Regular readers of this post have noticed that I have been very quiet recently – unusually so. Well, I’m still alive, although I have taken to being more introspective lately. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so once again I pick up pen and paper (okay, keyboard and pixels).
I was reminded once again via various social media that unfounded assumptions can make mincemeat of our theology. The subject du jour was the role(s) that the apostle Paul either limits or allows for females in the worship service. The argument that followed included two assumptions – both of which are almost universally accepted – that have no textual support and even make the apostle contradict himself within just a few chapters of his letter. I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, and if you are a regular reader here my conclusions will come as no surprise, but I will share this once again for those who are struggling with this question. [By the way, my argument is not with any person per se, it is with the assumptions that are repeated, without evidence, and taken as prima facie truths. I believe those who accept these assumptions to be sincere and devout lovers of truth, but in this instance, also to be incorrect.]
False Assumption #1 – Paul allows, even advocates, for women praying in the public worship assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.
No, he does not. That is just false. I say that nicely, but that is just a false assumption that has no textual basis. Let’s look at that passage.
First, Paul addresses how men are to pray, not where, but how – with their heads uncovered. Paul only addresses females obliquely. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered, contra the standard practice (shown in many drawings of that era) of priests of various religions praying with a shawl, or cowl, over their heads. Women are only mentioned as a foil – women do pray with their heads covered (not the least of which with their hair), but men are not supposed to. No mention of where women are said to pray. But why should Paul specify something when the location is not his point? He simply mentions that women pray with their heads covered – when they pray by themselves, with their children, in female prayer groups. Where men pray, or where women pray, is simply not in Paul’s frame of reference.
But, let’s keep reading: v. 17 “…when you come together…” V. 18, “…when you come together as a church…” V. 20 “When you come together…” V. 33, “…when you come together…” 14:23 “…the whole church comes together…” 14:26, “…when you come together…” There is a emphatic (and, in my opinion, unmistakeable) disjunction between Paul’s previous discussion (once again, directed mainly at the men and the how) and his next point of emphasis, the common, joint assembly of the church (the when and the where). It is in of that discussion that Paul issues his now infamous teaching that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” So, whatever Paul had in mind in 11:1-16, it is beyond argument that what he says in 14:33-34 is in regard to a public, common assembly of the church. Which leads me to false assumption #2.
False assumption #2 – having given women permission (and maybe even encouragement) to pray in public in 11:1-16, Paul had to correct an aberrant, one-off situation to which he directed his attention in 14:33-34, namely, a woman (or number of women) who were disrupting a worship assembly by challenging their husbands (gasp!) by asking inappropriate questions.
Well, if you make one false assumption, why not get even more creative with the second? There is simply no contextual evidence to support this assumption! Why would Paul only constrain wives? Are unmarried women not capable of disrupting a service? And, where is there any indiction that the issue is domineering wives?
As I see it, the error is that if you hold to false assumption #1, you have to come up with a scenario that absolves Paul from blatantly contradicting himself in 14:33-34, and even more specifically in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So, there are a number of options. One is that you simply remove 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 from the text (following Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). That is a little radical for some, so they simply concoct a situation that Paul was addressing to his Corinthian brethren, but one that is limited by both time and culture, and has no bearing on the modern church. The fatal problem with that solution is that it is, once again, based upon the false assumption that Paul grants females permission to speak authoritatively (and, yes, I am suggesting that public prayer is an authoritative act) in the public worship assembly. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I flatly reject that assumption.
If we remove the false assumption that Paul grants, even promotes, women speaking authoritatively in the worship service in 11:1-16, then we have removed the supposed contradiction in 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Paul remains remarkably consistent, and there is no need to invent an imaginary scenario that he supposedly (and invoking self-contradiction) corrects later in the book.
Tangentially, this discussion also raises the question of just how authoritative is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today’s church. I sat in a lecture by one of the finest Greek scholars ever to teach in a university associated with the Churches of Christ, and I heard him argue that, (to the best of my memory, these words are not verbatim) “because Paul was addressing an aberrant situation in the congregation in Corinth in the first century, we cannot take his words as being binding on the church today.”
Huh? What exactly in the letters to the Corinthians are not aberrant situations for which we are to learn eternal truths? I don’t get it, and yes, I am disagreeing with a world-renowned Greek scholar here. But that is the belief (either conscious or unconscious) of many preachers and church members alike. In other words, if it doesn’t gore our ox, then it is Scripture. If it does gore our ox, well, it was just meant for the first century church and thank goodness we have moved on from there.
Thanks for obliging me for my perfectionist little rant, but this is really a burr under my saddle.
Let us ascend by climbing lower.