Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Women in the church: Part 3, 1 Corinthians 14

Other posts on women as elders ⇐click

This is a continuation of Part 2, which began a discussion on parts of this paper (also online here) by Tim and Kathy Keller. The excerpt under discussion is:

The office of elder is forbidden to women.

Elders are to be men (1 Timothy 3:1-3). In 1 Timothy 2:11, Paul forbids women to "teach or have authority" over men. In 1 Corinthians 14:35-36, women are not to take part in determining whether a teacher is teaching sound doctrine. (Note: Paul's command for women to "keep silent in church" cannot mean that they may never speak publicly. That would contradict I Corinthians 11 where women are told to pray and prophesy. It means they are to keep silent when the prophets are judged.)
online here or here

Does 1 Corinthians 14:35-36 mean women can't discern truth?

Dr. Keller says that the passage means that women aren't to take part in determining whether a teacher is teaching sound doctrine. How does that come from this text? 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 summarizes Paul's argument that prophecy is more useful than tongues for edifying the church, a key part being 14:18-19, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue" (NIV).

Following that, 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 talks about orderly meetings. Here are 14:34-35 in context:

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If 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. 36Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. 38If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 39Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:29-40 (NIV)
Here's one possible interpretation of verses 34-35: Perhaps in Corinth some women were disrupting the meetings, particularly when others were prophesying or speaking in tongues. It's no stretch to say that the Corinthians' meetings were characterized by chaos rather than by edification. So perhaps the command in verse 34 was in response to this chaos; that is in fact what 14:30-33 are talking about, i.e., keeping things orderly so that the meeting brings glory rather than disrepute (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23) to God. And what about "as the Law says"—what can that mean? I suspect there's something in the Law (where?) or in rabbinic tradition about interrupting a prophet who was delivering a message from the Lord.

This commentary offers (scroll down to the commentary on verse 34) the possibility that there were some conditions at Grecian churches in particular, i.e., Corinth and Ephesus (Timothy was in Ephesus at the time of 1 Timothy). “It is noteworthy that there is no hint of such a prohibition to any churches except Grecian.”

Dr. Keller's interpretation—viz., that women must not participate in judging whether a prophet is a true prophet or not—doesn't obviously emerge from the text. I don't see anything in the text about an assessment panel for prophets, or an examination board, or a church council; what I see is chaos vs edification.

The situation with this passage is somewhat similar to the situation with 1 Timothy 2:12, mentioned in part 2, in that the plain sense makes no sense:

  • Women must remain silent in church? But they were praying and prophesying there! (1 Corinthians 11)
  • Some women were unmarried; some were married to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 7); how could they ask their husbands about the faith?
    (Sumner, Men and Women in the Church, p.251, footnote)
So there is not a lot of disagreement that this passage refers to a very specific situation at a particular time and place; why do evangelical males want to apply it (albeit a nuanced and watered-down version of it) today in North America? How can we say that this only applies to certain kinds of discernment or assessment panels? It certainly isn't obvious how it emerges from the text.


I recently heard Dr. Keller's message at John Stott's memorial service, and I was impressed by his comments about the evolution of Stott's thinking and preaching around social justice issues. Dr. Keller said something to the effect that if a great thinker and preacher like John Stott took years and years to adjust his thinking and preaching to address issues of poverty and exploitation and injustice, "What are my issues?" (quoting from memory; he might have said "blind spots").

I think this showed great wisdom and humility. We all have blind spots, and if it didn't sound like bragging I'd say I'm the blindest of us all. I wonder if this issue of women as elders, or women in leadership in general, isn't one of Dr. Keller's.

And again I'll confess that I have an interest in a more-egalitarian kind of view, but that said, Sumner (who is no feminist) makes a compelling case for the view

  • that 1 Peter 3:7 refers to physical/sexual vulnerability of women, not to mental acuity, spiritual sensitivity, strength of character, etc.;
  • that 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (with Adam and Eve and all) and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were specific to a time and place rather than universal; they are not normative for us today.
I therefore think the passages that are definitive on the question of women's roles in the church are Ephesians 4:11 (God calls some to be apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers) and Galatians 3:26-28 (in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek; we are all sons of God through Christ). There are probably more, but hey, I'm no theologian.

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