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Shall a Woman Keep Silent? Pt 1

Shall a Woman Keep Silent? Pt 2

Theological Discussion on Women in the Church

A Letter Home


Shall A Woman Keep Silent? | Pt 1

Rev Dr George Byron Koch


Scripture: 1 Corinthians 14:33, Ephesians 5:22
Date: 12/11/94
Tape Number: 22
George Byron Koch

There are a variety of ways to treat the authority of the Bible. If you're not a Christian it isn't likely to have any authority in your life. Many "modern" Christians choose not to take the Bible "too seriously." That is, they regularly see contradictions in the text, they often simply disregard things they disagree with, and many of them just plain dislike Paul, and therefore reject or ignore him. So they pick and choose what they like from the Biblical text, and simply dismiss or dispute the rest.

However, if we instead take the Biblical text very seriously, as the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit, we don't really have those options, as attractive as they might be to our educated, modern minds. We have to accept what the Word says as authoritative. We are a people under authority; we may not like or understand all that we are commanded to do, but we assume God knows better than we, and so we obey, even if our actions might (and do!) seem to the world to be socially backwards or politically incorrect.

This is why many Christians, men and women alike, following clear instructions in their Bibles, believe women should be subservient to men in their marriages, and why they should not preach or lead in the church. They are being obedient to God's Word.

A modernist, liberal theologian would laugh at this. His or her view would be simply that the Bible was written in an earlier age when people were not quite as socially advanced, and they had backwards notions and small conceptions of the world. This modernist would say, "Grow up. Get a life. Don't be misled by two- or three-thousand year old, outmoded ideas about how to live."

Scripture which didn't conform to the modern worldview would be rejected.

Well, I'm not in the modernist, liberal camp. I believe scripture is the Word of God, that it was written by men and women inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that God's truths transcend the age and culture in which they were written down. So I must treat them differently.

In fact, as I've told you before, when I read a passage which upsets me, or with which I disagree, rather than dismissing the passage - which is easy if I don't believe God to be the Author - I examine myself, and I examine the passage more deeply. Instead of rejecting it, I am drawn into it more deeply. I don't wish to place myself and my modern intellect above the text.

This means that I must, and do, hold in high regard those who take the Bible as God's Word, and who therefore believe women should be subservient to men in their marriages, and that they should not preach or lead in the church. That's what their Bibles say, and I must highly honor their obedience - and their courage in a society that regards this position as uneducated and unsophisticated.

And if that were the end of it, this would be my position too. I would not suffer a woman to teach.

But there is a problem. For each place where it appears Paul - and he's the source of most of these issues, by the way - is telling women not to speak or teach or to keep silent, there are other passages where he - or another author like Luke - affirms them in these roles. A contradiction. Apparently.

Now a modernist would simply laugh and say Paul was inconsistent, or Paul and Luke contradicted each other, or whatever. End of case.

I don't have this luxury because I don't believe God contradicts himself and I think this Bible is his Word. So I still have a problem. Paul contradicts Luke and Paul contradicts Paul.

Let's find out why. You're in for a few big surprises.

Let's look first at the main passages at issue in the leadership of women in the church. One obvious one is from Paul's first letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11 and 12.
Here Paul says:

"A woman should learn in quietness and submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."

Or how about this, from his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 33b:

"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."

Apparently, they're not even allowed to ask questions, because Paul goes on to say,

"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 church."

And then finally, from Ephesians 5:22

"Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."

Now I want you to remember these names, in sequence: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, Aquinas. This is a legacy of teachers and ideas which runs through all of this, like a bright red thread through a white garment.

Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great who conquered the known world and "Hellenized" it. He "reformed" it and deeply imbued it with Greek culture and values - which most people accepted because they seemed to be gifts from a superior civilization with superior gods. This Hellenization, by the way, is why our New Testament is written in Greek. Greek is the language that was used throughout the vast territories that Alexander conquered.

What values? If you're paying attention this will set off alarm bells, because these values are still with us, and they still struggle against the Word:

What did the Athenian Greeks think about women? Let's start with Socrates and his enlightened views of love: Socrates believed, and taught, that the relation (including sexual) between a man and a boy was a "superior form of love," because it combined "the love of a beautiful body" with "the love of a beautiful soul." His affection for men was in contrast to his belief that women were halfway between a man and an animal. Though women were necessary for heirs, the educated and sophisticated Athenian Greek men socialized only with each other, and regularly sought sexual pleasure with each other, or with young boys. Socrates himself testifies (according to Plato) to have been tempted particularly by one young man, but chose to restrain his passion and remain faithful to his wife. (See especially Bristow's book, below, for a fuller treatment of this history.)

