Those Disgraceful Preaching Women

Circuit preacher for a day. That’s how I felt a couple of weeks ago, when I filled in for a friend at his two churches. Except that I used a car, not a horse, and it was only two churches, not a circuit.

Two country towns, two small churches, two lovely groups of people. It was a fun experience.

I learned something that day: Methodists (how I was raised) have trespasses, but Presbyterians (where I was filling in) have debts. Which would have been a non-issue if they hadn’t expected me to lead the Lord’s Prayer.

No worries. They were very gracious.

So why did I do it? Why did I agree to preach if it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

I used to think this meant women shouldn’t preach. That’s what I was taught. Everyone I knew assumed the speaking Paul prohibited here was preaching, mostly because of how the verse had been translated into English. When we ask, “Who spoke today?” about a church service, everyone including your mother’s uncle knows we mean, “Who preached?”

So we answer “Pastor Joe” or “Brother Earl.” No one gets all goofed up thinking we want to know who talked at church, because that was probably everyone.

Yet that’s exactly what the Greek word used here (laleō) means: “talk.”[1] Just good old-fashioned putting audible sounds to thoughts.


A more literal translation of Paul’s words might be:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to talk…

Oh, great. Thanks a lot, Sarah. Now we can’t say anything.

I’ve heard that some people take it that way, passing out little red flags for women to wave at their husbands when they have a question or comment, so they can talk without talking since women can’t talk in church.

But that might be an urban legend for all I know. Most people seem to understand that Paul is not disallowing all woman-talking. That would be weird.

And not what Paul intended.

No, not at all.

Paul assumed that women would speak up at church, that they would pray and prophesy. And praying and prophesying in church includes talking. That’s usually how that works. Paul didn’t want women to be bareheaded when they spoke up, but he did assume as a matter of course that they would, well, talk.

We might even call it speak.

But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. (1 Cor. 11:5)

I had always focused on the limitations in this verse, on the bit about wearing a veil or a ball cap or an Easter bonnet, but the underlying assumption, that women of course would speak up at church, went right over my head covering.[2]

So does this green light on praying and prophesying at church mean it’s okay for a woman to preach?

Well, we need to understand two ideas: what preaching consisted of in the early church, and how prophecy fit into that. Intuitively we understand what preaching is: it’s that (hopefully) inspiring talking we get at church that instructs us, strengthens us, and builds us up. It’s what takes the word of God found in the Bible and, by the Holy Spirit, tells us what God wants us to hear from it today.

But preaching functioned a little differently in the first century. Sandwiched between Paul’s assumption that women would prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:3) and the infamous ban on women speaking in church (1 Cor. 14:34-35) lies a lot of important information about early church preaching. Things weren’t formalized as they are now, where we tend to put all the preaching responsibility on one person who has made that their life work.

All the same things happened: the instructing, the strengthening, the building up. But it worked a bit differently.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:26)

The “preaching” part of their church service came through more than one person, in the form of a Spirit-directed conglomeration of various types of “words.” It wasn’t one person standing up there every week telling everyone else how to live the Christian life. It was more like tag-team preaching. Some churches today have recognized the drawbacks of relying on one person to know it all and do it all, and hence have embraced the value of spreading out the preaching among a team.

Very twenty-first century.

Or first century.

All this early church preaching-speaking needed to be done in an orderly and, most importantly, understandable manner. Which is why Paul argued that prophecy was more important than tongues-speaking in church.

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. (1 Cor. 14:1-4)

The type of church-speaking Paul assumed women would be part of, prophecy, was the important kind.


One of the problems I had with interpreting Paul’s directions about women prophesying was that I had no idea what prophecy was. At least no first-hand experience, since as far as I knew nobody did that anymore. Prophecy was like Acts 21 where Agabus told Paul he would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles. That sort of foretelling of the future simply didn’t happen today, as far as I could tell.

So I blew it off.

I didn’t know that prophecy is simply a message inspired by the Holy Spirit for the audience at hand, and that prophetic preaching is the best preaching. If somebody gets up and preaches, sharing their thoughts on this and their thoughts on that, throwing in a bit of historical background and word studies here and there, that’s fine.

