This past Sunday morning, I got a phone call from someone who told me that their grandmother may be interested in visiting my church for Wednesday evening Bible study. I'm always glad to add one more to those who want to learn from God's Word with us at Bethel! But I was shocked to hear the reason why she is interested. At her church, women are allowed to attend the worship service, because there they simply receive the Word as it is given to them. But only men may attend Bible study, where they are free to speak and share and learn in a give-and-take sort of way. Women can go to a prayer group, but their church restricts group-based Bible learning to only men. Why would they do such a thing?
That church follows 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Now, before I go any further, I have to say that the point of this post is not to disparage those who believe a different way than I do. If this system works for everybody involved (including the women), then bully for them! But I could never feel comfortable as a member of a church like that.
My church is a member of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and while I have not attended all our churches, I daresay that you'll find none of our churches that have a practice like this. We encourage women to participate in Sunday school and Bible study. We have female teachers--not only for children and women, but for men as well. This, of course, is in direct violation of 2 Timothy 8:15, which I'll talk about shortly.
Biblical literalists might say that we are turning our backs on the Word of God, by rejecting this teaching. Why do we reject it, if it's clearly in the Bible?
Before I answer this, I'll give you another one that we tend to reject. It's found just a couple of chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. We read it just a few days ago.
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
You'll never visit a BGAV church to find the women covering their heads out of modesty and submission to their husbands. If Paul took the idea of head coverings for women so seriously, then why do we reject it? We believe that in this case, Paul is speaking directly to the church at that time. He is making a sweeping statement across the churches at the time (note the last verse). But we don't believe that this command continues to modern times. In the Mediterranean world in the first century, perhaps this was appropriate, but it certainly isn't a general mandate to all of Christendom, and for all time.
Paul's injunctions in 2 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:23-35 closely resemble his commands in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, which is also a gender-biased and potentially offensive scripture. It reads:
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
On 1 Timothy 2:8-15, I invite you to click here to read my article on that chapter, entitled "Should Women Sit Down and Be Quiet in Church?"
Let me restate my question earlier in this article. Biblical literalists might say that we are turning our backs on the Word of God, by rejecting this teaching. Why do we reject it, if it's clearly in the Bible?
While we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, we don't believe that every command in the Bible is for all people, and for all time. For example, the Jewish dietary laws in the Old Testament weren't given to Gentiles. They were given to Jews, for Jews to keep. When the Gentiles entered the faith, they weren't required to keep Jewish customs (cf. Acts 15:1-31). Similarly, we believe that while God called Joshua to overrun Jericho, storming that city is not the Christian mandate today. And we no longer stone people to death for witchcraft. These were laws for specific people at specific times. And Paul's advice on how to subjugate the women of the church fall into the same category.
You might say, "We no longer keep the Old Testament laws, but the New Testament commands we do keep." Oh really? So slaves should still submit to their masters--just because it's in the New Testament? The truth is that everybody picks and chooses what to follow in the Bible.
Even the most conservative Baptists I know, who believe that women shouldn't teach in the church, would never tell them that they couldn't wear braids or jewelry. The most conservative Christians I know of are the Amish--and even they don't keep slaves. This goes to show that nobody is a biblical literalist in the sense that they believe in keeping 100% of the Bible as if it's a law.
When we say that the Bible is God's Word to us, what we mean is that God gave us this perfect record of His revelation of Himself to humanity, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who received in his body the full consequence of our sin. Jesus, who taught us how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. The Bible perfectly points us to Jesus, whose death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return are all completely true.
We say that God is the Author of the Bible--and He is. But He used human ghostwriters, each of them with their own opinions, biases, and personalities. We see these expressed poignantly in Paul's statements regarding women in the church. Does this mean that God shares these biases? I don't believe He does.
Jesus taught Mary as she sat at His feet, in a mixed group of people (Luke 10:38-42). He didn't require her to learn from her husband.
Jesus sent the Samaritan woman at the well back to tell the villagers about the Messiah whom she had found (John 439-42).
Jesus sent women to tell the disciples about the resurrection (Mark 16:7)--meaning that He trusted women to teach men the greatest news ever shared.
I could go on and on. Jesus was a liberator of women. He respected women. So when I read scriptures that take power, worth, and dignity away from women, I have to believe that what I'm encountering is not the opinion of God. These are but the opinions of the human ghostwriters whom God used when He transmitted His perfect Word through imperfect people. The Bible is still the Word of God, in that the Holy Spirit wanted these things included in the canon of scripture, so that we could understand the way the early church struggled with issues like gender and equality, and so that we can learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.
Sometimes we get it right, and nobody ever hears about it. Sometimes we get it wrong, and it's recorded for all posterity. This is the case with misogynistic words like those that came from Paul. Don't blame God for these words--these were Paul's opinions, immortalized in scripture. Don't even blame Paul for the way his words have been used to oppress women of the church for millennia. Blame those who wanted to disempower their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, and used the Bible as a means to do so.
So, when you come across a passage of scripture like this that's hard to understand, how do you know whether what you're reading is from God, or from the human ghostwriter? In this case, I'll share with you 1 Corinthians 14:26, where Paul says, "Everything must be done so that the church may be built up." We have to ask today if the church is built up by the suppression of women, or if the church is torn down by it. Clearly, denying women the right to teach or even to learn in a group setting cannot build up the church. Secondly, I'll point you to 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, which says:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Ask yourself whether the text you're reading passes this test. If God is love, and the text you're reading doesn't reflect a loving God, then the text is probably one of those places where you see human opinion interwoven into the message.
I have a very high view of the Bible. So high, in fact, that I don't want to see a few of these troublesome passages get in the way of our understanding of who God is, and of the magnificent plans that God has for all of His children--both the boys and the girls. Understanding the Bible means understanding the culture that it came from--and the specific people and circumstances to which it should be applied. Understanding the Bible means taking its divine principles and applying them to our lives, not making laws and regulations for all believers today, out of opinions that were meant for a specific place and time.
*All scriptures taken from the NIV.