A Woman’s Place Is… (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
May, 1993

In the discussion of a woman’s role in the church, there is very little disagreement on some fundamental matters. It is clear, for example, that the early Christians had no question about admitting women to “full membership” in the church (cf. Acts 1:14; 8:3; (:2;, et al.). The conversion of Lydia is even one of the special cases of conversion recorded in Acts (Acts 16:14ff).

Neither does there appear to be any dispute among Bible students that women who have become Christians may serve God unselfishly and sacrificially alongside their believing brothers. Thus both are invited and encouraged to visit hospitals, work in prison ministries, or host small groups for Bible studies. Both are solicited to keep the nursery or teach Sunday School classes for pre-school and elementary children.

Someone might even argue persuasively that women are not only allowed to participate but that they do the bulk of what gets done. I saw a rather sarcastic cartoon recently that had a woman and man in dialogue. The woman was expressing dismay at the idea that they might be allowed to take on more responsibility in the life of the church. “We’re already carrying most of the load, and I just don’t know if we can take on any more!” she sighed.

The interpretive and practical rub comes when we move out of the area of the church’s primary works of compassion, charity, and service to standing up and/or speaking out in a church’s plenary assembly or in Bible classes where adult males are present. The two critical texts that can be cited in connection with this issue are both from Paul.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

The first passage that must be examined is this: “As in all the congregations of the saints, 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.”

Taken at face value and without qualification, this text likely requires more than anyone has been willing to demand.

The verb translated “remain silent” is an imperative form of the word sigao. Sigeo means  “a. say nothing, keep silent … b. stop speaking, become silent … c. hold one’s tongue (Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, Greek English Lexicon, 2nd ed. P. 749). Its corresponding noun (sige) means “silence, quiet in the sense of the absence of all noise, whether made by speaking or by anything else” (Bauer, Lexicon, pp. 749-750). This word means that in whatever situation was in view by Paul in this text, females were not allowed to make a sound. They had to wait until the service was over even to ask a question about what had happened.

I repeat: Taken at face value and without qualification, this text likely requires more than anyone has been willing to demand. If this verse governs the conduct of Christian women in church assemblies, then females can’t confess their faith in Christ publicly or sing praise to the Lord! Furthermore, if this is a prohibition of all speaking by women in all Christian assemblies, Paul has contradicted his own instruction earlier in the same epistle (11:5).

A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation has to do with context. Every statement of Scripture must be read within its setting and not yanked out to serve as a free-standing pronouncement. The larger environment of Paul’s strict demand for silence was his discussion of assemblies in which supernatural gifts such as tongues and prophecy were supplied by the Holy Spirit. The immediate context of his statement is the authoritative review and interpretation of the songs, tongues, and prophecies that have been offered in a particular assembly of that type. (11:29).

The issue for the sisters in those assemblies, then, was not confessing Christ or singing – or even, in those Spirit-driven services, praying aloud or prophesying – but presiding over those services and/or authoritative pronouncements about things that had transpired during them.

If this is indeed the right (or even a plausible) interpretation of the “qualification” to Paul’s demand for non-participation by the Christian women at Corinth, then his statement in chapter 14 is perfectly consistent with what he had already written in chapter 11. What should a man or woman do with a revelation, tongue, song, prophecy, or prayer given to him or her by the Holy Spirit? Share it! Observe the etiquette of your time and place in doing so, which at Corinth in the first century required women to wear veils to symbolize their submission to male headship and leadership in the church (11:7-10).

Then, when the time came for the church’s leaders to make an authoritative evaluation of anything that had been offered by either males or females in those services, the male leadership – whose position of authority was acknowledged by the symbolism of the veil – was to make a judgment with the women keeping strict silence as that verdict was delivered. Thus the women at Corinth were permitted to exercise their supernatural gifts but were required to defer to the church’s male leadership for an assessment of its import to the future life of the group.

The veil as a symbol of submission to the church’s leaders was a convention at Corinth; it was never a universal rule for female Christians in all cultures.

Anyone, whether male or female, who was given a revelation from the Holy Spirit at Corinth or at any other place was authorized by the very same Spirit to communicate it to others; so long as these supernatural gifts of  revelation were in evidence, it was Spirit-origin that was at stake and not the gender of the recipient.

The authority to preside over a church’s meetings and to render decisions about its affairs was vested in its male leaders at Corinth; it was in these leader-authority roles that women were to defer to their Christian brothers and “remain silent in the churches.”

