Are Women Really Supposed to be Silent? Musings on the Paradox of Women’s Spiritual Authority

   

To neither be seen nor heard, this is the prescription and role of women in the Church—at least, according to some interpretations of the scripture. The role of women within the body of Christ is a difficult one, a topic which I have tried to avoid for some time because I am caught between two extremes that make me rather uncomfortable. Along with homosexuality, the role of women within the church is an issue over which the body is splitting apart. There are those who would claim that women are absolutely no different from men and equal in every spiritual authority. They can be pastors, elders, priests, and a spiritual authority over an entire body of people. Conversely, there are also many who claim that every woman should be silent, neither to speak nor to have one’s faith expressed in public—without certain restrictions such as head coverings during prayer and other such moral instructions.

These polar opposites claim to both be true. And while the idea that these contradictions are both right is illogical, nevertheless, both have scriptural founding.

As a young man, I was told that women could not be pastors nor could they hold any spiritual authority over men in any way, shape, or form. A woman speaking on stage was tightly reigned in. At most, I saw a woman pray a few times during worship. But any of the popular female pastors of well-known churches were harshly condemned. And so, I thought all was crystal clear—that is, until High School.

I met, and developed a crush for, a “strong-willed” young girl who wanted to become a pastor. This started a battle of logic, scriptural study, and hurt hearts as I insisted upon the fact that she could never be a pastor and follow God’s design.

Was I wrong? Had I misunderstood the scripture?

Many years later while in college, I came across yet another young women who was equally strong-willed and wanted the exact same thing—to be a spiritual leader. The same debate issued again.

To say that many sore feelings and hurtful words have been said over the role of women in the Church is an understatement. I have tried to avoid clichés and the placing of women under the “thumb” of men. But I have to wonder, what does God really want? What are we suppose to believe and act upon as a body. Are women really equal to men and does each sex really have designated roles? How should the scripture be interpreted?

Women are to be Silent

In reality, I—like most of the Church—have a hard time with what Paul has written. More so than that, since the scripture is God-breathed, these commandments are from the creator.

In his instructions to Timothy, a young church leader learning how to pastor a group of Christians, Paul discusses the proper role of women in the church. He wrote,

“Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense; not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God. A woman should learn in silence with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense.” — 1 Timothy 2:8-15

This is a difficult passage, one which I look forward to hearing from you, the reader, on how this ought to be interpreted. The first portion seems clear. A woman should dress herself in righteousness through “good works” rather than in a sexual or “attention getting” way. He rejects the woman who looks to her outward appearance as giving her value.

The following portion, however, is much more difficult. A woman is to not hold authority over men. Period. They are to be silent. They are never to teach men. They have no authority over men. But how far does this go? I can tell you right now that many women lead in worship, pray in public, and have even taught a bible-study in my community. Was this illicit?

Paul seems to think that women are to do what they biologically were made for, to bear children. But is this a biblical command for women to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen making dinner?

These instructions are not isolated.

Paul also addresses these issues to the church in Corinth. While discussing the proper order within the church, he wrote,

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church meeting.” — 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35

These instructions are for “all the churches of the saints.” I have heard many claim that these passages were texts in isolation, dealing with problems within specific communities and do not apply to all churches, in all places, throughout time. While my heart wants this to be true, Paul seems quite clear. He wants women to be quiet and not to speak while in church.

But this is not the whole picture of scripture.

Women are to be bold, missional preachers and Judges of Righteousness

Women and Men together complete the image of who God is. Often it is forgotten that God is not a man. He is not male. He is genderless. In fact, if we were to assign any gender or sex to God, he would be a hermaphrodite. This is not blasphemy. Rather, He declared at creation that man and woman together represent Him. It is within both genders that we see God and his character (Gen. 1:26-27). It is no wonder that God displays both the strong characteristics of a man and father while at the same time the gentile, caring touch of a mother and lover.

Within Christ, moreover, all gender and sex is removed. We are simply one in Christ. All identity markers, social standings, class, or means by which identity is constructed is completely dissolved.

“There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28

And this is how, in a very real way, God sees us. He has indiscriminately poured out his spirit and power onto both men and women. He has called both to prophesy. He has called both to preach the gospel. We are the body, the mystical mysterious union in which both men and women collectively make-up the bride of Christ.

And women are a central figure of this representation of God on earth.