But that kind of preaching is nothing compared to the person who hears and then communicates what God wants to say through a specific passage of Scripture to a specific group of people at a specific point in time.[3] All those Old Testament sermons by those crazy prophets were so compelling because it was clear that Almighty God had spoken.

That’s prophetic preaching. The best preaching.

And Paul assumed women would be part of it. Even, apparently, to the point of instructing their listeners.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Cor. 14:29-31)

“So that everyone may be instructed.” Oh. Instruction comes through prophecy. Encouragement too, and strengthening and comfort and edification. But don’t forget instruction.

Is this saying women can instruct the church? You tell me.

If it’s not preaching, if it’s not instruction, then what does the ban have to do with, what is this disgraceful church talking women must avoid?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something…. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

The prohibited speaking had to do with asking questions about what had been said.[4] Maybe they didn’t understand, maybe they didn’t agree, maybe they had so many questions it was all getting out of hand. But the main thing is that it was disgraceful in that culture for a woman to address questions to others with her husband sitting right next to her.

That shamed him.[5]

The solution was to address her questions to her husband after they got home.

If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:35)

First century culture, where the man was the authority and leader of his wife, simply could not handle a woman going around her husband.[6] Twenty-first century culture, in contrast, simply could not handle the public questioning and evaluating of the messages heard in church that the early church practiced.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. (1 Cor. 14:29)

When was the last time your church service included a public discussion of the Sunday message, questioning and evaluating and deciding if it was truly of the Spirit, with the preacher sitting right there?

My guess is it’s been awhile.


Because it’s culturally inappropriate. We save that kind of dialogue for the Monday email tidal wave your pastor loves to hate.

And you thought you hated Mondays.

What’s appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another. We don’t have to rigidly apply first century cultural norms to the way we do church today. We don’t have to force a very uncomfortable public evaluation of the Sunday message, ripping righteous Reverend Richard’s heart to shreds as we do. We can accomplish the same goal of maintaining the biblical and Spirit-directed accuracy of what is spoken through other means. We don’t have to commit cultural suicide to apply the Bible today.

And we don’t have to silence women. We don’t have to make them hold their horses or their questions until they get home. We don’t live in a culture that makes the husband responsible for the wife’s education; we think she is responsible for that herself.

Inquiring about something does not embarrass a husband anymore. Well, if she has an attitude it might. But simply asking a question is no longer taboo.

That’s why I did it. That’s why I agreed to preach in those two churches recently. I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was wrong, if I believed it was against the Bible.

So there you have it.


[1] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. F. W. Danker (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 582, lists two meanings for lalēo: 1) to make a sound, sound, give forth sounds, tones; 2) to utter words, talk, speak.

[2] In light of chapter 11 the “talking” of 14:34 cannot include prayer and prophecy. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 724.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg states, “And we must recall that one of the forms of Christian prophecy was akin to what we today would call a sermon, delivered by a Spirit-filled preacher convinced he or she was passing along a message from God.” From “A Complementarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. James R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 158.

[4] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004), 274, says “anything more than this is speculation.”  Some argue that women were banned from the evaluation of prophecy, but the distance between verses 29 and 35, plus the fact that “judging” (diakrinō) and “learning” (manthanō) are two very different things, argue against this position. Ciampa & Rosner, First Corinthians, 723, agree that there is “no clear support” for such a view.

[5] The argument from shame indicates that the questioning was culturally inappropriate rather than inherently wrong. See Ciampa & Rosner, First Corinthians,728-9; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 668; and Terence Paige, “The Social Matrix of Women’s Speech at Corinth: The Context and Meaning of the Command to Silence in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12 (2002), 223.

[6] See Paige, “Social Matrix,” 227.


Pulling the Weeds I Had Planted in Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

I enjoy weeding. Not that I like the leg cramps and backache that result from crouching down and poking a metal stick into the ground under the blazing Colorado sun that seems to radiate all the way through your clothing into your skin. No. It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes from getting under the surface and pulling out the roots of all the noxious plants in my garden that I enjoy.