Socrates' student was Plato.

Plato once said "Through the nightly loving of young boys, a man, on arising, begins to see the authentic nature of true beauty." Plato's many poems about love were primarily reflections about young boys. Women did not figure into the philosopher's life.

Plato's student was Aristotle.

In one of Aristotle's discourses on natural history, you would read in it today about how a queen bee will lead a swarm of many bees to a new nest, where they will all work together to build. In the original, Aristotle actually attributed this to a "king bee," because he assumed only a male could lead. He said, "the male is by nature fitter to command than the female." And, "the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying."

Women in Greek life, at least in Athens, were seldom seen nor heard. They were prohibited from the marketplace and outdoor sports. They did not attend social functions or eat with men at meals. Most were not educated. It was said that unmarried women should never venture further than the middle door of the house; married women no farther than the outside door of the house.

This view of women as "half animal," unworthy of education, to be kept quiet and kept locked away, to be in obedience to their husbands, was promulgated throughout all the vast regions, from Greece all the way to India, that Alexander conquered, including Judea. They were Hellenized and this view of women was adopted more than 300 years before the birth of either Jesus or Paul. It continued in their day. It lives on today.

Among the Jews it was considered inappropriate for a man to even speak to a woman in public - including his own wife. A woman speaking to a man who was not her husband was considered to be giving evidence that she had committed adultery with him, and could be divorced. You can imagine the scandal Jesus caused when he regularly sought the company of women and talked to them, and taught them, just as he did men. Or when he allowed prostitutes to talk to him or pour perfume on his feet.

Some of the Pharisees of the time were nicknamed "the bruised and bleeding ones" because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman on the street - and they walked into things.

Every Jewish male of the day said a prayer each morning, which included thanks to God for "not making me a Gentile... a woman... or a boor."

And so what happened? Simply this: many Jewish and early Christian writers saw women through these Hellenized eyes, and they interpreted Paul with this bias. Of course Paul said things against women; everyone knew they were inferior. That's how they misread Paul. I'll show how it happened in just a moment.

This Hellenized world view infected many countries and many people, and was so much a part of the culture few people even knew its roots, or realized how their worldview was colored by it. In fact, this continues to be true today. We are still massively under the influence of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, and it colors our own view of the world, and of Paul.

Aristotle's writings were lost for many centuries. But they were rediscovered, studied, and then combined with Christianity by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. His massive writings, including the Summa Theologica, have influenced Christian theology ever since - although I should note that a mystical experience he had in 1273 caused him to stop writing and to refer to all he had previously written as "mere straw."

This was long before the Protestant Reformation, and Aquinas' writings and influence are everywhere in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant church, often quite unrecognized.

And just as Aquinas did, and as did many early church writers, we read Paul through Aristotle's eyes. That's our infection. We therefore assume he must be saying what Aristotle would have said: "the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying." This assumption underpins how we translate Paul's words into English.

So let me put it simply: Paul was attempting to change these opinions, not reinforce them. This is the very man who said "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female - all are one in Christ Jesus."

Let's look a the passages quoted before, and see what he was really saying:

From the First letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 33b:

"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."

Now what does he mean? And what is the context here? Does it mean they can't talk at all? Can't say prayers? Say hello? Sing? Or are just certain kinds of speaking prohibited, say preaching, for example, which is how this is often interpreted. It's important to know.

Now, how many ways are there, in English, to convey the idea of speaking? Here are a few: preach, regale, yell, tattle, gossip, whisper, shout, kibitz, chat, talk, tease, ramble, drone... and many more. They all have special meanings. "Speak" is probably one of the most neutral, which may be why it was chosen by the translators, but it's also one of the most ambiguous. Greek has probably dozens of words that mean speak. Only five of them refer to preaching or proclamation. Paul didn't use any of them here. The word he chose is laleo (la-LAY-o), which means "converse," "talk," "chat."

When Joan Rivers says, "can we talk?" this is the word Paul chose. Basically, he's saying "women: don't chat during worship." Now why would he say that?

Paul was writing to the Corinthians because their worship was disorderly. This is quite explicit in this letter. They even had prophesying that was getting out of hand because too many people were doing it at once; he doesn't prohibit the women from doing this at all: he just slows everyone down and tells them to take turns.

But the women who were here were uneducated, and because they lived in a culture that kept women locked away in their houses, they seldom saw each other except at church. So, they didn't have any experience sitting quietly and listening to a talk - as the men who had been educated did - and they had lots of "catching up" to do with the other women.

