Is there a problem?

(1) Is There

a Problem?


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 Corinthians 14:34-35)

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.

                                                                        (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

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 Biblical principles.

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 believers.

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.

When looking at the New Testament we should note practices approved by the inspired writers as well as direct teaching. Of key importance is the attitude of Jesus, especially in contrast to attitudes taken by others in New Testament times. His teaching, attitudes and practice are fundamental to the position accorded to men and women in the early Christian ecclesias.

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