Some might wonder why I have decided to start the theological portion of this study of women in ministry by focusing on Paul’s New Testament words rather than beginning with the first woman, Eve. Whereas it is true that there are a few popular misconceptions about the woman’s role in Creation and the Fall that have historically been considered relevant in the Church’s resistance regarding women clergy, whenever the subject arises from the pulpit, the strongest argument for the resistance always draws back to Paul’s views and writings. As such, I feel this is an appropriate starting place.
In 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, Paul wrote: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” And in 1 Timothy 2:11–12, he said, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Such powerful and important words require much reflection. But first, let’s read these verses without proper interpretation, so that we can point out the flagrant application glitches that instantly present themselves.
If we take the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and apply them literally and in every scenario, throughout time and into perpetuity—in other words, if we remove the cultural and local circumstances, as well as the nature of the author, from the original text, and apply black words on white paper to every subsequent culture and circumstance—a woman would not be allowed to “speak” within the walls of a church. If this is the correct interpretation, we now have the following issues to address. This list might appear silly, but it is necessary because of the “exceptions” arguments such a list presents:
- If speaking within a church is not allowed for a woman, prophet or otherwise, then, from the moment she enters the doorway, she must close her mouth until her body is once again outside the building. She can’t greet visitors, tell another woman she likes her dress, show off her new purse, correct her noisy or fidgeting children, say “amen” during the pastor’s sermon, participate in our ever-popular “repeat after me” prayers, or invite Christ into her life at the altar. Our Western world has no problem responding to this list with, “No, that’s ridiculous. That’s not what Paul meant.” Again, without looking at the circumstances under which Paul was originally writing (which we will get to), then what did he mean? Is a woman allowed to say hello to her friends before and after the service, but hold her tongue the rest of the time? And what about the “repeat after me” prayers and the altar calls? If a woman can’t speak during the prayer, she is disobeying the pastor; if she can’t speak at the altar, she’s not able to invite Christ into her life, and that goes against everything the Gospel stands for. So, okay, maybe those two times are the exception, but otherwise, she is to remain silent. Then what happens when her kids act up during the sermon? Must she allow them to make noise? If a pastor is greeting his congregation from the pulpit and says, “Glad to have you back home from the hospital, Sarah,” is Sarah supposed to only wave in response? One might say, “Donna, you’re being petty. These are not the scenarios Paul was talking about.” I agree, and that’s precisely my point. If a woman is allowed to speak in church, but only at the “appropriate times,” who decides these appropriate times? Human people? That poses an immediate problem: One church might have more stringent rules than another for women. An inflexible church might apply the “silent while your body is in this building” expectation, which would be clearly oppressive and abusive (not to mention misogynistic if the men are allowed to interact)—while another flexible church allows women to completely disrupt the service, which Paul is clearly against according to his epistles. Where does a church draw the line—from the Word of God? (The answers are there, I assure you, but it takes studying more than just what the Word says; it requires studying the circumstances to discover why that material was written in the first place.)
- If a woman isn’t allowed to speak, is she allowed to sing? And if so, what if her singing style sounds for a moment like she is speaking, because the fluctuation of her tone is steadier? What if she slips a little “thank you, Lord” in between lines of a song? Is she guilty of “speaking” in the church?
- And what of the female “prophet” (addressed in the following pages)? If God wants the “female prophet” to share a word with her people, but she is not allowed to speak in church, she would have to step outside the entryway and speak on the church steps in order to share her message with the Body…which means that God isn’t able to use her to spread His Word if she is standing one foot in the other direction. That seems absurd. Is she only permitted to prophesy on street corners and in alleyways then? Why would God gift all His people, sons and daughters, with the same giftings like He did in the book of Acts, but only “activate” the gift in women outside of His own house?
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THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
Many believe that a woman prophet is allowed to speak within the church at the appropriate time (based on several Pauline Scriptures, which we will visit in the next two chapters). If she is allowed to speak within a church, but only as a prophet and only for a short length of time, we now have the following issues:
- What if God gives the woman a word of warning that applies to all His people, including men? I thought she was supposed to learn from the men, not teach them. And isn’t she usurping the authority of men if she utters a warning to them and they don’t innately agree with her? A word from God comes from God, who is the ruler over all mankind, including men, but if God gives a woman a prophecy for men, then who is the true usurper of the male recipients—God or the woman?
