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.

1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

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.

Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).