Another clue here is in his choice of the word for silent. There are three good ones he could have used: phimoo (fim-OH-o), which means to muzzle, or force someone to be silent; hesuchia (hey-soo-KEY-ah), which is quietness and stillness, such as in study; and finally sigao, (sig-AH-o), which is a voluntary silence such as you might ask for in a noisy room. Our equivalent would be "Shhhh." That's the word he chose.

Another reason for his asking them to be quiet relates to the lack of education of the women. As a consequence, they apparently would often ask their husbands questions about the teaching, right in the middle of the service. Having not spent any time in lectures or in school, they didn't know any better. Which is why Paul said,

"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 church."

Again, the same word "speak." They were chattering to their husbands and therefore disrupting worship. Paul calls this disgraceful, and rightly so. Not because they speak in church, but because the speaking they're doing is inappropriate, is disruptive, and can wait until later.

And what about:

"They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says."

Again, Paul's choice of words here is very precise. The word for submission is the same word used when Paul says, to all Christians, in Ephesians 5:21 "Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ."

It is, curiously, also the word in the very next verse of Ephesians, "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."

Think logically about this for a moment. If the word submit here implies hierarchy or obedience, like a boss to an employee, or a master to a slave, or a leader to a follower, a ruler to a "subject," how exactly are Christians to submit to one another or obey one another? That definition doesn't work; it conflicts with the logic of hierarchy and authority.

The word in Greek for obey is hupakouo (hoop-ah-KOO-o). Paul uses this word in Ephesians 6:5 when referring to slaves, and Greek philosophers use this word to describe the relationship of a woman to a man. This isn't the word Paul chose here.

He chose a special Greek verb in what's called the middle voice, which denotes voluntary action. That is, what we've rendered in English as "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" - which sounds like a command, an order, is in fact an appeal, a request, for a voluntary response. And it means not "obey" but something more like "be supportive of" or "help out."

Interestingly, there is a use of the term in military parlance. When a group of soldiers was forming up as a unit to move out, a straggler would be told to join his group with this verb. It meant "join up" and was therefore a wonderful image. Not "submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ," but "join up with each other - become the body of Christ - out of reverence for Christ." And "Wives, join up and support your husbands, as to the Lord." It implies partnership and mutual support, not obedience. That's what Paul was trying to get across, and we have mangled it in the English because our prejudices had us assume he meant something else.

This image of mutual support, like military teamwork, is much more consistent with Jesus' view of women, and Paul's own clear view of them elsewhere. In his letter to the Romans, he honors many of the saints who have served with him or aided him. Among these are a husband and wife, Priscilla and Aquila. Paul refers to them as "coworkers in Christ Jesus." Interestingly, he calls Priscilla "Prisca," in the Greek, which is a more formal and honorific form of the name (Priscilla is diminutive), and lists it before her husband Aquila, going against tradition.

And then in Romans 16:7 he writes "greet Andronicus and Junias my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me."

Junias is the accusative form of the female name Junia. Some Bible translators, looking through Aristotle's eyes, have found this so impossible they've changed the name to a masculine form. In the Greek text of the Bible it is absolutely feminine.

Paul lists twenty six church leaders by name. Eight of them are women, including Phoebe, who he refers to as a deacon (using the masculine noun) in the church. The NIV, KJV and NKJV call her a "servant," but the Greek says "deacon." The NRSV has this right, by the way.

In Acts 2, Peter quotes the prophet Joel,

"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy..."

Prophesy does not mean "foretell the future." It means speak for God. And they did. In the book of Acts, Paul, seven men, and four women are listed as prophets. The first evangelist to non-Jews was a woman - the Samaritan woman at the well.

There is much more here than we have time for today, and I will pick the subject up again at another time, including the passage from Timothy, which will take some time to unpack correctly.

Let me make this conclusion: when you hear Paul translated to be prohibiting the leadership of women in the church, you are hearing Aristotle in the hearts and minds of the translators, not Paul. You are hearing Greek culture, the love of men for men and boys, and the dismissal of women as halfway between animals and men. You are not hearing Paul.

Paul did not contradict himself. He traveled with, taught with, and honored women leaders in the church. He has been unjustly accused of hating women, when a close reading of the Greek shows that he supported them, and challenged the Hellenized anti-women world view. He sided with Jesus, his Savior, in regarding all equally.

Remember this sequence: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, Aquinas. That is where our legacy of rejecting women's leadership in the church comes from. Not from Paul. Paul has been translated and distorted through the values of Aristotle. Don't permit it to continue.


References used in preparing this sermon:

Greek New Testament, KJV, NKJV, NIV and NRSV translations of the Bible.

Bristow, John Temple, What Paul Really Said About Women (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988)

Witherington, Ben, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988)

Grant, George, and Horne, Mark A., Legislating Immorality (Moody Press, Chicago, 1993)