- How long is our Western idea of a sermon? Twenty minutes? Forty? Somewhere in between? If a woman delivers a prophecy that takes this allotment of time, isn’t she, by the Greek definition of the word “prophet” (propheteuo; discussed shortly), teaching and preaching? Therefore, we must have a set time for how long a prophecy can be so that it remains a “prophecy” and doesn’t turn into a “sermon.” (Again, Western concepts of these terms are not even close to biblical.) What is that time limit? Five minutes? Three minutes? What human authority do we turn to for this rule so we don’t inadvertently limit God to our earthly clock?
- When is a woman allowed to deliver her prophecy from God while she’s present within the walls of a church? During the worship service? During the sermon? During the offering? Any of those times might be perceived as a service disruption, which Paul staunchly opposes throughout 1 Corinthians 14. So, by whose human authority do we rely upon to decide what portion of the service can be interrupted by God’s prophecy through a woman, and what is the scriptural justification for why that portion of the service can be disrupted?
- Since the woman is allowed to be recognized as a prophet, what official permits would our Western world allow her to have on paper? Would she be permitted to carry minister’s credentials and say she is “licensed” or “ordained” to use her gift within God’s house? Or would that piece of paper with her name on it be taking it too far? Does a certificate drafted by human hands offend God? Or is He simply glad to have an obedient servant, regardless of the papers humans assign? Is the generic “Prophet Mary” perceived as more or less correct in the eyes of God than the official “Reverend Mary” who holds papers within a “liberal” denomination? Western Christianity often says women can prophesy—even within a church, which means “speaking” in a church—but they are not allowed to have a piece of paper in their possession that shows they’ve studied the Word and have passed a test to show their theological competence as a member of the clergy. By that logic, we might ask: “Why do our churches today want to hear from uneducated women prophets instead of the educated ones?” One might respond, “It’s a non-issue. The role of a ‘prophet’ does not require papers like the role of a ‘pastor’ or ‘preacher.’” But why, and why not? Again, it’s a modern and Western concept that “papers” or “official titles” define anyone’s purpose.
Some throughout time have claimed to have the answers to all of these issues, but because each of these questions is not addressed specifically within the Word, scores of others have demanded that the “rules” be changed to fit their own theological interpretation. But if what we’re talking about truly is a matter of correct interpretation, then these questions wouldn’t be necessary in the first place, because the circumstances Paul was addressing have nothing to do with these issues.
Do you see how many questions arise when a biblical regulation is applied with modern, Western ideology? In an age when the Gospel message is perhaps more important to a starving world than it has ever been, the entire Church is quickly thrown into petty squabbles and its members are forced to argue amongst themselves about papers and rules and buildings and time limits. The message of James’ epistle (just as one example) repeatedly warns against the Church members arguing with one another when people around us are dying every day. But without knowing the rules of appropriate conduct in a worship service, the Church risks being thrown into chaos, as Paul makes clear in his epistles. So what’s the answer?
We must know the circumstances of Paul’s words to Corinth and Ephesus before we can correctly apply them today.
In the next few entries, we will look at the cultural backdrop of these verses in order to fully grasp what Paul was speaking about as it pertains to that time and those localities. For now, however, I would like to take a closer look at the glaring evidence that Paul actually supported women having roles in Church leadership. By approaching the study in this order, the question later on will not be as much whether Paul really wanted women to be “silent,” but when.
Internal Consistency of Supporting Scriptures
First, let’s consider the principle of internal consistency as it applies to the rest of Scripture—that which Paul did not personally write, but what would have been in circulation in his day (or events occurring while he was alive) and what he would have personally accepted as truth. (Other internal support unrelated to Paul, such as women of the Old Testament and Christ’s personal involvement, will be discussed in later chapters.)
Acts 1:12–14 says: “Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey. And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (emphasis added). We know, first of all, that the women were present in the upper room preparing for the Day of Pentecost, which is documented in Acts 2:1–6: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all [the men and women just shown] with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (emphasis added).
What we see here is very clear: Men—and women—gathered in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost, and then they went out to preach the Gospel in every tongue to every person in their surroundings—including other men who were present among the recipients. This portion of Scripture is so powerful and flawless in its representation of women preachers and teachers—who, yes, teach men—that if this series ended here, the message would be clear: The Holy Spirit, not mankind, decides who will be chosen for what ministry and in what place on earth, and He communicates that to the individuals He chooses to “go and tell,” not to the board members of a religious organization. The Holy Spirit fell on both genders that day, and women went out into the streets to preach the Resurrection to both genders! It couldn’t be more obvious.
