We’re continuing today to stick up for someone who can’t stick up for himself because, significant writer that he is, he’s been dead for almost 2,000 years. I’m talking about Paul of Tarsus.
Last week we saw that Paul wrote something revolutionary both for that time and for ours: In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28 The Message). Imagine that. In the first century A.D. there was a clear statement that Jesus followers do not discriminate based on ethnicity, economic status or gender. How might the last 2,000 years have been different if that verse had hung on a plaque on the walls of homes, office cubicles and churches?
We can’t undo the past, but we can move forward. In light of Paul’s clear statement above, there are several confusing verses in 1 Corinthians 14: 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 (14:33-35).
The reason these verses are confusing is that 3 chapters previous Paul had written about the protocols for women speaking in the worship service: But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…. (1 Corinthians 11:5).
The background to the head covering is a cultural rule of the time. Ewert writes,
“The woman (i.e. the wife),…who prays and prophecies (she participates in worship fully with the man) and doesn’t cover her head, dishonors it (v. 5).
Since it was a disgrace, by general consent, if a married woman appeared in public without her head covering, to do so in church was equally disgraceful” (The Church in a Pagan Society Kindred 1986, 116).
To be very clear, 3 chapters before the surprising words in chapter 14, Paul spoke of men and women participating equally in worship. Leading New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce elaborates:
“That there was liberty in the church…for women to pray or prophesy is necessarily implied by Pal’s argument; he does not suggest that there is anything undesirable about their doing so (whatever the injunction of 14:34f. means, it cannot be understood thus), but requires them to do so with their heads covered. Their praying might be participation in congregational prayer, but prophesying was an individual charismatic exercise (cf. 14:1ff., and especially 14:31, ‘one by one’….
“In Christ she received equality of status with man; she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church….” (The New Century Bible Commentary: 1&2 Corinthians Eerdmans 1971, 104, 106).
Scholars have theories about the “strange…imposition of silence” in 1 Corinthians 14 (Bruce 135) and we don’t have space for that here. Suffice to say that Paul’s teaching is clear that women and men participate fully in worship.
There’s one more Paul excerpt we need to talk about briefly. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (1 Timothy 2:11-12).
Again, there is background we could discuss and there are scholars I could quote, but we’ll stick to the main point, which is that there must be something going on that Paul doesn’t tell us, because that’s not how Paul taught about the nature of relationships in the church. To illustrate, here’s a short story about Priscilla and Aquila, two of Paul’s coworkers: Meanwhile…Apollos…came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately (Acts 18:24-26). Here’s Luke scholar Charles Talbert:
When [in Acts 18] Luke inverts the order of the names of Aquila and Priscilla (vs. 2) to Priscilla and Aquila (vss. 18, 26) it is as significant as the earlier inversion of Barnabas and Saul (13:2, 7) to Paul and his company (13:13) or Paul and Barnabas (13:43, 46, 50). To put one’s name first seems to be the Evangelist’s way of indicating who has the leadership role. If so, then this detail fits into the general Lukan emphasis on women and their ministries (see Luke 8;1-3; 10:38-42; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-11, 22,23; Acts 1:14; 9:36-43; 12:12-17; 16:14-15; 17:4, 12, 34, etc.)” “In ‘Acts] 18:24-28 a woman teacher instructs a male preacher, showing that in the post-Pauline period 1 Tim 2:12 was not regarded as a guideline for all circumstances” (Knox Preaching guides: Acts John Knox 1984, 79, 81).
Briefly, Paul twice wrote something that appears inconsistent with his general rule that there is no basis for discrimination on the basis of gender in Christians’ interaction with one another. Two thousand years later, we simply don’t know all the dynamics behind these two excerpts, but the principle in clear, and is borne out by Paul’s and Luke’s writings about the way in which men and women interacted with one another in the church. So let’s be fair to Paul of Tarsus, shall we?