Follow-Up to My Last Post

I received some comments on my last post, and a very good question, so I feel it important to extend my thoughts just a little more here. For the background, see my thoughts here – 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

First, a little history. Whatever a preacher (or author, or teacher) says or writes is largely autobiographical, and it is almost impossible to untangle what is original and what is borrowed. So, my thoughts on this topic are hugely influenced by my classes with Dr. Everett Ferguson, an article on the practice of male priests covering their heads written by Dr. Richard Oster, and more generically by my understanding on how to do exegesis and thus hermeneutics.

Regarding the last point, I think it is absolutely critical that when we approach the text of Scripture that we remove ourselves as much as possible from the text. I emphasize “as much as possible” because it is impossible to completely do so (as much as Alexander Campbell would disagree.) So, in regard to the topic at hand, one profound issue I have with those who argue for no, or very little, limitations on women exercising leadership roles in the worship assembly is that invariably they insert 21st century worship wars into Paul’s letters. That is a HUGE exegetical, and ultimately, hermeneutical mistake. For us, Paul’s letters are all about me, myself, us, our, and we. We read Paul’s letters as if we are looking in a mirror, and, lo and behold, all we can see is ourselves!

Paul was addressing first century religious (and in the case of the Corinthian letters, Roman and Greek religious) practices as they impacted the first century church. That is where we have to start, and where Paul’s instructions (inspired by the Holy Spirit, no less) intersect with today’s culture, we can draw appropriate conclusions. Where that culture diverges from our culture we have to be very careful that we do not impose our culture on Paul (or Peter or James or even Jesus!) – questions and answers that they never intended.

So, with that said, let us return to 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 (and, just for giggles and grins, let’s add 1 Peter 3:1-6). If you read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and remove from your interpretation any apostolic reference to 21st century worship wars, what do you see? Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain a certain set of “traditions” he handed down to them – seemingly related to authority and submission. His first (and I would argue, primary) subject is the proper decorum for men who go before God in prayer. A reader pointed out that Paul does, in fact, spend more time addressing women in these verses, and I agree. But mere volume does not equal significance. Let me illustrate with another text.

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the parable of the “prodigal son.” The overwhelming majority of the parable revolves around a younger son and the relationship with his father. The older son only gets a few verses at the end of the parable, but I would argue that the real “point” of the parable was aimed at the Pharisees, who clearly stood in the position of the unforgiving and self-righteous older son. The repentance of the younger son, and the forgiveness of the father dominate, but the unanswered question of the parable is, “are you ‘older sons’ going to welcome the repentant younger son back into fellowship?” No-one could argue with genuine repentance or parental grace – but forgiveness from one who has been faithful? Ouch.

So, if I am correct (and that is a big “if”), Paul has his sights set squarely on the men who, accustomed to praying with their heads covered with a shawl or cowl, continued to do so following their conversion to Christ. Paul nowhere addresses the where or the when of the prayer, he simply reminds them that, in the new kingdom, men do not pray with their heads covered! To Paul, that was a sign of disrespect to their authority – Christ and God. Women, on the other hand, did pray with their heads covered – not the least of which was their long hair. Once again, the when or the where was not in Paul’s mind. Paul knew women prayed – by themselves, with their children, with other women – that was proper and good. Paul may use more words in relation to the females, but he never takes his eyes off of the men. [As I mentioned above, I borrow this point from Drs. Ferguson and Oster. I wish I could direct you to the article by Dr. Oster, but my books and files are buried in a storage unit, and I simply do not have access to them.]

Now, here is where my training and experience influences my interpretation. Beginning in v. 17 (and repeated a number of times), Paul shifts his attention to the public gathering of the assembled church. There is a shift, a change of emphasis, a new focus in Paul’s eyes. Paul addresses a number of Corinthian problems – the abuse of the Lord’s supper, the confusion of multiple prophets speaking, and the use (or abuse, the question is still open in my mind) of the miraculous gift of “speaking in tongues.” At the very end of that topic, Paul gives his instruction that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Unfortunately for us, he leaves that instruction rather bare, but it clearly is in relation to the confusion and improper decorum of the Corinthian assembly.

