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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Should women speak in church?

This continues on my blog sampling of journal articles after I binged on periodicals at the library this weekend.

This article was interesting: "The Social Matrix of Women's Speech at Corinth: The Context and Meaning of the Command to Silence in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36" by Terence Paige (Houghton College) published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.2 (2002) 217-242.

1 Corinthians 14:33-36 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?

If you are like me then you have probably always viewed these verses a bit suspiciously - they just seem very odd! Well, Terrence Paige has a new proposal for these verses. Here is the abstract from the article:

A reexamination of Greek and Roman culture highlights women's positive role in religion, as Paul also grants, as well as the nuanced but guarded interactions between the sexes. Paul's injunction to women in 1 Cor 14:34-35 was meant to prevent casual interaction between married women and non-family men in the context of worship, not to prevent sacral speech. This behavior was seen as sexually aggressive, bringing shame on these women and the church in society's eyes. (217)

It is a good article, and I appreciated Paige's interaction with the culture to which Paul is directing his comments - particularly the Greek culture. Paige's project is to demonstrate that it would not be proper for women to be interacting/speaking in public because it was socially unacceptable in that day. He particularly focuses on married women, who were to be seen and not heard (and not even seen all that often) in the ancient Greek culture - and he also suggests that this is still the case in modern Greece. Says Paige:

To speak with a man was almost tantamount to making a sexual advance on him; it crossed the social boundary set up around modes and virtuous women, especially married women (227)

Paige cites Plutarch, second century AD:

Not only the virtuous woman's forearm should be withheld, but not even her speech should be public, and she ought to guard her voice from [being heard] by outsiders, regarding this with the same shame that she would if she were stripped naked before them, for her emotion, character, and disposition are seen by her talking. (228)

Paige applies his thoughts to the specific situation in Corinth:

One can see Paul's concern with behavior at the worship meetings in Corinth. Everyone in the neighborhood of the house that sponsored the church meeting knew that something was going on there...The behavior of the women in the assembly was being observed and noted, not only by their fellow believers, but by neighbors and all to whom their gosspi should come, including in some cases the non-Christian husbands of these women (cf. 1 Cor 7:13-14) (240)

What would the conclusion drawn by these nosey neighbors???

Conservative Mediterranean society would surely have labeled the behavior of these women "shameful," like that of an adulteress or a "loose" woman. Paul is concerned for the honor of the women, the women's families, the church meetings, and their host-patron (in whose house the assembly met), and the reputation of the gospel itself. Some gossip-provoking elements may have been unavoidable - such as the hours at which they met - but other elements of the meetings could be controlled so as to fit with societal norms for honorable behavior. (240)

Paige concludes:

Women's leadership is not the issue; rather, it is modesty and honorable behavior...Whatever the intentions of the Corinthian women may have been, Paul sees the effect as dangerous. They are violating the cultural boundaries between married men and women, and this is about to bring shame on them, on the church, and on the gospel. (241)

Good article. For sure.

One question that I have, however, is why does Paul direct women to talk with their husbands? If Paige's thesis is correct, then women's Bible studies would probably be one of the preferred outlets of discussion. Why doesn't Paul say something like, "It isn't proper for women to speak in church, so they really oughta get together and hash things out amongst themselves...oh, yea, and maybe run some things by their husbands every once in a while." Get the idea? If Paige's thesis is correct then why does Paul introduce the whole idea of submission? If the issue is simply one of the context, then why does Paul bring up the hubby?

Despite my questions regarding Paige's thesis, there is no doubt that this is a well argued and informative article. And I certainly hold that Paul's command about the "properness" of women speaking in the church at that time was a culturally directed command.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Thought I would also pass on that there is a buzz of discussion on 1 Timothy 2. (Verse 12 = "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.")

Here is the link:

Jonathan Erdman said...

Another good link on 1 Timothy 2:

ktismatics said...

Paul brings out the big guns when he justifies the submission of women. It's disgraceful, it's contrary to the Law, it's part of God's curse after the Fall, and so on. It kind of reminds me of Bush justifying the war in Iraq: they've got WMDs, Saddam is pals with Bin Laden, yadayada. He really wanted to invade Iraq, and he thought these arguments would sell it. Even after the evidence demonstrated the near-zero likelihood of WMDs and al-Qaida linkage, supporters of Bush said things like, "Well, it was still a good idea to oust that evil genocidal dictator, and would you rather have him still in power?" But maybe the decision to invade was just a bad idea regardless of rationale.

So: Paul uses whatever rationales he can to get the "right thing" to happen; i.e., keep women from positions of teaching and authority. And then it turns out this was a bad idea regardless of rationale. Not only was Paul succumbing to social pressure to do the wrong thing, but he was using his apostolic authority and that of the Scriptures to justify it. Shame on him.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think both scenarios beg the question of context.

Bush has always maintained that it was the right decision "given the information available at the time." When he makes this statement he is directing us to the context within which the decision was made. Of course, we can debate Bush's claim till the cows come home (to use a (mid)western expression).

With Paul I don't think it was the wrong decision based on the context to tell women to be silent in the church. If the above view of Paige is correct (or close to correct) then that means that a woman's interaction with the opposite gender would have been perceived by the ancient Mediteranean world as inapporpriate or even seductive.

Surely you, of all people, can appreciate exhortations that are made within a particular social/cultural context/setting??? No?

(By the way I give you a star for a clever analogy. As if the gender issue were not controversial enough you have found a way to highten the tension by introducing current political debate!)

ktismatics said...

Thanks very much. This is a prohibition in the church. I wonder what the neighbors would've thought when they heard people speaking in tongues and prophesying in there? And what about violating the kosher food laws? Paul doesn't seem all that squeamish about violating certain taboos -- why this one? And he invokes the Law. And he invokes shame and disgrace for the women who speak, not for the men who don't speak against the local customs.

I think Paul really believed what he was saying here. If it was a cultural thing, I don't see evidence in the text that Paul thought of it in terms of cultural relativity. Throw in the I Timothy reference and it really seems like Paul believes what he's saying. In my day the evangelical seminaries taught this as the absolute Word of God.

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