Sadly, however, this series cannot end here, because although this one portion of Scripture alone proves without any doubt whatsoever that God, Himself, called women to preach, our Western culture believes more proof is necessary. So let’s keep trekking.
Acts 2:17–18 says: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (emphasis added).
The Holy Spirit equips all people for His work, male and female alike. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t place limitations upon women, why does the Church?
Let us take a closer look at the word “prophesy.” Many people in today’s society—one that is far removed from the time during which any book of the Bible was written—assume that a prophet is someone who tells what’s coming; a kind of fortuneteller for God, if you will. Although the foretelling of events (especially judgment and destruction as a result of Israel’s disobedience) was a valid task for many prophets in the Old Testament, the perception of a prophet as only a “foreteller” is grossly limited and cheapens the task of those who have gone before us with a prophetic calling as it applies to words of knowledge, etc. The words “prophet” (noun) and “prophesy” (verb) both derive from the Greek propheteuo. This word covers a vast array of public exhortation practices, among which is “to teach, refute, reprove, admonish [which means to correct or reprimand!], comfort others.”[i] Add these verbs together and place them into a word that today’s Western world irrefutably recognizes as the fulfillment of these services, and we arrive at the word “preach.” In other words, a “preacher” (or a “pastor” who “preaches”) would be one that publicly “teaches, refutes, reproves, admonishes, and comforts others.” Whereas the word propheteuo certainly meant much more than preaching, scholars of the Greek language unquestionably acknowledge that “prophet” as a noun originally meant the office of a public expounder and “prophesy” as a verb meant the flowing forth of counsel from a person’s mouth to his or her recipients (God’s nation). The idea that this duty would exclusively be carried out by women “prophets” today (as opposed to “preachers” or “pastors”), especially as that title is allowed in today’s American culture, is to place unfounded limitations on the original noun/verb propheteuo. That Greek word predated all of the modern Western world’s beliefs about what the label “prophet” means, and therefore it is the final authority.
This also raises the question of what label a women prophet would be allowed to have, when she would be allowed to speak, what she would be allowed to say, and for what length of time (the issues of which we just discussed).
This takes me back to a concept I strongly pointed to in the last chapter: No, “today’s culture” does not decide what the Bible meant, and we cannot allow “today’s culture” to blur the lines of what is or is not acceptable. By that same logic, however, “today’s culture” cannot decide what an antiquated word means based on how we wish to interpret it now in our Western understanding. It simply meant what it meant at the time it was written, and the use of propheteuo in Acts 2:17–18 does not only mean “a fortuneteller for God,” but a vocal instructor for God’s holy nation (God’s people). Beyond the shadow of any doubt, the original word did describe public teachers of the flock, and as the verse implies, those teachers include “daughters” and “handmaidens” (women).
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WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!
A few weak arguments suggest that Paul simply wasn’t fully aware of what was being said by his partners in ministry about women prophesying, or that he wasn’t fully aware of what was going on around him at the time, so he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to refute them directly. But supposing that were true and Paul did utilize his pen to “correct” the false teaching of his peers, the Holy Bible would either include a glaring Paul-versus-them contradiction (and, by extension, that would mean that the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word also contradicted Himself), or those who formed the canon of Scripture would have had to choose which of the intellectual opponents were on the winning side and omit the other’s book from the final compilation we have now. Still, by process of elimination, we can rule this theory out by safely assuming that Paul was, as a prized student of the illustrious Gamaliel, aware that this very prophecy exceedingly predated any writings that were in new circulation during Paul’s day. The prophecy of Joel 2:28, which Paul would have been aware of if he’d taken his scholarly studies under Gamaliel seriously, says, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”
In this Old-Testament instance, “prophesy” was the English translation of the Hebrew nabaʼ. At the time of its writing, nabaʼ was considered a primitive root, meaning that it wasn’t derived from a former word. The Hebrews saw the male mouthpieces of God delivering Yahweh’s ultimate judgement and warnings upon the people of Israel and assigned a sound to describe it, so the word as it appears in the book of Joel actually originated in the Hebrew language. Here, Joel is without a doubt saying that “daughters” (Hebrew bath) will one day be the mouthpieces of God in public exhortation of His people. If we, today’s Christians, are God’s people, then Joel—God’s chosen mouthpiece of that time—predicted a day when women would be preachers/teachers/prophets, once a proper understanding of the Hebrew (and later Greek) word is applied. The Bible says it already happened in Acts, and even Peter “lifted up his voice” to the crowd and identified that the Holy-Spirit outpouring on the Day of Pentecost was “that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:14–16).