If 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 provided us with the only comments on the question under discussion, we might be safe to say that the question remains open, and perhaps Paul’s accommodating position in Romans 14 might be important here. But, Paul does give additional instruction regarding male and female “authority” roles in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Once again, Paul is not addressing 21st century “worship wars,” so let’s be careful lest we look into that theological mirror again. Paul’s emphasis (once again beginning with the male) is that prayers be genuine, without anger or malice. The women are to dress with proper decorum. Then, Paul specifically mentions that women are not to exercise authority over men, either in teaching or, as I said in my last post, through prayer (Paul’s immediate context). This is where I see that prayer is an authoritative speech according to the apostle. I could be wrong here – have been in the past and will be in the future, but lest I sound like a broken record, I can only do exegesis as I have been taught, not as I have not been taught.

If you have followed me so far, thank you. Now for my main issue with the so called “egalitarians,” those who argue for full (or perhaps expanded) roles of leadership for females in the worship service. If you hold the egalitarian position, Paul has utterly contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 compared to 1 Corinthians 11. At this point you have to decide which is controlling – Paul’s so called “universal” teaching in 1 Cor. 11, or the “limited” or “correcting the one-off, aberrant behavior” of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Those who hold that 1 Cor. 11 is the true, proper, and Spirit-inspired teaching have to diminish 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 by either removing 1 Cor. 14 completely (i.e., Gordon Fee), or by so minimizing those texts that they ultimately become meaningless to any situation beyond Corinth (or Ephesus) in the first century. I simply cannot go there. Once we  start eliminating Paul’s instructions because they do not “fit” our paradigm, where do we stop? Are Paul’s instructions regarding sexual perversity in chapter 5 also simply a rejection of a cultural taboo that is no longer valid? Are Paul’s instructions regarding division in the church (chapters 1-4) simply to be ignored because they are directed to Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and Paul? What of Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, or even his teaching regarding the resurrection?

And, just one final piece of evidence. Many argue that Paul reveals his chauvinism here – that he took Jesus’s egalitarianism and stood it on its ear. Okay, well, then what of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6? Peter nowhere mentions the assembly, so his words touch this issue only tangentially – but it is this tangential connection that I find so compelling. Peter’s focus is on the submission of the wife to the husband (also mentioned by Paul), and ties this Christian behavior to the behavior of Godly women throughout history. For Peter, apparently, a woman usurping the authority of her husband would be a violation of Christian behavior. My point is that Peter confirms my understanding of Paul’s overall consistency, and therefore that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 must be seen in a generic sense, and not in the specific situation of the assembled congregation.

Once again, I could be wrong here in any – or all – of my conclusions. I can only work with my understanding of how to do exegesis. I have been wrong before, and will undoubtedly be wrong in the future. But, as Martin Luther so famously said, here I stand until I am proven wrong. I sincerely believe that many hold to an erroneous position because of a number of false assumptions. There is the assumption that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pertains to the assembled worship assembly. According to how I was taught to read Scripture, that assumption cannot be defended. Once again, I can only read, and therefore teach, as I have been taught. Then, there is the subsequent, but necessary, assumption that 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are therefore only speaking to one-off, aberrant situations that no longer have any validity for the church of Christ. There is further an assumption that the apostolic teaching regarding authority and submission was bound only to the first century, and that any subsequent culture is free to define (or re-define) roles regarding gender any way that is predominant in that culture.

I don’t want to open another can of worms (okay, maybe I do), but just a question – if we are free to define roles of authority regarding sex and gender if we can discover, and eliminate, Paul’s first century cultural biases, then how can we argue against any of the issues of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, poly-amorous relationships, and gender fluidity so prevalent in our culture today? If there are no inherent significant differences between male and female, and if there are no spiritually significant connections to those differences, then who is to argue that there is any limitations as to sexual behavior, or even sexual identity?

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if our culture’s headlong rush into sexual dysphoria has taught me anything, it’s that our understanding of God’s original plan for mankind is found in Genesis 1:27, and if we rupture that relationship we have nothing of any value to stand on.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and let us all ascend by climbing lower.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

3 thoughts on “Follow-Up to My Last Post”

  1. First off, I fully agree that our discussions of gender will come back to haunt us when homosexuality makes a full out assault on the church. Some will be thrilled at having used this Trojan horse to undermine the principle of biblical authority.

