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.

Talking.

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.

Weird.

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.

Why?

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.

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