The Bible Clearly Says that Women Must Be Silent in Church. Is that Fair?

As in all the churches of the saints, 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.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 (NRSV)

That doesn’t seem fair does it? That women must be silent in the church.

That these words of Paul strike us as being unfair is made evident by the way many Bible scholars try to explain these verses away. Some suggest, based on differing ancient manuscripts that a copyist added part of the wording in, so therefore the idea of women being silent in the church is not Paul’s idea, and so not really a part of the Bible. Others suggest that Paul is quoting the Corinthians, so the idea is really theirs, not his. Others suggest that we should look to the context, which we will turn to shortly. These suggestions exist because most scholars, most people in fact, hear these verses and think; that is not fair, that can’t be right.

If I were to suggest that women must be silent in our church I’d probably soon be out of work, but more importantly, I would feel like I was sinning somehow. Very few churches take Paul’s words here at face value and women’s voices are heard even in churches that attempt to be “biblical” by keeping women from preaching or teaching men.

Let’s face it, this is one of those places where what the Bible says we should do does not fit well with our gut reaction about what should be done. It strikes us as not fair, a matter of justice.

So what are we to do?

If we could read through the Bible tonight we could watch for something very important; God calls us to think of others and pursue justice.

In the Creation story, we are created in the image of God, which means many things, but since God is just, we are created to have a heart for justice. The law of Moses speaks of taking care of orphans, widows, and foreigners, which in that day meant taking care of the most vulnerable of society. The prophets often echo that call for justice and let’s not forget Micah 6:8:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

We also find a movement toward justice in the New Testament with the new Christian communities breaking down class distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. We should note that in each of these couplings this would not bring to the ancient mind the joining into one of two equal but different groups, but rather of two formerly unequal groups, slave and free for example. This was a movement, not just of bringing classes together, but of overhauling the class system altogether and granting equal opportunity.

Now let us focus on women for a moment, We find a lifting up of the place of women in the New Testament beginning with the emphasis on monogamy. Polygamy automatically pushes toward patriarchalism whereas monogamy opens the door for equal partnership. There is also a push for a better day for women with the call for men to have better character. We can think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the call to not look at women lustfully, and so not to objectify women. Additionally, while some people take the words of Jesus on divorce in a very mechanical manner, his words push people to have better character, that is, don’t even think of using the divorce laws to legitimize adultery. Again, this was better for women. Jesus also challenged the roles of women with Mary being commended for learning with the disciples, men, rather than helping Martha in the kitchen. Then Jesus revealed himself first to a women, Mary, making her the first witness of his resurrection in a day in which women were not counted worthy as witnesses. Since an apostle was someone sent with a message, you can also make the claim that Mary was the first apostle, being sent to tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. Plus there is evidence in the New Testament of women being in leadership among the early Christians.

When we read all this in the Bible, we recognise that God calls us to think of others and pursue justice.

There are, however, two problems that can trip us up in responding to that call.

First, we can make our expression of Christianity a strict following of what the Bible says rather than what the Bible says God is calling us to.

We can get so focused on what the Bible says, we miss what God has said. The writings of the Bible were collected together for us, but they were not originally written to us. The Bible is a long record of the relationship between God and humanity and we get to see people working out their response to Jesus in their day in the pages of the New Testament. If we miss that, we can actually end up with unjust practices. We might, for example, in our day enforce the rule that women should be silent when in Paul’s day there may have been some reason for he called for their silence. Perhaps the women were being disruptive to worship somehow. The context of Paul’s writing about orderly worship supports this. Women are not disruptive to worship in our day. Perhaps instead of calling for women to be silenced we should be asking for cellphones to be silenced. That may be the better application of Paul’s words today.

Second, we can make Christianity to be all about us and how we get to heaven, and miss the call of God to think of others and push toward justice.

Preoccupation with our own personal piety can mess with our concern for justice for others. We may think, for example, of the priest and Levite who passed by a man left for dead in the Good Samaritan story. Some suggest they passed by on the other side in an attempt to keep themselves ritually “clean.” And there is this:

And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”

Luke 14:3-5 (NRSV)

This example from Jesus gives the interesting situation where to do the right thing for personal piety, in keeping the Sabbath, would be to do the wrong thing for the child. It would be unfair, it would not be following God’s call to think of others, to do justice. We all know this. It is interesting that when we so often ask “what would Jesus do,” here Jesus asks what we would do, knowing that we would do the right thing, we would break the rule and rescue the child.

Likewise, a preoccupation with our own sin can make us miss the sin in the communities we live in. We may focus on repentance from our own personal individual sins but miss repentance from systemic sins. As an example here in Canada, many well meaning Christians, who were perhaps considered very good Christians indeed, donated towards the residential school system thinking they were doing a good deed for indigenous children. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and many good Christians enabled bad ideas. With God’s call to think of others and pursue justice, we need our eyes wide open to what sins we might be enabling in our day. Perhaps we need our eyes open to the sin of sexism we would enable by calling for strict adherence to what the Bible clearly says about women in church. Let us instead hear the call of God to think of others and pursue justice.

While we have focused mainly on fairness toward women in this post, really we are thinking about justice in the next topic of our series “What Kind of Church.” In this series we have been considering the cultural statements of Open Table Communities and today’s is:

A Culture of Justice
We nurture a culture that actively seeks to dismantle barriers that prevent human Flourishing, while upholding and acting on standards of justice, such as; equality, equity, fairness, impartiality and goodness.

OPEN TABLE COMMUNITIES
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