Deborah was filled with the spirit of God, holding both spiritual and physical authority over God’s chosen people (Judges 4:4-5). Miriam was a prophetess and led an entire nation into worship before God (Exodus 15:20; Numbers 12:1; Micah 6:4). Huldah preached in the public square concerning the law of God, calling the people back to Him through which a revival and restoration occurred (2 Kings 22:14). Priscilla assisted Paul in his preaching and taught Apollos about the Holy Spirit and a more complete gospel which he knew nothing about (Acts 18:26).

God has found it pleasing to speak through and use women as prophets, leaders, and preachers. Does He still think so today? If so, why is there such animosity from some about a woman who preaches, prophesies, or speaks for God?

In reality, the scripture seems to contradict itself (according to human understanding, not as a contradiction within God himself). If women are to remain silent, why does God pour out his spirit of prophecy upon them? If women are to be neither seen nor heard, why does He push some to preach the gospel?

The role of women within scripture is a paradox. They are to be both silent and prophetic. They are to be both publicly preaching the gospel and yet submissive to the male leaders of the Church.

May God bless and use all women in any way that He sees fit.

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  • Barb

    This is something that I, too, have been wondering about, especially since two extraordinery women pastors have been introduced to me recently. I am just an ordinary Christian, no Bible scholar or theologian, who sincerely wants to know what the Bible really says about such topics. I do believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant in its original languages. In my searching, I have discovered the website and writings of Dr. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (called a heretic by some, but that’s another soapbox to climb on at another time), who is a Bible scholar; his education and credentials are listed on the site, and look very impressive. He wrote a very interesting article on his website called “Correcting Caricatures of Women in the Bible”, explaining the ancient Hebrew texts as well as Paul’s Greek of the verses you cited above. Perhaps you might be interested in what he has to say at: http://www.walterckaiserjr.com/women. As a woman, I felt very comforted about his study and I would be interested in your reaction.

  • Kurtormsby

    I once heard you have two options when arriving at somthing in the Bible that you disagree with. You can either change God’s word, or you can change your opinion. God has an order to the family, absolutely. However, we should not forget that God also calls husbands to be a servant to thier wives as well. In this way a man is to humble himself to his own woman. The Bible does not say that women should not be teachers to other women, right? It is a very powerful thing for a Godly woman to set an example to younger Christian women. Especially in this day and age, particularly referring to the lack of modesty and godliness in the majority of our young women today. Womens Bible studies, womens ministries, women’s retreats. There are many ways that women can take a leadership role in the church and still be in accordance with scripture.

  • Very nice Kurt. Here is my question though. If the scripture says that a woman must be silent in church, than they must be silent in every way, right? I don’t know if your church allows women to pray in front of men, but this is what Paul is saying. Church gatherings, for Paul, were anyone more than 2 people. So, again, can a women speak at all in front of men on matters of faith? Moreover, can they than pray in any way without their head’s covered? They are not suppose to. You see my friend, we pick and choose. If one wants to follow a strict interpretation of the scripture as it seems you are suggesting, than all of these things must be obeyed. Just curious on what you think here. In fact, I think we pick and choose more often than most “evangelicals” think.

  • “In discussing the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:33-40, where Paul instructs women in the church to ‘remain silent,’ we saw that this restriction was not universally applied either by Paul or by other early congregations. Women functioned in prominent leadership positions (Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Synthyche, Priscilla, Junia), designated as ministers (or deacons, Rom 16:1), fellow workers (Phil 4:2-9), apostles (or messengers, Rom 16:7). The Spirit of God empowered both men and women to be proclaimers of God’s redemptive work in Christ (Acts 2:14-18). Women’s participation in the edifying presentation of the gospel and vocal prayer in the congregation were a normal part of early church life (1 Cor 11).

    In light of the above considerations, reasons for the particular restriction imposed on women in Timothy’s congregation must be discovered from within the text and the situation of the church which Paul addresses. If, as we have seen, a curtailed role of women was neither a part of the divine intention in creation nor a normative aspect of the redeemed order, then the curtailment of their speaking and teaching and leading – in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 – must be in response to critical, local situations. Investigation of 1 Corinthians 14 revealed such a crisis setting in Corinth. A critical situation in the life and faith of Timothy’s congregation seems likewise the reason for Pauls instruction here.”

    Hard Sayings of the Bible

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