Is there a problem?
(1) Is There
For those, like ourselves, who
take the Bible as our guide to doctrine and conduct there are two passages in
the New Testament which appear at first sight to state clearly the position of
sisters in the ecclesia in relation to brothers.
As in all
the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For
they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law
says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at
home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1
woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or
to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.
These two texts, when translated as above and read in isolation,
appear to give straightforward instructions and they are therefore frequently
quoted to define female roles within the ecclesia. Yet 1 Corinthians 11 speaks
approvingly of sisters speaking in the meeting in prayer and prophecy. How can
the command for silence in chapter 14 be reconciled with the approval of
sisters speaking in chapter 11? People seek to harmonise the apparent
differences in various ways. We shall consider these in detail, but many other
passages also have a bearing on the issue. A proper assessment of New Testament
teaching must take account of all of the evidence. Since the New Testament
refers back to sections of the Old, and since various Old Testament passages
are used to argue for the silence of sisters, it will also be relevant to
examine Old Testament teaching.
The role of sisters in the ecclesia is a vexed question for at
least two reasons. Firstly, the above two passages appear to present a
different picture from many others in the New Testament. Secondly, the teaching
that women should keep silent seems a strange denial of the God-given abilities
which many sisters undoubtedly possess. Our community would benefit
considerably if sisters were permitted to speak and teach. Many would agree,
except that they consider this is forbidden by Scripture.
The fact that sincere brothers
and sisters examine the Bible and arrive at different conclusions on this issue
is an indication that Scriptural teaching is not straightforward. It is
necessary to evaluate each passage in its context, something which is not easy
to do. It is also necessary to decide which passages are key passages and which
are subsidiary. This decision will influence the conclusion reached. We will
attempt to examine all the issues adequately, and where it is difficult to
judge the meaning of a particular passage we will seek to follow general, clear
The accompanying picture
demonstrates that things are not always as obvious as they seem at first sight.
Is this drawing a white vase with a black background, or two people facing one
another with a white wall behind? How we answer depends on how we view the
picture and we can alter this by deliberate selection. The same applies to the
role of sisters: we can deliberately select the evidence to argue for their
silence or for the reverse.
Selection is often made
unconsciously according to background, upbringing and experience. There is a
long history of anti-women attitudes among church writers, and these have
influenced the way texts have traditionally been translated and interpreted.
Our intention in this study is to examine the Biblical material in its context,
and to demonstrate how the Bible can and should be understood to favour the
active participation in all aspects of ecclesial life by all who are faithful
Not infrequently texts are given a stronger weighting on either
side of the issue than they can carry. We will attempt to avoid this, but
readers can judge for themselves whether we are successful.