Should women be allowed to speak in Church?
It may seem like a strange question to ask in a denomination where women are ordained as ministers and where we have quite a number of women lay preachers.
For some of us it may seem like a archaic practice to suggest that woman can’t speak or preach in church. But in some church communities and denominations it is in fact quite a contemporary issue.
Having arrived in Northern Ireland, I discovered that there are in fact quite a large number of denominations and Christians who do not allow women to preach or to be ordained in this part of the world, although it is still the case in certain sectors of South African Church life too.
But clearly, for quite a number of people of faith living in contemporary Northern Ireland, this is a big issue and a big question:
Should women be allowed to speak in Church?
How one answers that question reveals quite a lot about how one understands and interprets the Bible.
All those who do not allow women to preach would appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
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.
It sounds pretty straight forward doesn't it? Why should any of us have a problem with such a verse. How or why do some denominations like our own allow women to speak and preach? Some might ask the question: Aren’t we disobeying a clear instruction from Scripture? And who gives us the right to pick and choose what verses we want to follow and what verses we don't want to follow?
But what many who read the Bible uncritically don’t recognise however, is that if this verse is taken at face value, as the clear and unadulterated Word of God, within the same book or letter of 1 Corinthians, they already face a contradiction, namely, 1 Corinthians 11:5, which indicates that women were “praying and prophesying” in the church, and yet Paul does not criticise or rebuke them for doing so, he simply gives them a cultural bound instruction that they should do so wearing a head-covering, a topic that is probably worthy of a sermon of its own. But on the issue of women speaking in church, there is a clear contradiction between Corinthians chapter 11 and chapter 14.
In addition, in other portions of Paul’s letters, Paul refers to a number of woman as his fellow workers in spreading the good news of Christ.
At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul refers to a number of women. Three in particular stand out:
- Priscilla who he calls his fellow-worker in Christ, and who he interestingly mentions ahead of her husband Aquila.
- Phoebe who he refers to with the title, diakonos, a word that is most often translated as minister in the KJV and that Paul uses in other places to refer to himself,
- as well as Junia, who he refers to as being outstanding among the apostles, in other words, referring to her as one who was regarded as an apostle.
In addition, the Samaritan women at the well is regarded by many as the Bible’s first evangelist or preacher, as she rushes back into town, saying to them, “Come and see the man who told me everything about myself.”
What some have suggested is that none of these women in Paul’s letters could have held positions of authority in the Church if there was a universal understanding that women were meant to remain silent in Church and only speak with their husbands when arriving home.
And so how then can one understand these verses in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, about women remaining silent in church, if they contradict 1 Corinthians 11:5 in the same letter, as well as the fact that Paul refers to a number of women holding positions of authority within the Churches founded by him?
Scholars and Theologians have given at least 3 possible perspectives:
1. Some suggest that these verses are an interpolation by a later copyist or scribe. In other words, they were added later by someone else and are not in fact the words of Paul. This is backed up by the fact that there is a contradiction within the same letter. There are quite a large number of scholars who have held this view.
2. Some suggest that in these verses, Paul is dealing with a very specific situation in the Corinthian community and his instructions about woman remaining silent were not meant to be a universal instruction for Christians in all times and all places. But this in itself is a strange suggestion when just three chapters before, Paul contradicts this very teaching by having no problem with women praying of prophesying in the church at Corinth.
3. A Third suggestion, and one that I find quite compelling is that Paul is quoting a practice within the Corinthian Church that he in fact does not agree with. The very letter of 1 Corinthians is a written response by Paul to a letter he had received with various issues and questions posed to him from within the Corinthian community. From this perspective, Paul quotes from the letter he has received about what is happening in the Corinthian Church, much like someone who is responding to an email today might cut and paste a section of an email they have received and then proceed to respond to it.
From this perspective, in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, rather than being Paul’s own words and opinion, he has cut and pasted the words and opinions from the Corinthian community themselves and then proceeds to respond.
The clue comes in the form of a little Greek word at the beginning of verse 36. The word “é” (ay). It is a word that could have different meanings. Normally it is translated as ‘Or’ as in the NIV, but it is also a word which, according to Liddell-Scott-Jones Definitions, is also used in Greek as a negation, or an "expletive of disassociation" such as the English, "Rubbish!" or "Nonsense!" or "Get out of here!”.
From this perspective, Paul is dismissing the teaching that women should remain silent in church as rubbish, or nonsense.
With this translation of the word “é” verse 34-36 begins to read as follows:
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. Rubbish! (or Nonsense!), did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
What a different perspective this gives to these words. Suddenly these verses begin to take on the completely opposite meaning. Rather than suggesting that women should remain silent in Church, Paul is regarding such teaching as rubbish, nonsense, and something that the Corinthian Christians have made up themselves. This is seen even more clearly where, contrary to verse 34, there is no law in the Old Testament that says that woman are not allowed to speak but must remain silent and in submission.
No wonder in verse 36, Paul asks them if the word of God originated with them or if they are the only one it has reached? He is accusing them of making up their own laws and claiming they are found in their Scriptures.
Isn't it amazing how the original meaning of a passage has been totally lost for almost 2000 years, simply because of possible mis-translation of a little Greek word “é”. From this perspective, for 2000 years, right up to this day, and right across the world, including Northern Ireland, a large number of Christian Churches and denominations have excluded women from preaching, ordination and roles of authority because they have read Paul’s letter incorrectly.
I guess it might raise the question: What else have we maybe got wrong in the past 2000 years of the Church’s life and history?