If some of this material looks familiar to some of you, this and two posts in the next two days are reworkings of three I did in March/April on “Paul and Misogyny.” I am remixing the studies of the three passages (see below) within the Creation Fall Redemption Response framework, with special focus on the creation and new creation themes. The occasion is a “syncroblog” organized by Rachel Held Evans on Male/Female Mutuality, June 4-10, 2012. Enjoy!
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says… …it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the churches… Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.
Reading the Bible the way we have for centuries, these snippets from I Corinthians, Ephesians and I Timothy pretty well tell the story. Together, they serve as overwhelming evidence that the apostle Paul saw women as having a complementary and secondary place, a subordinate and inferior position in the kingdom of God as compared to that of men. If these passages stand as they have been read, Christianity is a soft patriarchy. Period. Full stop. Discussion over. Book closed.
Which would mean if our reading of Paul has been accurate, that we can 1) like it: just knuckle under and accept these teachings as the Word of God which we must obey; 2) lump it: adopt a spirit of rebellion, say we do not care what Paul wrote, we just know he is wrong for our lives; 3) deny it: claim Paul never wrote these letters; 4) dismiss it: claim that Paul may have written those words for people then but they are totally out of date now or 5) walk away: realizing that Christianity is a hopelessly out of date relic of a sad, bygone era, look for a new faith or have no faith (if such a thing were possible).
But what if the problem is not with Paul but with us? What if the problem is with the way we read the Bible? What if pulling a few snippets out of their context and stringing them together as I have done above is just plain wrong? What if such an approach contributes to the wrong story?
Story, we know, is God’s favorite way of revealing himself to us. The Bible, Old Testament and New, is 60% story. And the rest of it: song, proverb, prophecy, law and letter, exists within that story. The story of God is the context for letters like Paul’s. The story of God gives them context and fleshes them out.
So have we been telling the 30,000-foot story of God accurately? N. T. Wright, in his New Testament and the People of God lays out four questions as the basis for the story. He suggests that how we answer those questions helps us (or hurts us) when we seek to latch onto the story of God. In brief, the questions and his answers are:
(1) Who are we? We are humans, made in the image of the creator. We have responsibilities that come with this status. (2) Where are we? We are in a good and beautiful world, the creation of the god in whose image we are made. We are not in an alien world. (3) What is wrong? Humanity has rebelled against the creator. This rebellion reflects a cosmic dislocation between the creator and the creation, and the world is consequently out of tune with its created intention. (4) What is the solution? The creator has acted, is acting, and will act within his creation to deal with the weight of evil set up by human rebellion, and to bring his world to the end for which it was made, namely that it should resonate fully with his own presence and glory. This action, of course, is focused upon Jesus and the spirit of the creator.
Or as Wright says in other places, God, through humanity, his created “project managers,” has begun, through Jesus Christ to bring an end to an old creation and bring into existence a new creation, one which will reflect all God’s purposes for the old creation which were spoiled because of the rebellion and fall.
A new creation. A creation which leads from “the garden of delight” to “the city of God.” A new reality, brought about by and through and for people, to the glory of God: people; men and women in creation.
Genesis 1: So what was the original design of God? We are told in Genesis, chapter 1, that God created humans, both males and females, and gave them orders to populate the earth, to subdue it to their good purposes and then together have lordly dominion over it. It was not, “You men, go subdue and have lordly dominion and you ladies stay home and populate.” The whole original purpose of God was that men and women should do all this as a co-equal, bi-unity, cooperatively, together, in mutuality. That was the original, good plan and women were only placed under men’s authority after the fall as a part of a curse, for their own protection when the world became an evil place! Mutuality was the original design of God.
That is the early story of God. There is plenty more to it, as Bible readers know, but eventually, the story moves to the place where God actually embodies, incarnates a human being in order to radically turn the story in a new direction, to begin to bring an end to the old creation. To establish the new creation.
Jesus the messiah, the king of all creation, ushered in a new creation which re-established the plan of God to bless all people and put an end to all systems of sin, evil and oppression.
This is important: everything changes with Jesus.
Women in Israel had been able to inherit, buy and sell land and other property and to make other binding oaths but as the synagogue had developed in Persia and afterward in Yehud/Judaea, the status of women had declined. Men sat in the front of the room in the synagogue but women sat behind a railing where they were supposed to “visit” quietly. They all sang psalms together but the women were never allowed to participate in the discussion of Torah, nor were they taught to read it.
