Gender

Rethinking Gender Roles_Companion 6

Rethinking Gender Roles in the Church_Companion_6

For the apostle Paul, Christian’s live in the “in-between, or the “now-not yet,” the space of time after Jesus’ resurrection and before the Parousia, when Jesus returns. This “in-between” period represents the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ resurrection but also reflects the fact that the Kingdom has not come in all its fullness. In his letters, Paul interprets how Christians should live considering Jesus’ resurrection and his future return. So, Paul’s thoughts about “The End” play an important role for the lives of both men and women in the church. 

  • Here are some scriptures to think about as we continue.

“making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Cor 15:21)

so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:7-8)

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:27-29)

Through Jesus, God is reconciling all of creation to himself bringing about a reversal of The Fall. The witness of the New Testament paints a picture of the divine entering a broken creation, joining it, and liberating it to new life.[1] Since Jesus is the beginning of things, his disciples follow him by reflecting, in practice and in ethics, the way of the Kingdom of God. As Paul embraces the Kingdom of God, his teaching speaks to the Ancient Greco-Roman world, with the expectation that believers will reflect the new kingdom and not the old one.[2] This new way changed how Christians saw themselves and has had a lasting impact on society in general. Cynthia notes, that society was influenced by “…the Christian assumption of dignity and value of all humans….”[3] In the first century, the Roman class system did not allow much room for advancement. Certain positions, such as the Patrician and Senator, were unreachable to most and even illegal to hold by the wrong class. The idea that every person was made in God’s image and should be treated with dignity eventually began to erode the distinction between classes. Human destiny was not set by The Fates. Eliminating the societal boundaries of class, race, and gender, empowers people to use their giftedness and live faithfully in them; despite the churches frequent failures to carry this forward.[4]

When I was growing up, Galatians 3:28 was tightly applied only to the issue of salvation. People would argue, “all people are equal at the cross.” Yet instead of liberating people from imposed distinctions, this narrow interpretation of v.28, pushes the meaning of the text out, beyond the Parousia, and makes no difference to the human condition. This is too narrow a focus. The context of Galatians is tearing down the old custodian, the law, that divided Jews from the rest of the world. Reading forward into chapter 4 we see that Paul uses the analogy of children under a steward until they come of age. The steward represents the power of the law for Jews, and the “religious regimen” of the Greco-Roman world that dealt with material reality.[5] These governing religious systems are overcome by Christ. The illustration Paul uses is a bit strained, but the idea seems to be that before people become believers they are like children. When Christ came, they were adopted by God and given their inheritance. Each newly adopted son and daughter received the indwelling of God’s Spirit and no longer remains under their previous guardian. Our relationship with God is based on Christ, not race, class, gender or anything else. This would certainly be a welcomed change of circumstance for any marginalized or oppressed person. Unfortunately, men fared better than women in the church, because even though one custodian was removed, the male custodian remained. It draws out the question, didn’t Paul say that every believer obtained the same inheritance? Shouldn’t women be awarded all the same inheritance that every male child receives since there is no distinction in Paul’s analogy. This isn’t to imply that men and women in Christ become androgynous creatures, it is an argument that from Paul’s illustration every believer receives the same inheritance that any son would receive. This is not just a future inheritance; Paul makes it very clear the inheritance is given to believers in Christ’s first coming not his second. So, what inheritance does a woman have beyond grace? The profound inheritance is the reversal of the fall, and the change in status that makes men and women equal in the church. As we covered in Companion 5, Genesis depicts man and woman as equals. It is only after the fall that this status changes. While the Greco-Roman structure and status remain, these things are not intended to influence the function of the church, but of course they did, because the ancient church, like the church today still lives in the “in-between” and waits for the Parousia. Still it seems strained for scholars to continue to argue that roles in the church were not affected at all by Galatians 3:28. In my faith tradition, many churches do not allow women to pray or preach in the assembly, yet even the Romans permitted women to pray and prophesy, despite the obvious disparity between genders in their culture.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul clearly says “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (ESV). While this is probably the most commonly referenced verse to support complementarian ideas, it is also incredibly unhelpful to the discussion. Here is a larger portion of the text with certain portions bolded for emphasis:

“26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent (σιγάω) in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent (σιγάω). 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject (ὑποτάσσω) to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

“As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent (σιγάω) in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission (ὑποτάσσω), as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

“36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:26-36 ESV)

The context here is the worship setting. The issue is orderliness in the assembly. Paul approaches this section by stating that everything done in the worship is meant to build up the assembly (v.26) and should be peaceful (v.33) and orderly (v.40). The specific nature of the setting is important to this text because it involves the assembly of believers in worship rather than other situations such as the household. Bringing passages such as, Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, into a text about worship warps the picture Paul is addressing. These other texts are written later and are about the household, despite some attempts to bring them together. While I have written previously that bringing the assembly into the home presented some benefits and risks, Paul deals with the home separately from issues of assembly. This makes sense considering how families, even today, relate differently in the privacy of their home compared to the public sphere. A common connection is made between v.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

However, readers should keep in mind that Paul’s letter to Timothy, in Ephesus, was probably written more than 8 years later. Additionally, Paul is writing to a different group of people in different circumstances. The similarities between 1 Corinthian 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, are limited to the issue of learning in the home (v.35), not orderliness in the worship (v.34).

We will look more at the issue of women being taught when we discuss 1 Timothy 2 at greater length.

Understanding that 1 Cor. 14 is about Christians gathering together in an orderly fashion, lets move the discussion forward by looking at the word silent mentioned in this text. The word is σιγάω (to be silent, stop speaking, become silent, keep secret). The word itself is not unusual. Instead its usefulness to understanding the text comes from its repeated use. A form of σιγάω (be silent) is used about the issue of talking with speaking in tongues, prophecy, and women. I have highlighted its use above. In each of these uses the text deals with an issue concerning orderliness. For tongues, Paul addresses the issue of not having an interpreter to translate for those assembled. For Prophesy the issue is speaking one at a time. Regarding women, given the new opportunity to learn, when is it appropriate to ask questions. Presumably, the middle of the worship service is not the time for asking questions, instead women should ask their husbands at home. It is easy to imagine how women might feel comfortable asking questions during the service because it is taking place in the home, so Paul feels that it is necessary for him to address it. Westfall writes, “The use of the home and the central feature of the fellowship meal created an informal environment that contributed to unusual intimacy for the Christian worshipers.”[6] In this setting, the possible reasons for a specific instruction to women are numerous. It’s important however to recognize that the issue isn’t women using their giftedness in the assembly, since we have already established in 1 Cor. 11, that women prayed and prophesied in the worship. This issue is about the disorder caused by some form of speech during the worship unrelated to giftedness.[7] It is likely, that the intimacy of this setting, where women are accustomed to a myriad of activities, their discussions are a distraction from the purpose of the gathering.

Another word that requires some attention is the use of ὑποτάσσω. This word is related to the idea of subjection, obeyance, or submission. You might submit to a person, or yourself, or you might be in a submissive state.[8] In our text Paul writes, “For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission (ὑποτάσσω), as the Law also says.” Almost every time I have heard this passage interpreted, the person to whom women submit is the husband, because husbands are mentioned nearby in the text. This is not the only way to read the text, and I think it is probably not the connection Paul intended. The same word occurs just a little earlier in Paul’s writing and its likely the ideas are connected. In v. 32 Paul writes, “and the spirits of prophets are subject (ὑποτάσσω) to prophets.” Here Paul reminds prophets that, despite the eagerness to prophesy, this desire is subject to their control. When Paul uses this word again, it seems likely that the same connection is intended, but an explanation of why this is likely is appropriate here given the prevalent belief that submission is a reference to husbands and wives.