1 Timothy 2:8-12

The second critical passage is found in the Pastoral Epistles: “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

First, this text does not enjoin a tight-lipped ban against women speaking in church assemblies. The word translated “quietness” (v. 11) or “silent” (v.12) is not sigao but hesukia. It refers less to a person’s speech than to his or her spirit of inner peace and ability to live in peace and harmony with others (Bauer, Lexicon, p. 349). For example, Paul has already used the same word in verse two of the “peaceful and quiet lives” Christians pray to live in the larger society, but this implies nothing about restraint from oral expression.

Second, this text is apparently the general rule for male and female relationships in Christ. As opposed to the special circumstances of Corinth, this is a broad outline of how the two sexes relate to each other in the ekklesia Christou. There is no contextual indication that it applies only with some degree of qualification or to assemblies of a unique type. To the contrary, verses 13-15 appear to ground this rule in creation and the fall.

Third, it does not question a woman’s right to confess Christ or sing to the Lord. It does not prohibit her speaking, testifying or raising questions in the assembly. It does not preclude her teaching mixed groups such as classes or small-group Bible studies. It says nothing against her right to articulate her prayers aloud in a family setting, study group, or devotional.

Insofar as I can tell, 1 Timothy 2 is a New Testament articulation of the biblical principle of headship-submission within the human family. Just as “the head of Christ is God” (i.e., the Godhead) and “the head of every man is Christ,” so “the head of the woman is man” (1Corinthians 11:3).

It seems clear that the fundamental issue at stake in these relationships is something other than superiority-inferiority, for “the Word was [and is] God” (John 1:1) and Christ is “in very nature God” and possesses “equality with God” (Philipppians 2:5). The submissive role of Jesus in his incarnation was a chosen rather than coerced one. In the same way, it would appear that the submission of wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:22) and female Christians to male leadership in the church is intended to be a self-imposed discipline rather than the outcome of rivalry.

The text at hand almost incidentally reminds women of their responsibility of submission while nudging the men of the church to take their leadership role seriously. “I want men (Greek, aner = males as opposed to females) to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” Since the lifting up of holy hands seems to imply a public posture that signifies a call to prayer, my opinion is that this text refers to a church in plenary session rather than devotionals or small groups. Consistent with the particular application of this principle at Corinth, Paul reminds everyone that the overriding issue is leadership-submission.

Conclusion

The Bible is not against women ministering, using their God-given talents, standing up and speaking, administering church programs, singing (congregationally, small groups, or solo), reading Scripture, sharing information about church projects, testifying, teaching sub-groups of the church’s membership (whether female, male, or mixed), writing articles or poems, or otherwise participating fully in the life of local churches. A church’s failure to encourage the development of female talent robs it of countless blessings. That same failure results in buried talents that return no dividend to the owner who entrusted them to the church through its female membership.

What the Bible does prohibit is female elders-presbyters; women are not to be the decision-making authorities for the church. Neither are they to direct the congregation’s plenary assemblies during its sessions of prayer and teaching of the Word. These two leadership roles appear to be specifically assigned to males. Aside from a single office and two activities in public worship, only culture, tradition, and (perhaps) prejudice deny females the chance to use their gifts in the life of the church.

Although some argue for the setting aside of even these three biblical limitations on women, my fear is that secular pressure is nudging them away from biblical norms. At the very least, I would observe this: Even those who argue that Scripture permits women elders or assembly leaders cannot claim that Scripture requires these roles of women as it clearly does of men.

Male and female have spiritual equality before God, but there are also some distinctive roles for each. Realizing that the image of God is carried in humankind, we would be wise to realize that neither male nor female alone adequately reflects that image. There are masculine and feminine traits in humans, maternal and paternal roles in families, leadership and submission roles in the church. In all these settings, it is partnership rather than rivalry for control that reflects the ideal will of God.

So it is a gross oversimplification and the reflection of a very recent cultural phenomenon in the West to offer “A woman’s place is in the home” as a summary of what Scripture says about the role of women. Like the noble woman of Proverbs 31, a woman’s place may be not only in the home but in real estate (v. 16), trade (v. 18) manufacturing (v. 24), education (v. 26), or a thousand other honorable professions.
In all her relationships and responsibilities, a woman’s place (like a man’s!) is in Christ. Saved by his blood.

Walking in the light of his glory. Rejoicing in the hope of his coming. Honoring God in responsible, complementary partnership with her brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville,

Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from

Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and

The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is

known as a community leader in Nashville and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project

to an 1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of Kindness.”

He is the

author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian.

He has published widely in religious journals. He is co-editor with Mike Cope of the online magazine New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on

Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries. He has done short-term mission work

in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion

(M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David

(Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. [RubelShelly.com]

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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