Saturday, June 20, 2009

Trying to Silence Women

In 1 Corinthians 12 - 14, Paul gives an extend discussion of spiritual gifts and how they should be utilized in the church. Then at 14:34-35 come these words:

"Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinated, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

What are we to make of this instruction. Some conservative Christian groups take these words in an uncritical fashion and combine them with a social view that sees women as subordinate to men and fashion the two into a theology that discriminates against women. But what do scholars, both evangelical and progressive, think about this text.

Most scholars do not take these words to mean that women can not participate in leadership roles of teaching, preaching, praying, etc. in the church. First, in the previous chapter of Corinthians, Paul recognizes and approves of women who pray and prophecy in the gathered Christian assembly. Second, Paul has a lengthy list of women who act as co-ministers with him in his missionary efforts. To suggest that Paul did not allow women to speak in the churches he founded does not cohere with the evidence of his own letters and Acts. Consequently, there are three options that scholars commonly put forward to explain the text:

1. These words were not part of the letter to the Corinthians and should be considered a gloss, that is they are the work of a later scribe who commented on the text and those comments were later copied into the text. These two verses appear in different locations in some manuscript traditions. Evangelical scholar Gordon Fee argues persuasively for this option.

2. These words are not those of Paul but those of some of the Corinthians who did not want women to take a leadership role in the church. Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer opts for this solution.

3. The prohibition is directed at the wives of prophets who should not question (take part in the evaluation of) prophecy when it was their husbands who prophesied, for that would be shameful due to the customs of the day. British scholar James Dunn offers this suggestion. Note the charge to weigh what prophets say in a public worship gathering in 14:29.

These suggestions provide a needed corrective to an unthinking "it says what it means, and it means what it says" approach to dealing with difficult biblical passages. To base discriminatory and hurtful practices on the basis of such a simplistic reading of a very difficult passage, is at best foolish.

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