The place of women changed radically in the new reign of King Jesus. We do not often notice but Wright does, in his Luke for Everyone: Mary of Bethany chooses the role of rabbinic student with Jesus as her instructor (ch. 10). When Martha, upset that her sister is sitting in the men’s part of the house, doing something only men have done, tries to get Mary back “where she belongs” in the kitchen, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen, what is for Mary, the better part. “And it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary of Bethany has chosen to sit quietly at the feet of a rabbi and learn Torah. She wants to assume a teaching office in the new creation. And it will not be taken away from her. The only other person in the New Testament, in Luke’s Acts, who sits at the feet of a rabbi is Saul/Paul who had sat at the feet of Rabban Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). To sit at the feet of a rabbi is to study to be a rabbi. And it will not be taken away…
Let’s go back up to 30,000 feet and look at the big story again. God created men and women to be mutual partners, to work together in everything. Women were placed under the authority of men because of the curse which “quick-fixed” the broken creation, but when Jesus came, he initiated a new creation in which, among many other things, women would stand shoulder to shoulder with men again in claiming all creation for Christ. It matters what story we tell.
Zooming down again, we should not be surprised to find that in Acts 9, when Saul went “breathing murderous threats,” he sought to arrest the leaders of the Christian groups (the Lord’s disciples) in Damascus, both men and women.
Which brings us to the new Saul, the one called Paul. In the early church the leadership he had wanted to arrest was male and female. And Paul, in (arguably) his earliest letter, Galatians, claimed that all the false distinctions, like slave and master; Jew and Greek; male and female, were null and void in King Jesus’ new creation (ch 3). Not that there were to be no more leaders and followers, no more people from Greece or people from Judaea, no more biological males and females. No, the false, “up-down” and “us-them” distinctions between these differences were shattered because Jesus had brought in a new creation.
Is that the story? Really? Then how are we to read Paul in I Corinthians 14 (and in Ephesians and I Timothy)?
Context. Once we know the 30,000 foot story we need to get the details right.
In I Corinthians 14:34-38, the issue is literary context. In Greek there is a mini-word, a small part of speech which shows up in the manuscripts just after where Paul dictates the words:
…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 [link with details].
The particle (a lone letter eta) in this case refers back to an immediate previous written passage and means what in our slang we mean when we say, Not! Or “You’re kidding, right!?” Paul uses this literary convention in this way in a number of places [link with more details].
In other words (and now we are seeking a historical construction which fits with both the 30,000 foot story and with the literary context) the people of Corinth had been having, for various reasons, rowdy and disorganized times of worship. As a result, at least one faction, writing to Paul, had blamed the problem on the fact that the old synagogue railing was gone and women were allowed to speak, to pray, to prophesy and to ask questions. This faction had submitted to Paul what I have sometimes called “The Corinthian Proposal:”
Make the women be quiet and have them ask questions at home, the way it is in the law (meaning: the way it is in the synagogues!) and then everything will be fine.
To this, Paul responds,
What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
(I Corinthians 14:36-38, R.S.V.)
Essentially, Paul quotes “The Corinthian Proposal” back to them in his letter and says (my paraphrase, below):
“You’ve got to be kidding? Who made you the interpreters of Torah? What I am telling you about how women should be free to prophesy (preach) and pray alongside of men (in I Corinthians 11) is a command from the Lord and anybody who tries to say otherwise shall be dismissed out of hand.”
And then, in verse 39, he goes on with another of the long series of topics he covers in this letter; subject closed, as if to say, “Do not even think about bringing this idea up again!”
In conclusion, I would suggest, if we faithfully translate the Greek of this passage as we find it in the earliest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts (even the most literal English translations simply ignore the Greek “disjunction conjunction” in this passage), we find Paul’s position on mutuality in preaching, teaching, praying and serving is consistent with the original plan of God in Genesis and with the new-creation agenda of King Jesus who by grace, makes all things new.
Tomorrow, Ephesians 5:22 and the issue of “headship.”
1 Back to Post Excerpted and abridged from N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1992) p. 132-133.
2 Back to Post Only the Revised Standard Version (National Council of Churches, 1946) includes the indignant “What!?” Almost every other translation just ignores the particle as though it was not there. Yet, they translate it in several other places in several letters where Paul uses the exact same construction (see links to details, above).