I feel the same way about comprehending Paul’s views on gender. If I can dig under the surface and pull out all my noxious interpretations that have taken root over the years, something beautiful may surface.

One part of Paul’s writings that was, for me, particularly overgrown with bindweed and purslane and Canada thistle is his correspondence to the Corinthians. I based my interpretation of these letters upon a few ideas I believed arose directly from the text. Now, though, I am convinced they are the tares among the wheat. Continue reading

Podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery: Women & the Tough Bible Verses

Here’s a link to my recent podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery of Authentic Intimacy. We talk about God’s purpose in creating male and female, some of those passages of Scripture that can make women feel like they are second-rate, and how knowing the context for the Bible’s marriage teaching changes everything. Check it out if you’re interested! And while you’re over at Authentic Intimacy, look around a bit. Juli does great work helping women experience health and wholeness in one of the most challenging parts of our lives: our sexuality.

Paul’s Theology of Gender Part 2: The First Reality

For the next few posts I’m going to focus on the overwhelming majority (96%) of what the Apostle Paul wrote that indicates he believed women and men are the same with respect to their full possession of the image of God. (If you haven’t read the first installment of this series, you may want to check it out before you read on.)

At this point in my life, I’m convinced that Paul believed women are fully and equally human, possessing the same essential human nature as men. I will explain why I believe this by walking you through the books of the New Testament that shed light on Paul’s thoughts, and when I’m finished you can decide if, as Ryan Lochte would say, I’m over-exaggerating.

Today we’ll hit Acts and Romans and in future posts we’ll cover the rest.

Though not penned by Paul, the book of Acts tells us a lot about his life. And what we learn is that before his encounter with Jesus, Paul was known for persecuting male and female Christians alike. He didn’t skip the women because he believed they were weak and posed no threat to Judaism.

No, he went after them.

When Paul got saved, he evangelized women and men. Good thing too, since a lot of powerful women opposed his work. The more women he could win to Christ, the better. Like Lydia, who became the first convert and house church leader in Europe, which seems pretty weird when we remember Paul had a vision of a man begging him to come preach the gospel in that region. We might have thought he would have waited to preach until he met a dude.

But he didn’t.

Then there was Paul’s friendship with Aquila and Priscilla, the couple who became Priscilla and Aquila in no time.[1] So why the switch? Putting someone’s name first meant they were more influential, more prominent – or male. Yet Luke put Priscilla first, even when describing how she and Aquila taught Apollos about Jesus. As respected biblical scholar Douglas Moo notes, this couple was an ancient “wife-and-husband team.”[2]


Sometimes the way we order names simply indicates who we met first. I might say “John and Mary” but “Elaine and Arthur,” because I met John before Mary but Elaine before Arthur. Paul met Aquila first, yet two times out of three he wrote “Priscilla and Aquila.”[3]

Does anyone out there wonder why?

We know Priscilla was a tentmaker like Aquila, so she worked alongside him in the family business. But that wouldn’t make her more influential than Aquila; that would make her equal to him. Was Priscilla the one with the gift of teaching? Did she have gifts of leadership that stood out? Was she a gifted problem-solver or effective church-planter?

We don’t really know.

All we know is that something was going on that caused both Luke and Paul to put Priscilla’s name first more often than not. And that indicates a view of women that assumes parity with men.

When we move along to Romans we see that Paul depicted women as identical to men in terms of morality, spirituality, authority, and ability. When Paul wrote of our moral accountability before God, he didn’t hold men to one standard and women to another.

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Rom. 2:6-8)

Paul wouldn’t have agreed with the teaching out there today that claims God will hold men accountable for all their actions, but women only for how they have responded to men. Paul didn’t let women off the hook like that, as though we could pass the buck before Jesus one day with the line, “I was just being submissive.”[4]

When it comes to spirituality, Paul didn’t say males should be led by the Spirit while females should be led by males. No, he expected everyone to follow the Spirit.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Rom. 8:12-14)

Of course telling everyone to be led by the Spirit (rather than by some human who is in charge of  what everyone else thinks) will lead to differences of opinion, since for some reason it is not possible for all of us to hear the same thing in the same way at the same time. But apparently Paul thought this was a risk worth taking, and apparently Paul believed we could handle our differences without one person claiming they heard from the Spirit for someone else.