In all of Paul’s writings, he never once denies women equal inheritance to the Holy Spirit’s gifts, nor does he negate Joel’s ancient prophecy. He spoke of the gifts of the Spirit in several passages (1 Corinthians 12–14; Romans 12:3–8; Ephesians 4:4–16) and, therefore, he had ample opportunity to restrict women as recipients, had he considered that appropriate. As a man whose position of apostolic authority in the newborn Church was supremely overriding and final in a time when the Body of Christ needed to be told if women were not to be considered equal inheritors of the Holy Spirit’s giftings (including preaching and teaching), the fact that he doesn’t stipulate women as non-inheritors of these Holy-Spirit-given gifts is telling. (Granted, he does say “men” in some of these passages, but it should be taken as the non-gender-specific “mankind” in order to harmonize with Acts and Joel. More on this in the next chapter.)
The book of Hebrews speaks at length about the model set by Christ, the highest of all priests, and sets the example for all members of the priesthood to follow His lead. Yet, in his first epistle, Peter, the esteemed bishop of Antioch, says: “Ye [Greek autos, “himself, herself, themselves; he, she,”[ii] referring to all Christians, male and female] also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (2:5, 9–10; emphasis added).
The English word “priesthood” is translated from the Greek hierateuma: “the office of a priest; the order or body of priests.”[iii] Today’s equivalent of “priest,” at least within the confines of Western Christianity, translates “pastor.” (Certainly, “priest” is still in use today, but as it pertains to Western religion, a “priest” is a clergyman of the Catholic order or a leader of other religions.) I believe the meaning of this verse is clear, but as a necessary repetition: 1 Peter 2:5 and 9–10 is including women (“Ye,” autos) among the order or body of priests (preachers/pastors).
Paul doesn’t refute that women are among this priesthood. He personally knew Peter and was well aware of his theology, as they had been in communication with each other during the early developments of the Church. That Paul would not exclude women from inheriting a role within the priesthood is, again, telling.
As Scripture proves Scripture, here is another internal reference to this equality, though, by traditional dating methods, it would have been written after the death of Paul: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written herein:… And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us [Christians, male and female] kings and priests [Greek hiereus] unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:3–6). Nearby verses state: “And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (5:10), and “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ” (20:6).
Some state that because we aren’t literally all kings, we wouldn’t literally all be priests, either. That’s a fair statement, but it limits both offices—and their purposes in the light of eternity—to an earthly enterprise. No, all Christians do not have palaces, servants, crowns, etc. like an earthly king. Nor is every Christian believer also filling the role of a public expounder like a priest (or pastor, preacher). Figuratively, allegorically, and spiritually, however, we are all both kings and priests—and we are all equal in the eyes of Christ within the definitions of these two offices as applied in the unseen and spiritual realm. Therefore, if a female feels called to serve Christ (an earthly duty, but a spiritual significance), and we are all one in Him, this verse at least speaks of the divine equality she would hold among men in ministering to others in this current, earthly life. As far as how that is implemented regarding ordination, time limits, rules of speech, location of ministry (pulpit or no pulpit), and so on, that is sadly now restrained within the narrow confinement of Western interpretation.
Lastly, David’s Psalm 28:11: “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” The sad reality of the English words chosen for “the company of those that published it” is how ambiguous the KJV translators made it sound. This stems from the Hebrew saba hambasserowt, which is used in the feminine form, and the English “published” here is better translated “proclaimed.” David was openly acknowledging a group of women who were proclaiming the word “the Lord gave.” If Paul was the Hebrew scholar we all know him to be, he would have certainly known that David was talking about women who proclaim God’s word.[iv]
UP NEXT: Internal Consistency of Paul’s Scriptures
[i] “Strong’s G4395,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 16, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4395&t=KJV.
[ii] “Strong’s G846,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 16, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G846&t=KJV.
[iii] “Strong’s G2406,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 16, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2406&t=KJV.
[iv] See: “ham·ḇaś·śə·rō·wṯ,” Bible Hub, last accessed August 23, 2017, http://biblehub.com/hebrew/hamvasserot_1319.htm; and: “Psalm 28:11,” Bible Hub, last accessed August 23, 2017, http://biblehub.com/interlinear/psalms/68-11.htm.