One of the great fundamentals of Christianity is the authority of Scripture. As Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. [2 Tim. 3.16] Scripture is consistent, does not contradict itself, and any question must be decided on what Scripture, as a whole, says on an issue. So it is that any consideration of the role of women in Christian life must be based on what the Bible, particularly the New Testament, teaches.
In spite of the manner in which Jesus included women in his teaching and life, and the role they played in the first centuries of Christian history, as leaders, apostles, teachers and in holding meetings in their homes, by the time Constantine had absorbed Christianity as the Roman State religion, women had been gradually moved away from active ministry in many of the Christian churches, though by no means all. In fact, throughout history, and particularly at times of revival, women continued to minister as they had in the New Testament.
In order to justify their removal from ministry, verses of Scripture were used to indicate that they never had any right to leadership or teaching positions. The most commonly used verses came from Paul’s letters, most notably from his first letter to the Corinthians:
“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.” [1 Cor. 14.34-35]
That may seem compelling, but it is, in fact, not nearly as clear as it seems. To start with, if it is taken as coming from Paul, it completely contradicts what he says elsewhere, even in the same letter. Just a few sentences earlier, he had said: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” [1 Cor. 14.26] Even earlier, in chapter 11, he had spoken of women praying and prophesying in public meetings. It would be hard to pray, prophesy, give a word of instruction, and so on if one was silent.
So, how do we explain the apparent command that women be silent? The problem is caused by the fact that in Greek there are no capital letters or punctuation, and no quotation marks. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is responding to a letter sent to him from Jewish Christians in Corinth, answering their complaints about the way in which the community there were straying from what had been traditional Jewish practice, including allowing women to teach and pray openly.
From the beginning of Chapter 7, Paul begins to address these complaints. There are places where New Testament translations insert quotation marks to identify these quotes, but in others they don’t. The comments about women keeping silent come from the complaints letter, otherwise they contradict what Paul says elsewhere. Scripture does not contradict itself, and Paul’s writings were recognised as Scripture even in his own day. Peter explicitly says so in his second letter:
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” [2 Peter 3.15-16]
The comment in question also states: “They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” There is nothing in the Old Testament Law that says this, but the Rabbinical teachings contains that very phrase. Paul, the Apostle of Grace and not Law, would never cite that law as binding on a Christian, male or female.
Context is everything, and every issue must be seen in the overall teaching of Scripture, not taken out of its setting and used to silence believers on the basis of their gender. Jesus permitted women to be taught, and to be disciples. Women in the New Testament taught, led and played a central and equal part in the ministry of the people of God. The rise of a patriarchal and clerical hierarchy silenced most women in later generations, though not all and not everywhere. The Body of Christ has been handicapped for too long by attempts to reverse the liberty that is the birthright of all Christians.
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”