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Do Paul's teachings oppress women?

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Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 1 Timothy 2:11-12

At first glance what Paul is saying seems to degrade women. But what does he actually mean by this? To take it literally would mean that women cannot even say "hello" to other people in the church. 

I have found this EJ Waggoner article from Signs of the Times, May 12, 1887 in concisely covering the relevant issues regarding this verse. Let us read it while I give some commentary:

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We are asked by a subscriber in Washington Territory to explain how the usages of Seventh-day Adventists, and of many other religious bodies as well, can be harmonized with 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, and 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. He asks: “Were these commands transient? if so, when did they cease to be binding, and by what authority?” He also asks if 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, is correctly translated in Conybeare and Howson’s “Life and Epistles of the Apostle Paul.” 

To the last question we would reply that the Authorized Version gives the sense of the text as well as can be done, and is more nearly literal than is Conybeare and Howson’s rendering. The question on the text itself is worthy of consideration, for many good people think that the Bible forbids women to take part in public religious service. 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, reads as follows:

  • “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” 

It is worthy of mention that those who are most bitterly opposed to women’s taking part in public service, are inconsistent with their own interpretation of this text. They interpret it to mean that women should never speak in public, either to preach, or to bear testimony in prayer-meeting; yet there is not a church in the land which does not have women singers, and in many of them the singing would greatly languish if it were not for the women. Now it is certain that those who sing do not “keep silence.” We do not think that this is wrong, not a violation of Paul’s injunction; we cite this instance merely for the purpose of showing the inconsistency of those who interpret Paul’s words as prohibiting speaking in meeting, but allowing singing. Now if the injunction to “keep silence” does not prohibit singing, it is reasonable to suppose that it does not prohibit speaking at proper times and in a proper manner, for simple speaking is far more nearly an approach to silence than is ordinary singing. 

And this we shall find to be the case, when we consider a few other texts; for we must always let scripture explain scripture. Read the other text to which our correspondent referred, 1 Timothy 2:11, 12: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” This must certainly be considered as parallel to, and explanatory of, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35. But there is nothing in it which would stop a woman from bearing testimony in social meeting, or even from preaching. Notice that Paul says: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man,” the idea being of a women’s setting herself up as superior, and assuming authority which does not belong to her. But a simple testimony for Christ is the farthest removed from the assumption of authority, and even the preacher who usurps authority over his hearers, is out of place. The place of the preacher is not to be a lord over God’s heritage, but to act the part of an ambassador for Christ. From the two texts quoted we must conclude that Paul did not mean to prohibit women from witnessing publicly for Christ, but only to have them act with becoming modesty. SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.17

This conclusion is made positive by other texts. In 1 Corinthians 11:4, 5, 13, the same apostle says: “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head; for that is even all one as if she were shaven.” “Judge in yourselves; is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.18

In these verses, and the context, the apostle is giving directions for the proper conducting of public worship. Now if in chapter 14 he meant to teach that women should utter no sound in public service, why did he here give directions concerning their praying and speaking in public assemblies? Certainly no directions are needed for the performance of that which is forbidden, and the fact that Paul tells how women should pray and prophesy in public meeting, shows that such action was not forbidden. SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.19

To forbid women any of the privileges of the gospel would be utterly at variance with the spirit of the gospel. Says Paul: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:27, 28. That means that in the gospel plan there is no difference made for race, condition, or sex. A woman stands before God a sinner, just the same as a man; she is responsible for her own sins, and, if saved, must be saved in exactly the same way that a man is. No Christian would think of prohibiting a person from taking part in meeting, on the ground that he is a servant, or because he is of a different nationality from the majority of the members of the church; then no Christian should prevent a person from speaking to the praise of God, because that person is a woman. SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.20

To interpret Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, as meaning that women should bear no part in public worship is to do violence to the Scriptures which, being inspired, must always and everywhere be harmonious. Thus in Acts 21:8, 9, we read that Philip the evangelist “had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.” Paul speaks of Phebe, “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1), and in Philippians 4:3 bespeaks the care of the church for “those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other fellow-laborers.” And the mighty and eloquent Apollos was instructed in the way of God by Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Acts 18:2, 24-26. SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.21

In the Old Testament we read of “Miriam the prophetess” (Exodus 15:20) by whom the Lord spoke as well as by Moses and Aaron (Numbers 12:1, 2). We read also (Judges 4) of “Deborah, a prophetess” who judged Israel, and whose wisdom and prudence were esteemed so highly that Barak would not go to war without her counsel and her presence. Still later we read of “Huldah the prophetess” (2 Kings 22:14) to whom Josiah sent when he would inquire of the Lord concerning the book of the law which the priest had found. There is something remarkable about this case. At this time Jeremiah had been prophesying for five years, yet the king sent to Huldah instead of to him. Moreover the king’s messengers to the prophetess were, among others, a scribe of the law, and the high priest, whose lips should keep knowledge, and at whose mouth men were accustomed to seek the law. Micah 2:7. Yet it seems that on this occasion no one had the word of the Lord except this woman. SITI May 12, 1887, page 278.22

