Women in Ministry (Part Three)

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Chapter 14, Silencing the Blue Parakeet (1), and Chapter 15, Silencing the Blue Parakeet (2)

Regardless of the undeniable fact that women were active in ministry in the storyline of the Bible, there remain many Christians today who insist on silencing women in churches today.  This is usually due to two verses from Paul:

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 Corinthians 14:34-35)

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. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

In these two chapters, McKnight systematically deconstructs the silencing argument and pleads for the Church to allow women to play the roles for which God has equipped them.

The crux of McKnight’s argument is that inequality is a byproduct of the Fall and as redemptive people our goal is to reverse the curse not perpetuate it.  In so doing, this does become an excellent example of how adopting a narrative approach to Bible reading in which the Bible is one seamless Story of creation–fall–recreation (or “oneness–otherness–oneness” as McKnight likes to say it) becomes the interpretive key that guides how we discern the modern-day application of passages about gender roles in ministry.  McKnight appeals to these verses instead as illustrative of the redeemed state that started with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and that God strives for us to produce in our churches:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:16-18)

Is there maybe a more sinister motivation behind the silencing of women in our churches?

What we see in this desire to silence women is the desire to rule over women, a desire that pertains to the fall, not to the new creation.  What the Spirit does when the Spirit is present is to release and liberate humans from their fallen condition so that God’s will can be completely done.  The Spirit creates mutuality.  Always. (p.190)

In my experience, usually the limiting of female activity in ministry does not derive from a conscious desire to suppress and dominate (though I have met a few men that made me wonder).  It comes from a sincere desire to obey the commands of the Bible as they are perceived to apply in an interpretive model that is very literal and law-book oriented, does not consider the original context, and that places a great reverence on the traditions of a particular denomination.  While the motivation may not be sinister, as McKnight implies, the result is, if you concede that God’s desire is to liberate and redeem.

So, what was Paul saying?  He does seem to impose a degree of silence of women.  McKnight argues it was a special kind of temporary silence and to expand this to a universal, permanent silencing of all women is to go far beyond Paul’s intentions, the entire flow of the Bible towards liberation and redemption, and the evidence in the Bible itself.  McKnight unpacks his argument as follows:

  1. Making 1 Corinthians 14 says all women must be silent clearly contradicts 1 Corinthians 11 that says women were “praying and prophesying” in the Corinthian church.
  2. As 1 Corinthians 14:35 talks about women asking questions, it is most likely that these are women who are “not yet educated theologically or biblically as well as the men” (p.193) and likely only to keep from interrupting the worship time, the main idea in this chapter.  Thus, this is a temporary silencing only until these women are better educated religiously.
  3. Paul had utmost concern that the cause of the gospel be protected and that nothing Christians would do would compromise the attractiveness of the gospel (c.f., 1 Cor. 9:19-23).  For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:6 he tells women not to worship with uncovered, unkempt hair because this was the usual appearance of prostitute at the time.  If the women of your new movement look like prostitutes it is going to make your message suspect.  This premise can both help s understand what Paul was saying in the silencing passages, but it can also help us discern how to apply these passages in our egalitarian world today.  If a woman can run a Fortune 500 company or run for President, does the suppression of women in our churches actually work against the receptivity of the gospel in some cases?  It would seem so.
  4. McKnight anchors his understanding of the 1 Timothy 2 passage in a cultural revolution we know was happening in the major cities Roman empire, especially a place like Ephesus, the place where Timothy was working.  The “new Roman woman” movement encouraged women to express their freedom in immodesty, sexual aggression, extravagant dress, and outspokenness.  These women would have become more educated and would have been throwing off the traditional role of wife and mother.  Some argue there was an increase in abortion during this time, as childbearing worked against female liberation.
  5. Female dominance in worship contexts was especially prevalent in Ephesus where the Temple to the female Artemis was extremely popular and where women were the main religious attendants.  If a woman had converted to Christianity from this context, she would likely bring with her an expectation of dominance, even before she had learned the ways of Christ.  Thus, the silencing of women in 1 Timothy 2 is also a temporary suppression of the natural teaching and leadership impulses these new Roman women would have had until they learned (a word specifically used at the beginning of this passage) their new religion.
  6. 1 Timothy 5:11-14 supports that Paul has the new Roman woman movement in mind when writing Timothy.  Here the women of Ephesus are told to control their “sensual desires,” to avoid becoming busybodies, and to value childbearing and family life.  This may also help to explain the extremely hard to understand exhortation in 1 Timothy 2:15 that women will be saved by childbearing.
  7. Further more, the female dominance of the new Roman woman movement might also explain Paul’s reminder in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 that Adam was created before Eve.  Women in Ephesus would have had this reversed.  (I must say this is the one passage I wish McKnight had said more about.  Early McKnight argued that any good reading of the Bible as Story must look back to Genesis 1-2 for ideals.  It does seem that this is what Paul is doing in this passage; male leadership is based on the created order of men then women.  Maybe he is only countering one extreme by going the other way, but I would have liked to have heard more.)

So, McKnight concludes that it is best to understand the silencing passages within the context of their own books and the cultural background we know to be the case in the first century Roman Empire (in other words, pay attention to literary and historical context, the two most fundamental principles of any valid biblical interpretation).  Women were being silenced in Corinth and Ephesus only for a time in order to learn so as to enable these churches to advance the gospel as winsomely as possible.  Of course, these principles would also apply to religiously uneducated men too.

As a conclusion on the issue of women’s roles in ministry, McKnight says this:

You might ask me, “Why do you think we can expand the ministries of women?”  Very simply: the plot of the Bible, the story of the Bible, and the behaviors of women in that Plot and Story reveal to me an increasing expansion of women in church ministries.  Some of the restrictions were based on respectability and culture.  If those restrictions have changed, then I see no reason to limit the ministries of women to the sensibilities and cultures of that time. (p.204)

It is clear that McKnight thinks that culture — both the culture of the Bible and our own — drives how we understand and apply the Bible.  We must take the unchanging Story and apply it to the diverse, ever-changing cultures we live in.

Culturally shaped readings of the Bible and culturally shaped expressions of the gospel are exactly what Paul did and wanted.  That’s exactly what Peter and Hebrews and John and James and the others were doing.  Culturally shaped readings and expressions of the gospel are the way it has been, is, and always will be.  in fact, I believe that gospel adaptation for every culture, for every church, and for every Christian is precisely why God gave us the Bible.  The Bible shows us how. (p.206)

I am left asking one more question that McKnight does not address.  What if the cultural impediment to the gospel is something the Bible clearly says is wrong, as in homosexual behavior?  Do we change to accommodate even then, or is there a limit to cultural accommodation, say for instance when it compromises the gospel message?