This is the second post in a series. The first can be found here: Women are Called to Preach – part 1
Does scripture preclude the possibility of women preaching and teaching? There are two passages from Paul’s letters that are frequently referenced by those who hold to that view:
1 Cor. 14:34-35: The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
1 Timothy 2:11-15: A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
These passages are not universal prohibitions for women preaching. Rather, Paul is demonstrating a universal principle: True followers of Jesus Christ are willing to set aside their rights in order to advance the gospel. Paul lived this principle out in his ministry, and it is foremost in his mind when he addresses the multiple problems that confront the Corinthians.
I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Cor 10:23-24)
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor 10:32-33)
There were circumstances unique to the Corinthian and Ephesian churches that created an environment where the advancement of the gospel was better served if women temporarily set aside their rights to speak in gatherings. Paul is addressing those circumstances. Paul also indicates that he is expressing his personal desire that women be quiet, and that he is not giving a timeless principle. We also observe that in other passages Paul (and the other apostles) permitted women to speak.
The Cultures of Corinth and Ephesus
In Corinth and Ephesus it was best that women first learn propriety. This was more important than their freedom. The women were uneducated, and were exiting a pagan religion dominated by females. Paul was concerned with the behavior of the women, and how their behavior impacted their witness to the church and the larger culture. Pagan religion in Corinth and Ephesus encouraged women to be disruptive and to emotionally exalt themselves. Women in the Christian gatherings were mimicking these pagan rites.
Hank Hanegraaf notes that:
Paul’s words refute the matriarchal authoritarianism practiced by pagan cults in that day. Ephesus, where Timothy ministered, was the home of a cult dedicated to the pagan goddess Artemis. Worship of Artemis was conducted under the authority of an entirely female priesthood that exercised authoritarian dominion over male worshipers. Thus, Paul emphasizes that women should not presume undue authority over men. Paul neither elevates women over men nor men over women, but is rather concerned that men and women be granted equal opportunity to learn and grow in submission to one another and to God.(1)
Should All Women Wear Head Coverings?
Similarly, the appearance of the Corinthian women is addressed by Paul with the requirement that all women wear head coverings or shave their head (1 Cor 11:5-6). Today most recognize that the head covering requirement was a cultural prohibition and not a timeless one (although John Calvin thought it was timeless!). A woman who removed her head covering while praying or prophesying was mimicking another pagan religious rite. Michael Marlow notes that there “are many points of contact between the practices of the mystery cults and the issues Paul deals with in his letters to the Corinthians”.(2) Paul wanted the women of Corinth to make changes in their lives in order be distinguishable in behavior and appearance from the pagans around them.
As a side note, a common Greek head covering was a headband. Paul wasn’t necessarily concerned with visible hair being immodest. We also see the cultural context in Paul’s exhortation for slaves to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22). Few today would argue that Paul was an advocate of slavery. However, in a society that permitted slavery, it was best for Christian slaves to obey their masters. In this way the Christian slaves set a Godly example.
Preach the Gospel with the Heart of a Servant
Having the heart of a servant requires willingness to set aside one’s rights. We see this principle at work when Paul requires that Timothy be circumcised (Acts 16:3). Yet in a different context, Paul prevented Titus from being circumcised (Gal 2:3-5). Preaching the gospel and helping the weaker believer are what is important, individual rights are less important.
Freedom is great when it fosters the gospel (Galations 5:1). We are free in Christ, and if a group of people know better, they should not set up barriers to restrict someone from using their God given talents. That is why we see different approaches with the circumcision of Timothy and Titus. Timothy’s circumcision advanced the gospel, but Titus’ circumcision would not have. So it was not demanded of him. Paul would not allow the Judiazers to create false requirements to exclude Titus from ministry.
The same principle applies to women preaching. If a woman’s preaching is beneficial and done for the good of others, it ought to be encouraged. In an egalitarian society such as ours, women should be encouraged to preach, teach, and use their gifts of leadership. Preventing them from doing so is sinful. It is done by creating false requirements made with the same spirit of the Judiazaers of Galatia. Yet, there may be other cases where a woman preaching is not beneficial (say to a Muslim male). Likewise, there may be times when a man should not preach (say at a battered woman’s shelter). In such cases, those with the heart of a servant do not demand their liberty.
Paul sometimes distinguishes between his personal preferences and what God says (See 1 Cor 7:8-12). Paul expresses a personal desire in 1 Timothy 2:11 when he says “I do not permit a women to preach.” Paul doesn’t say God prohibits all women from preaching, rather he (Paul) does, in that given place and time. As demonstrated above, Paul had good reasons for not permitting it.
Theologian C.S. Cowles also points out that the phrase “I do not permit a woman to preach.” is in the present tense in Greek:
Although commonly translated as a permanent injunction, it does not read that way in the Greek. The Greek verb is in the present active indicative case and ought to be translated, “I am not presently permitting a woman to teach . . .“(3)
Cowles also writes:
…Paul had no intention whatsoever of laying down a timeless and universal principle prohibiting women from either teaching (preaching) or exercising positions of leadership in the church. Rather, he was cautioning women from assuming roles for which they were neither trained nor equipped at that time. He was encouraging them to be submissive and quiet learners until they had been fully instructed in “true doctrine,” after which they would then be qualified and competent to exercise the authority of one who teaches sound doctrine.
As Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was motivated to do the things that would be for the good of many – that they might be saved. His temporary prohibition of women speaking should be understood in that light.
Prophesying in Public?
Elsewhere in First Corinthians Paul implicitly acknowledges that women can prophesy in a public setting (1 Cor 11:5). This gives more evidence that Paul was not setting down a timeless principle for women to be quiet. In addition, we have other examples in the New Testament of women prophesying (Anna, Phoebe, Priscilla, the daughters of Phillip).
In conclusion, there are no timeless prohibitions against women preaching. It is a mistake to use Paul’s writings in a way that blocks women from using their gifts today. In fact, it is sinful to set up false barriers that block women from serving God in their calling. At the same time, we as Christians need to remember that we are called to preach the gospel with the heart of a servant. It is not about our rights, but is about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
(1) Must Women be Silent in Church?, Hank Hanegraaff
(2) Headcovering Custums of the Ancient World, Michael Marlowe
(3) John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians. p 220-221
(4) A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church, by C.S. Cowles, Chapter 6 p 146-147