We have considered this matter at this length not only for the satisfaction of our correspondent, but also to meet a very common infidel cavil. There are many men, and more women, of a class who seek to overthrow the divinely-established order of nature, who are accustomed to rail at the apostle Paul as a crusty old bachelor and a misogynist, because of his words to the Corinthians. Hastily assuming that he absolutely forbade women to take any part in public meetings, they think that the present liberty accorded to women is an evidence of the advance which people of the nineteenth century have made over Paul’s antiquated notions. From railing at Paul they naturally come to despise all his writings, and as a natural consequence, they lightly esteem the entire Bible. SITI May 12, 1887, page 279.1

But Paul was not crusty, he was not a misogynist, and he was not a bachelor. He was a large-hearted, whole-souled, loving Christian, who treats of the family relation with a knowledge and tenderness not exceeded by any writer who ever lived. Instead of commanding women to say nothing in meetings for the worship of God, he encouraged them even to occupy responsible positions. What he did do was to give instruction that would keep them from being classed with the heathen women who, in their eagerness for notice, divested themselves of that modesty which always characterizes true woman, and which the gospel tends to heighten.

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This is a good example of where the conciseness of the Bible gives us the freedom to project what we want to see onto the Bible, when instead we should try to dig deeper and harmonize the text in question with other texts to get a full picture. There is no doubt that the ideal of order and hierarchy in the Bible is a challenge to us and different to what our modern world tells us is good - but this is a challenge not only for women, but for men too. For whom is it easier to "turn the other cheek", men or women? Who idolizes power and strength more, men or women? It is precisely this obsession with being king and dominating over others in men that God is trying to heal us of, and women have a key part in how God does this through their example of restraint  and meekness, which serves as an example to the children and to the men themselves - who through the example of how the women are "under obedience"" are reminded of how they too are to be "under obedience" in their sphere of life.

God's thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). When we become triggered by texts such as Sarah called her husband Abraham 'Lord' (1 Peter 3:6), are we sure we are seeing the abusive subjection of Sarah? Or are we seeing how unhappy our relationship to authority is, whether it be with the government, the police, the teacher, or the spouse? Whose society is sick; who is unhappy - is it holy Abraham and Sarah, or is it all of us in our broken world at the end of time? 

Some people imagine the church of the first few centuries as being dominated by men, but it was not so:

Celsus, a 2nd-century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” His contemporary, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that “Christian maidens were very numerous” and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. These comments give us a picture of a church disproportionately populated by women.

Why? One reason might have been the practice of exposing unwanted female infants—abandoning them to certain death. Christians, of course, repudiated this practice, and thus had more living females [this practice was called "infant exposure"]. Also, in the upper echelons of society, women often converted to Christianity while their male relatives remained pagans, lest they lose their senatorial status. This too contributed to the inordinate number of women in the church, particularly upper-class women. Callistus, bishop of Rome c. 220, attempted to resolve the marriage problem by giving women of the senatorial class an ecclesiastical sanction to marry slaves or freedmen—even though Roman law prohibited this.

These high-born Christian women seized upon the study of the Bible and of Hebrew and Greek. The circle of Roman women who studied with Jerome in the late 300s showed such scholarship that he thought nothing of referring some church elders to Marcella for the resolution of a hermeneutical problem. By the early 400s, Augustine could declare that “any old Christian woman” was better educated in spiritual matters than many a philosopher.'

 (The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church)

Why would many women join the church, particularly upper class women? Could it be that women were ennobled, protected, and valued in Christianity? I leave that to others to research more.

Waggoner says: "What he [Paul] did do was to give instruction that would keep them from being classed with the heathen women who, in their eagerness for notice, divested themselves of that modesty which always characterizes true woman, and which the gospel tends to heighten." We have been programmed by the world to have a certain idea of what a "good ideal" woman looks like, and it is a confused and complicated one based off of pop culture. There is no doubt it is not easy to be a woman - she has to be a mom with a career who looks good always and never loses her temper, etc. But at the same time, is the female singer, dancer, professor, etc to be more valued than the housewife? I know that I subconsciously looked down on the housewife and assumed that being a teacher of kindergarden and elementary consisted of playing all day; that it is easy and unimportant work. It was only when I had to teach English to kids that I realized how hard it was, and then I gained a newfound appreciation for the teacher of children, of which the housewife is the first. When we devalue the housewife and the mother, then we are devaluing the education of children; and is it no wonder we have so many badly behaved adults who are the product of their upbringing?

There is much to be said on this subject, and I hope the reader will forgive me if I have missed certain things. Here at Father of Love, one of the most important things we teach is the Divine Pattern and that the central characteristic of the head (God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of the church; husband is head of the wife, etc) is not the power to rule over, but the responsibility to bless and take care of - particularly to bless. When understood rightly it is the highest joy of the Gospel, for to be submitted to Christ is to rest in receiving His blessing, like Christ rests in the blessing of His Father - "You are my beloved Son, in whom I delight!" For Christ loves to submit to His Father, and through His perfect submission He is filled with blessings to pass further down to us. This is the pattern we want to model ourselves after.

Father, help us as we are so Laodicean! 

Danutasn Brown

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