    That said, I want to say that some of us who see 1 Corinthians 11 as addressing all public prayer and prophesying (including the assembly, but not specifically limited to it as Paul’s discussion from verse 17 on is) and feel that 1 Corinthians 14 has a specific limiting context… not all of us are full-blown egalitarians. In fact, I’m convinced that Paul could say what he did to the Corinthians BECAUSE there is an underlying principle of male authority. Otherwise his comments would have made little to no sense. I think Paul still emphasizes male headship even if his comments about women keeping silence aren’t to be taken to a literal extreme. (Did you know some groups have forbade women from singing for that very reason? At least they’re consistent.)

    While I think 1 Timothy 2 addresses a specific situation, I think it does so using larger principles (authority, with that authority being tied to the Genesis story).

    Blessings on you and yours.

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    1. Hey Tim, thanks for the comment and the conversation. I miss the opportunity to have these kind of discussions in “3D”.

      First, I agree with your observation that there are levels of egalitarianism, as there are with complementarianism. No doubt they meet somewhere in the middle.

      I guess I should say that a position that holds 1 Cor. 11:1-16, 1 Cor. 14:33-35, and 1 Tim. 2 to all be in relation to a public worship assembly requires a level of nuance and discernment that I am simply not capable of maintaining. To me, that position requires Paul to say, “Women can speak authoritatively in a mixed assembly. No, wait, some women cannot speak authoritatively. No, actually women cannot speak authoritatively over a man at all.” In my mind it makes Paul not just wishy-washy, but utterly contradictory. And – to get to our situation, how do we discern which Paul to listen to? However one may feel about prayer as authority (I do, as the one praying publicly is speaking in an intercessory role between God and man), I really don’t see how it can be argued that prophecy is not authoritative speech. To say that women can speak prophetically, authoritatively, (1 Cor. 11) and then to say that a woman is not to have spiritual authority over a man (1 Tim. 2) is to say two entirely different things.

      I may get into this in the morning, but this leads me to a huge inconsistency (error?) on the part of virtually every congregation I have been a part of, and that is the practice of placing an 8, 9, or 10 year old young man who has just been baptized to serve the Lord’s Supper emblems or to lead a prayer or read a Scripture. If I am correct, and if I am consistent, that practice is flatly unscriptural, as no rational person is going to argue that the young man is a “leader” and a responsible spiritual adult. This entire discussion leads to hypocrisy of BOTH sides, and I have to be mature enough to admit that. If we are going to argue that the Spirit teaches adult male leadership, we need to return to the biblical concept of ADULT male leadership, and quit pandering to this idea that someone is a male leader just because of his gender and status as being baptized. Stated another way, if serving at the table, if leading prayer, if reading Scripture are all examples of male spiritual leadership, then let us be consistent and make sure a male is a mature, spiritual leader BEFORE we place him in a position of spiritual leadership.

      Okay – I feel like I am getting myself into a circular firing squad, and I’m not sure I can get out unscathed, but “. . . fools rush in.”

      Thanks again – I do appreciate the conversation.

      [And, yes, I’m aware of the fringe that will not allow women to sing – just as with the fringe that will not sing at all, as we are to “sing and make melody in the heart. Some people are Dallas Cowboy fans, too – can’t explain that either. 🙂 ]

      Paul

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  2. I understand prophecy (in the context of Corinthians, especially) as to be Spirit-led speech. A faithful prophet is a conduit, passing on what they receive without adding “private interpretation.” That certainly seems to be what we see from Agabus and the daughters of Phillip in Acts.

    The Jews were not bothered by the existence of prophetesses, even ones like Anna who seemingly prophesied in the temple itself (though certainly in the outer courts). This neither made them leaders nor usurpers of male authority.

    I see Scripture reading to be an analogous activity in today’s church. If someone stands and reads God’s Word, without commentary, they are merely a conduit. It’s not an authoritative position.

    Look forward to more face-to-face discussions. Till then, we can continue in cyberspace.

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