Two problem passages for egalitarians

A couple of posts ago, I noted how Complimentarians (in my view) ignore many parts of scripture, but put great weight upon a couple of verses in the epistles. Now interpreting the epistles need to be done thoughtfully. We are reading other people's mail, and we need to carefully consider whether an instruction to a particular church addressing a particular issue, or whether something is a universal principle. The whole context of scripture is there to help us in this task. I have extracted some thoughts below from an absurdly long earlier blog post to highlight these "problem verses", and how egalitarian theologians might interpret them.

Problem passage 1: I Corinthians 14

1. I Corinthians 14:29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

Possible egalitarian explanations:

Given that Paul went on at length about what women should wear on their heads when praying of prophesying publicly in chapter 11, one plausible explanation is that the “speaking” he is forbidding is “asking questions of their husband”. It seems the church in Corinth was noisy and chaotic, and he felt that one person should be speaking at a time. It may be that the church in Corinth adopted the seating patterns of the synagogue, where the women would all sit at the rear and the men would all sit at the front. If this is the case, the “asking questions of their own husbands” would involve more than disruptive murmuring, it would involve yelling across the room! Paul is concerned that the gatherings of believers should be conducted in a “fitting and orderly way” (14 vs. 40)

Another explanation is that 14 vs. 34 – 35 are a direct quote from the Corinthians letter to Paul, and his response in vs. 36 is sarcastic. (The Q and A section of the Corinthian letter begins in Ch. 7:1 “Now for the matters you wrote about:” and continues for much of the remainder of the letter.) Ancient Greek had no punctuation: no full stops, commas, quotation marks, or even gaps between words in the first century! Translators therefore look for “cues” to work out where punctuation marks might be.

A technical paper for “The Bible Translator” by Daniel C Arichea (1995) suggests that there are indeed “cues” suggesting quotation in verses 34 and 35, and that the following translation is quite legitimate if this is the case:

Some of you say, “Women should be silent in the churches, because they are not permitted to speak. As the Jewish law says, they should be subordinate to men. If there is anything they want to know, they should wait until they get home and then ask their husbands. It is shameful for women to speak in church”.

What kind of thinking is that? You are acting as if the word of God came from you! And you men, don’t ever think that you are the only ones who received this word!

Whether or not this is correct, I Corinthians 14 needs to be read in the light of I Corinthians 11:5, where women are instructed to wear head coverings while praying or prophesying. This would imply Paul either dismissed the suggestion women should be silent outright, or forbade disruptive questions to husbands, rather than forbidding the “praying or prophesying” addressed in chapter 11.

Problem Passage 2: I Timothy 2

2. I Timothy 2:11 A woman (or wife) should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; (a husband) she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women (she) will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

A possible egalitarian explanation:

The pagan belief at Ephesus was that Artemis was the dominant goddess. Some have suggested she created a partner and had children, but was superior to him. Artemis was the goddess to whom women prayed to keep them safe in childbirth. It is possible uneducated pagan women may be talking in these terms, and are in fact the “false teachers” and perpetrators of “old wives tales” berated in chapter 4.

In a direct counter to the myths surrounding Artemis, Paul reminds them that Adam was created first, then Eve, that women should not have authority over a man (as Artemis did) and that faith in Christ (not Artemis) would keep women safe in childbirth. The women causing trouble should shut up and learn Christian doctrine. (You may recall the riot in Acts 19 where Paul is seen to be disturbing faith in Artemis)."Authentein" (authority) is used only here in the NT and has an uncertain meaning. Instead of meaning "to have authority over man" it may mean "to be the originator or author - more literally perpetrator - of man. So the verse might be read as, "I do not permit a woman to teach that woman created man". Whether this is correct, "Authentein" had quite negative connotations at the time (usurping, domineering, even murderous) in extra-biblical sources. It became more "neutral" by about the 4th c, just meaning authority generally (not that Paul would have known this in the middle of the first century!)

Egalitarians therefore tend to view this passage as a counter to a heresy perpetrated by some women, who needed to learn true Christian doctrine. These women are the “false teachers” Paul writes about in chapter 4, and he is directing they should be quiet and learn correct teaching. This is the simplest way to explain the fact Paul commended many women in public ministry in other letters: it is not that he changed his mind about women speaking in the church (I Corinthians 11:5), but that he was addressing a particular problem.

For N.T. Wright's perspective on this passage, and his insight into the radical nature of permitting women to be learners/educated in the 1st century world into which Paul is writing, see here


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