When Paul discussed how to handle these differences of opinion, he described those with overly tender consciences as weak and those who were not troubled by disputable matters as strong. In stark contrast to a culture that assumed women were weak and men were strong, Paul never differentiated these groups along gender lines.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (Rom. 14:1-2)

Paul did not teach that one gender was more spiritual than the other, that one gender could hear from the Spirit better than the other. No, Paul taught that all of us should accept one another and respect each other’s decisions when it comes to differences of opinions.

Paul went so far as to say:

Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (Rom. 14:22)

So when it comes to the authority to make decisions on how to apply spiritual principles to our lives in practical ways, we are to do our best to be led by the Spirit, make a decision, and then keep our opinions to ourselves. With respect to how we walk this out around other believers, the guiding principle is love, not submission.

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. (Rom. 14:15)

Even though Romans turned out to be such an important treatise on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, Paul never even hinted that men deserve more honor than women, or that men can somehow sense they merit more respect than women, or anything of the sort. Rather, Paul wrote:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Rom. 12:10)

Paul didn’t say “honor women above men” or “honor men above women.” No, honor goes both ways; we honor others above ourselves no matter their gender. I should honor my husband and my neighbor and my friend above myself, and my husband should honor me and his coworker the pastor and above himself.


When it comes to ability, Paul explained that God has given us a variety of gifts.

If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Rom. 12:6-8)

Yet Paul didn’t limit prophesy and teaching and leading to males, or serving and encouraging and showing mercy to females. Apparently all the gifts apply equally to both genders. For evidence of this, look at Romans 16, where Paul commended his female coworkers along with the males, where he called Phoebe a deacon and Junia an apostle.[5]

I could give you more examples, but you get the drift. When it comes to the book of Romans, the overwhelming assumption is that females and males are the same with respect to the fundamental qualities that define the essence of being human: morality, spirituality, authority and ability.

And I don’t think I’m over-exaggerating.


[1] Acts 18:2 lists Aquila’s name first. Acts 18:18, 19 and 26 out Priscilla’s first.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 919.

[3] Rom. 16:3 and 2 Tim. 4:19, but not 1 Cor. 16:19.

[4] Debi Pearl, Created to Be His Help Meet (Pleasantville, TN: No Greater Joy Ministries, 2005), is an example of someone who seems to espouse such a view.

[5] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 887, notes that although Paul lists more males than females in Romans 16, “Paul attributes leading roles to more women than men” there.

Paul’s Theology of Gender: A Dual Reality

We know we are supposed to look for underlying principles when reading the Bible, since things don’t always pan out the same way today as they did when they were written. At times the transcultural ideas are pretty straightforward and easy to identify; at others the broader ethics can be tough to decipher.

I think the Apostle Paul’s views on gender fall into the tough-to-decipher camp. Continue reading

Return to Cyberspace: A Personal Update

So I’m still alive and plotting my imminent return to cyberspace, for those of you who have been wondering and waiting with bated breath. For those who haven’t, no offense taken. Please simply disregard this personal update and have a great day.

After pondering for the past couple of years how I might become usefully employed with an MA in Biblical Studies, a highly unemployable degree if there ever was one, I have recently accepted a position at my church. Small church that it is, where everyone wears multiple hats, my duties range from the mundane to the sublime, from office work to “strategic thinking and planning.” Continue reading

Girls Gone Wild in Ancient Rome

We tend to make assumptions about the lives and rights of ancient women, filing them away in our local Carnegie Library under no-respect, little-freedom, few-rights. We think these women had no choice but to play by the cultural rules that favored men and limited women, passing their lives with the right to make few, if any, personal choices. And we think these are the women the Apostle Paul was writing to when he encouraged them to be responsible and modest and respectful.

Well, some did play by those rules.

And some didn’t. Continue reading