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I’ve kept debating on whether to post this 3 part series. I know it will be too detailed for some people. And even though the issue of women in ministry is a big one for me, I don’t want it to take over my blog. (If I were to start blogging on it regularly, I’d start a separate blog – so don’t worry!) But here it goes…

In this 3 part series I will address how to “harmonize” Paul’s teaching on women’s participation in church services as set forth in 1 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; and 14:34-35. These three passages can seem to conflict…Must women be silent or can they participate? Which is it?  Essentially, there are 3 possible ways to harmonize these verses. The first view strictly limits the participation of women, the second is a more moderate view, and the third gives women full freedom to use their gifts in the church. [My view is the third one.] In this first post, I will present the first option and my critique of it.

I don’t like the word conflicting by the way, but it is the simplest way to word it. I really don’t think Paul was conflicting with himself! That wouldn’t make sense. Since we are reading letters written to churches or individuals 2,000 years after the fact, there are particulars and details that we are not aware of and educated assumptions must be made.

I  think a reason that there seems to be some mixed signals on the role of women in the New Testament is that Jesus changed everything by treating women as equals. And as the early church tried to implement this new freedom for women, there was naturally some struggle because it was counter-cultural. Change typically brings tension. Some women may have taken their new found freedoms too far, and needed some remedial instruction and reminders.

The first way to harmonize these verses…would be the strict viewpoint that women are always to be silent in the church (church services) and only permitted to teach, pray or prophesy around other women or children. This view can be clearly seen in William MacDonald’s commentary*. The commentary note on 1 Corinthians 11:5 explains that since other passages (1 Cor.14:34; 1 Tim.2:12) teach that women are to be silent in the church, that 1 Corinthians 11:5 cannot mean that women are able to pray and prophesy in church meetings. MacDonald states that the praying in this verse must refer to women praying silently and the prophesying in reference would only occur around other women (Titus 2:3-5) or children in the Sunday school. [1]

This method of harmonizing these texts imposes 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12 on to the 1 Corinthians 11 passage. This is problematic for several reasons. For one, it is a strange type of interpretation that changes the praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:4 which involves men into something different in the next verse (11:5) when it involves women. The words are used in the same way in each verse. There is no exegetical reason for the praying and prophesying in verse four to be vocal, and the praying or prophesying in verse five to be silent (or only around women and children).

In addition, if 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are imposed on 1 Corinthians 11:5, then they must also be imposed on a multitude of other verses. For example, several verses in 1 Corinthians chapter 14 (verses 23,24, 26,31) use inclusive language (all, everyone) in regards to verbal participation in the church services in regards to prophesying, tongues, sharing psalms, teaching, revelation and interpretation. Evangelical scholar Gordon Fee summarizes in regards to I Corinthians 11 that:

the text is quite clear that women were regular participants in the praying and prophesying that were part of the worship in churches under Paul’s oversight.

And Fee further summarizes regarding the aforementioned verses in 1 Corinthians 14 that:

No distinction is made between men and women in these matters…all means what we should expect it to mean: that women and men alike participated in verbalized expressions of worship in the early house churches. [2]

MacDonald’s commentary also refers to Titus 2:3-5 as evidence that women should only utilize their gifts around other women or children. While it is admirable to work with other women or children, the Titus passage itself in no way infers that this is a strict limitation and the only way they can use their gifts. This would again conflict with verses that use inclusive language for the involvement of men and women in the church services, as well as conflict with actual examples of women in ministry in the New Testament.

For example, women hosted house churches and were referred to as co-workers by Paul. It would seem rather odd that a woman could host a church in her home, and then be forbidden to participate beyond providing tea and cookies! Could she speak to offer someone tea? (Okay – I am being snarky!)  The list of women in Romans 16 is also impressive. The position of Phoebe can be translated as deacon and Junia as an apostle. While some may debate that, a variety of verses imply or infer that women were using their gifts around both men and women and to help the church as a whole. Galatians 3:28 also comes to mind. Yes, that verse is NOT about spiritual gifts or service in the church – but it is about the inclusive nature of the Christian faith. It seems odd that Christianity would throw open the doors to everyone – even lesser people in society such as slaves and women – and then severely restrict them in the church.

Furthermore, the sequestering off of women limits the perspective and ministry of the church. Women and men together reflect the image of God. How can a church service properly reflect God, when half the image of God is unable to participate?

Part 2: here.

[1] William MacDonald. Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 601.

[2] Ronald W. Pierce, and others, eds. Discovering Biblical Equality (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005), 148.

* Please note that while I am critical of William MacDonald’s commentary on the issue of women, it is otherwise a very worthwhile commentary that I recommend! It is a commentary for your “everyday” person and it has great explanatory thoughts on the Scriptures.