Traditionally, ὑποτάσσω is connected to the requirement of wives submitting to their husbands based upon Paul’s direct reference to the law in this passage. The law, it is assumed, is a reference to Genesis 3:16 “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” (NASB). Yet Paul’s reference to the law is not so specific as to say with certainty he is thinking about this passage. There are good reasons to think Paul is not referencing that passage. F.F. Bruce argues that both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are not dealing with a requirement of submission, but rather men taking advantage of women because of their desire for their husbands.[9] Instead, the law is more likely a reference to the orderliness of the creation narrative if it indeed points toward the Pentateuch. The creation account presents God speaking into the chaos and creating order. The idea of separating things, light from dark, the sky from the waters, day and night, all speak to the idea of an orderly and functional creation. In the same way that God created orderliness out of chaos, the assembly should not be a time of chaos but orderliness. The theme of orderliness out of chaos runs throughout the scriptures. In this way, Paul is saying that women should submit to the governing rule of orderliness that is apparent in the Pentateuch. As a side note, Thistleton mentions with this text, that when a general reference is made like, “as the law” or “according to the scriptures” be cautious about tying it to a specific verse. Instead consider the larger drama or broader theme which may be intended.[10]

Another point of contention with the traditional view is the flexibility of ὑποτάσσω as it is used in v.34. The question is, what are women submitting to if it is not a reference to their husbands. Two things are clearly possible and are likely what Paul is trying to convey. First, following the instruction for prophets, women can control their own behavior. Second, it is necessary to submit to the rule of orderliness as Paul’s reference to the law implies. The grammar allows for this. The form ὑποτάσσω takes in v.34 is, ὑποτασσέσθωσαν, a present passive imperative. Typically, a passive imperative intends for someone to submit to another person or principle, the passive imperative can be reflexive, meaning that Paul could be telling women to submit to themselves according to the rule of orderliness. Disorderliness in the worship is enough to account for Paul’s use of the word shame in v.35. As we have covered in previously, the behavior of women could have a negative effect on the group at large in the eyes of unbelievers. The husband-wife relationship is probably not what Paul has in mind, given the lexical relationship to v.32.

Having said all of this about ὑποτάσσω, why does Paul tell women to go ask their husbands at home if the issue is not about submitting to husbands. While “husbands” is a totally appropriate translation of what Paul says here, it does create some modern issues because of the ambiguity for women without husbands in the church. The phrase in v.35 translated, “their husbands” is literally, “one’s own man.” Almost every woman was married in the ancient world, so it makes sense for Paul to be talking about husbands and wives. Paul gives women the benefit of the doubt that their interruptions of the worship are necessitated by having spiritual questions. Paul provides an opportunity to have their questions answered in the private sphere instead of disturbing the public assembly. In the ancient world, unless you were a wealthy woman, it was likely that your husband received more training, and was at least more likely to understand the social rules of education. Westfall relates the story of how homeschooled children need time to learn the rules of a classroom environment.[11] The solution to disorderliness in many churches today is to offer a class time where men and women can ask questions, instead of asking the preacher in the middle of a sermon.

What we have here in this text is a strong argument against the idea that Paul is saying women must be silent in the assembly. The argument in favor of removing the feminine voice in the assembly represents a gross misunderstanding of the text. Instead, we are presented with a consistent logic within chapter 14 that empowers women to use their gifted while at the same time maintaining orderliness. This is not to imply that women are more prone to disorganization than men, but rather than in the ancient world of Paul, uneducated, unsocialized, women, by no fault of their own, simply needed a place to ask questions to catch up with the rest of the assembly. Such a circumstance is replaced today by other methods of teaching, such as classes, small groups, personal studies, etc. In addition, the social circumstances of men and women are far different today than in the honor-shame culture of the ancient world.


[1] John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission (Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2016), 89. I highly recommend this valuable book that brings creation back into focus.

[2] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 143.

[3] Ibid, 144.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Douglas Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), under “7136,” Amazon Kindle.

[6] Westfall, 230

[7] Westfall, 237.

[8] Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042.

[9] F.F. Bruce 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible Commentary (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), 136.

[10] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmas Publishing Co., 2000), 1153n367.

[11] Westfall, 239.

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