Can Women Speak In Church: The Apostle Paul And Women
A little while ago a forum question was posted asking if women could speak in church. The poster referred to the (in)famous First Timothy 2:12 passage. This verse can stir up a host of reactions, and I take it the poster was hoping for that. I want to look at the question from a slightly different angle, that of original language and original context. A major difficulty with this text is translation. The popular New International Version translates the text:”I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” and the Amplified Bible renders it “I allow no woman to teach or to have authority over men.” The meaning here is clear, isn’t it? No woman should be instructing any man in the church setting.
But it’s all in the words, and how you put them together. In the Greek there is a word which can be translated either "woman" or "wife." The meaning depends on context. There is also a word which can be translated either "man" or "husband," same deal. When these two words are used together in a passage, they are generally translated "wife" and "husband," b/c that is most true to original meanings. When used in conjunction, these words mean a man and a woman married to each other. The words are used elsewhere in the New Testament, and when used together are generally translated "wife" and "husband." But here they are translated "woman" and "man," giving the idea that a statement is being made about male and female behavior in general, not behavior within a marital relationship. I looked through 10 different translations of this verse on an online Bible site before finding this:” I do not allow a wife to teach her husband or have authority over him." (Common English Translation) Very different, isn’t it? One makes a sweeping statement that the entire female population is barred from teaching the entire male population. The other states a particular wife should not teach her own husband. (Interesting that the “all females subordinate to all males” translation is so popular, though not accurate.)
A very good book about this subject.
What was Paul driving at? In my opinion the meaning here is something along the lines of “Don't correct your husband in public." I am a modern woman, but I don't correct my husband in public or attempt to “teach” him in front of others in a church situation, or in a social situation for that matter. I think it is bad manners. Likewise, I don't like to be corrected by him in public, I don’t like to be “taught,” or talked down to, in front of others by my spouse. (We go home and let each other have it in privacy.)
So I just said that I don’t like to be corrected by my husband in public. But Paul made this stipulation on behalf of husbands, and not wives. Why? Is he unfair? Does he think it’s OK for a husband to point out in front of the group where his wife has gone wrong, but a wife needs to bite her tongue because of the fragile male ego?
I think the answer lies in the cultural situation of early Christianity. In pagan religion, husbands and wives didn't worship together; the husbands would go to the temple of Zeus, their wives to the temple of Hera. In pagan temples of the time part of worship for men was sex with the priestesses. This sounds strange to modern Westerners, but sex is a part of many non-Western religious practices, most notably Hinduism.
In Judaism, the family stayed in the same building for worship, but the men sat in one section and did all the talking, and the women could hear, but not join in the discussion. A Jewish man of the time would not speak to any woman in public, not even his own wife. Then along comes Christianity, and husbands and wives worship together, in services where all can participate. Paul says “When you come together each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, and has an interpretation.” Quite a few different things go on, and each person could add to the mix.
Try to imagine the social chaos. Neither converts from Judaism nor the pagan cults have experienced men and their wives participating together in worship settings. People did not have a cultural context for slave and free, Jewish background and pagan background, male and female, all interacting on equal footing. As modern people, we are quite practiced at interacting with all different sorts of people. Our institutions throw us together with different genders, religions and ethnicities from childhood. These people experienced the opposite. For the first time, wives have a platform to “stand up” to their husbands and publicly disagree with them. Make a statement indicating the husband doesn’t understand some point of the new religion. Undermine him in some way.
In our culture this might be just bad manners. I’ve been in Bible studies with husbands and wives undermining & correcting each other, and I find it tiresome. To me this is just another example of a couple with issues, people I would rather not be around because I don’t need the aggravation. But in the ancient world, it was a bombshell. People must have wondered if this new religion would upset the social order, where were the new boundaries? What kind of behavior was acceptable?
My own opinion is that Paul was putting a lid on things with his admonition,” I do not allow a wife to teach her husband.” Paul’s letters to the new churches reveal that these groups were prone to all sorts of chaotic behavior, not surprising in people given new freedoms. They hadn’t yet found a comfortable middle ground, and swung to extremes. Paul seeks to calm things down, to give the church an opportunity for a good reputation in the wider world. I do not think he is trying to lay down a law of male domination, devalue women, or bar them from church participation. This would go against much of the rest of his teaching.
One last point about Paul and women. Elsewhere (1 Corinthians 11) he makes another of his (in)famous statements concerning women in worship services: “If they (women) want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home.” A common interpretation states this particular group of women made a habit of disrupting the meeting by calling across the room to their husbands when they had a question, and Paul wants them to be quiet so everyone can hear. The Corinthian women probably disrupted the service, as that church had many chaotic habits. But I think something deeper is also going on. Once when I was engaged I was planning to ask the pastor a clarifying question about his sermon, and my fiancé suggested I ask him my question instead, citing Paul’s letter to Corinth. I didn’t think he would know much about the subject, but I humored him. I discovered he had more insight than I expected. After that I began saving questions, asking him rather than anyone else. It led to long talks: it lead to a spiritual bonding between us. Did Paul mean to give Christian marriage partners an opportunity for growing their spiritual relationship? I can't say for sure what he meant, but his words had that result for us.
An excellent article about Paul's views
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