy in the new age.

But it is deeply ironic that in an age when we recognize that there is nothing about a woman's brain--let alone the rest of her body--that would imply she cannot lead or minister, Christians themselves are the ones holding out. In the New Testament, the empowerment of women is a major consequence of the new age but it was tempered by the social conflict it caused at places like Corinth and perhaps Ephesus, the implied context of 1 Timothy. So then, full empowerment was limited by culture. Now, ironically, it is a certain segment of the church that is holding back full empowerment when Western culture would allow it!

In the end we have to wonder if there are other things going on in the minds and hearts of those who will not let women answer any call God makes on their lives. And it is not always men who oppose women in ministry. It is just as often other women. If a person has sincere doubts, a great place to start is with the recognition that, even in the Old Testament, the tendency for men to take leadership was never absolute. There was always a place for exceptions like Deborah the general or Huldah the prophetess. If you are willing to make exceptions for those women who are truly called and not shut the door completely, then God will do the rest. You will see that God wants to call lots of women to all different levels of ministry and leadership in the church.

[1] Unlike Romans 16:3 and, assuming Paul was the literal author, 2 Timothy 4:19. Acts also mentions Priscilla first twice (18:18, 26) and Aquila first only when it first introduces the couple in 18:2.

[2] The other two most common interpretations are that 1) Paul is addressing a particularly showy hair style or that 2) he is not addressing a particular conflict at all but suggesting in general that a woman should have long hair.

[3] Another relevant passage is in Philo, ***

[4] We in the West might find it hard to imagine that men might be unduly tempted by a woman’s uncovered hair, but a Christian from the Middle East probably would immediately appreciate this notion. Westerners might have to picture a woman coming to church in a swimsuit to get the same sense of the dynamics here.

[5] Some have suggested the words of Galatians 3:28 might have been spoken over those undergoing baptism in the early church in some circles.

[6] ***

[7] Jude explicitly quotes the book of 1 Enoch, which tells the stories of (fallen) angels having sex with human women. The proximity of the 1 Enoch quote to this mention of angels from the days of Noah held in chains till the judgment makes it almost certain Jude, 2 Peter, not to mention 1 Peter 3:19-20.

[8] 1 Timothy seems to suggest that because Eve was deceived rather than Adam, wives should not teach their husbands. Nevertheless, women can be saved from the state of transgression left by Eve through childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15), a strange statement since we believe Christ atoned for all sin, including the sin of Eve. In general, it is the only verse in the Bible that forbids wives to teach their husbands (we would argue it is not even about women in general but the husband-wife relationship) and a strange one at that--not the kind of basis one would want to base an entire theology of women or women in ministry on.

1 comment:

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Ken. Good point about "churches".

I addressed similar issues in a blog post about misogynist corruptions of Paul here: