Often, we forget that the epistles were written to specific churches with problems unique to those congregations. St Paul’s injunction against women having the pre-eminence over a man should be observed in the light of Corinth’s history.
At the time, Paul wrote his letter, Corinth was a bustling cosmopolitan center. Busy international trading ports often were meeting grounds for different cults and religions and so Corinth’s sophisticated inhabitants believed in one or more of many cults, religions and philosophies. More to the point, it was the center of the worship of the God Bacchus.
Devotees of Bacchus -- the Bacchantes-- believed in an ecstatic religion in which the spirit of the god usurped the spirit of the believer (with aid of alcohol and dancing) and brought ecstasy. The followers of Bacchus were primarily women. This led to a feeling that women were more open to the controlling of the God’s spirit.
Situated in Corinth, the Corinthian church could not help but be contaminated by its surroundings. Remember, this was the church that had to be told by St Paul that a man should not have sexual intercourse with his father’s wife. Paul had to rebuke the entire church because the church was glorying in what was their shame. (This error rose from Gnosticism in which the believers felt that the body was impure and the flesh pure, therefore whatever a person did with his own body was not sinful because the flesh could not contaminate the spirit. So in their minds, it was obvious that sex with a stepmother by a purely spiritual person was not sinful.) When word got around to Paul about this situation –the first letter Paul wrote about this situation is lost and the letter we know as I Corinthian is really the second letter, the II Corinthian letter is the third)-- St Paul had to remind the church that the body is the temple of God and that sin against the body does define the spirit.
But back to women and pre-eminence. Note that Paul only says this to the Corinthian church: Because women had such pre-eminence and special places in the Bacchus, it was only too
easy for these women –once converted-- to believe that they were somehow more connected to God than the men in the congregation. They were also prone to be a little on the wild side
whenever God’s Holy Spirit descended on them. Seeing all this confusion, Paul had to set the church and the women straight. In his letter, he told these new converts that the spirit of the
believer was subject to the believer...(Plain and simply, these women couldn’t say that they were taken over in ecstasy.) He reminded them that all things should be done decently and in order. (Just in case these women really started going over the edge.) And he kept them to keep their heads covered. (The Bacchantes danced head uncovered and sometimes topless.) He also had to remind them of two more things. God’s own definition of love and Jesus’ death in the flesh. The gnostics among them kept claiming that Jesus only seemed to die. St Paul had to do his best to keep the culture out of the church.
What Paul actually meant by “I don’t want women to have pre-eminence over a man” is not easily comprehensible to modern Bible readers. For one thing, we don’t know what he was actually talking about. Was he talking about worship-leaders? Preachers? Bishops? Phillip, if you remember, had seven daughters who were prophetesses. In the old testament, Deborah was willing to submit under Barak, but he was such a coward, she did his job. The first person God entrusted to preach the good news of His resurrection was Mary Magdalene, a women. St Paul tells us that Eve was deceived and not Adam implying that women could be deceived in their preaching. And yet, in writing to another congregation, The Colossians, –who were not as New Age flaky as the Corinthians, Paul said, “In Christ, there is no male or female.” In certain instances sex and gender is important. But is preaching one of them?
Let’s face it: we live in a time when many male preachers are deceived and cowardly. But we also live in a time too when anti-male bias exists in the media who use words like patriarchal as if patriarchy was something terribly old-fashioned and bad. We live in a time, when this bias against men also affects spirituality– All those “God is a woman” and Gaia spirituality popping up everywhere. And we also live in a world where much of our Bible interpretation is hampered because, for centuries, men –usually white men-- are the ones interpreting and preaching the story. For instance, would Michal or Hagar or the much-divorced Samaritan woman at the well have been treated so shabbily in Christian sermons if women were interpreting her story? Surely, we would have been more compassionate and understanding about the cases of women who were so easily dumped because of the middle eastern rules on divorce?
The question of women preaching is a complicated one. But I believe love, discernment, and God's call is the answer: not what a person’s sex is. The most famous part of this letter is what Christians commonly refer to as the Love Chapter. Love was very important to the early church. St James calls love, “the royal law.” St John writes a gospel and three letters and makes love and fellowship the key point. This is St Paul’s doctrine of love. The love chapter itself is clear enough. We're told what love is, what love does and does not do, the powers and virtues of love.
St Paul makes sure that the world’s idea of spirituality doesn’t taint his converts in the Corinthian church. He differentiates between what the world’s (Bacchus and the gnostics and the
stoics) idea of spirituality is and then he tells them what the truly godly gifts are. But lest they boast –as this church was prone to arguments and comparing spirituality-- he further tells the Corinthian church that it is not enough to have faith to remove mountains or to speak with angelic or human languages or even to give all one's goods to feed the poor or to have all kinds of spiritual gifts even such wonderful gifts as healing. None of this makes a person spiritual.
The key to true spirituality is love. Paul tells us that in the end, Faith, Hope and Love will be the only things that last. And the greatest of these is Love. A true preacher loves God and loves people. And the plain fact is that many are called and many people are preaching. It was a woman -- Mother Theresa-- who brought the love of Christ to the dying poor in India. She did not preach in the "semantic sense." But she brought the love of Christ. So far, no man has taken up the cross to take care of these poor. Perhaps there are places where men --like Barak-- refuse to go. If that is so, then God will use women. Anyway, at this point in history --the endtimes when we are all called to share the gospel-- it seems kind of stupid to forbid women from publishing the Word of God. Even stupider for women to give up ministries they might have created simply because they have the wrong sexual organs. I therefore say: Let the man or woman of love and discernment preach! And forbid them not.
The comments amused me,honestly. Thanks for writing the article!! Men, don't get frightened when God calls women into preaching... Get frightened when he calls you to be Bishops! :-) My credo is: It is our DUTY !! to proclaim the Gospel and this leaves a lot of "room" for men and women to preach and teach and share the word of God. Don't be frigthened to open your mouths, ladies, and get the word out and particularly if you have words of wisdom to share. And, Gentlemen, I have come across far too many reluctant Christian men who don't want to open their mouths for Jesus at all. So get out there and tell the world about your joy in the Lord and don't put women down who are bold and caring enough to do so if you can't even get moving at all. I pray for more discerning Christians to rise up and carefully listen to all words spoken in the name of God. Wether these teachings come from men or women, bishops, pastors or Sunday school teachers. P.S. I am a woman! :-)
Hate to break it to you, but you've left out a whole lot of doctrine on this topic. Both from the OT and the NT. Suffice it to say that ALL Christians are 'proclaimers' of the Word (Matt. 28) but ONLY MEN are supposed to hold the posts of Bishop, Pastor, Deacon. You neglected to check Titus 2, which is very specific about the roles w/in the church. Jesus himself did NOT sanction women in leadership roles OVER men...and Paul backs him up in at least two epistles. Many of the women in the Bible who stepped out of line with God in the OT/NT wound up DESTROYED. Do NOT try to use 'social permission' to justify sin. That's why the church is weakened NOW!
Good article, very clear and concise. You write with a good strong voice.
One thing I would question though is that Paul speaks of women not preaching not just in corinthians (1Tim. 2:11-12)
I would also caution againt interpreting scripture through a cultural anthropological lense. We cannot just re-define what authors might have written because of certain cultural factors that affected the times.
However I think that there is more than meets the eye in Paul's instructions and it is a great challenge that must be taken with prudence. I think your article reflected that prudence and I commend you for that.
Reading ‘doctrine’ based upon social norms of the time bothers me. What this writer is saying (or so it appears to me) is that this instruction was given specifically to the recipient of the letter and does not apply to us today. (Am I wrong?) How much, then, of the epistles is directed to individuals or individual churches of the time, and how much applies to us today? How can we tell which parts apply to which audience?
Do we say that all the epistles apply to only those to whom they are addressed and, therefore, have no relevance to us today and should, probably, not even have been included in our Bible. Or do we say (naively or otherwise) that ALL SCRIPTURE IS GOD BREATHED and is there for our instruction etc.
Is this, perhaps, the end times that we are warned about where there will be a lot of false teaching and false teachers? Many will go (or be led) through the wide gate to destruction.
I personally believe that we should use the Bible as our FIRST source of reference and be very weary of teaching which relies upon ‘how things were at the time of writing’. If we believe (as I have read from some ‘teachers’ of the word) that Christ changed, or removed, much of the law from the OT, and what we read (in articles similar to this one) that the epistles were meant only for those to whom they were addressed then we have no OT and no epistles which leaves us with only the gospels. Not much of a Bible to go on. Not much of a Bible to build ones faith on.
You have written a well-thought-out article and one that deals compassionately, intelligently, and historically and scripturally sound article (lots of adjectives here but I couldn't think of a better way to say it).
When anyone raises the question, in question, I think about Corrie ten Boom. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and who could ever doubt God's call and anointing on this woman's life and ministry? That there are others, many of them, I am sure, but I love her so much she comes first to mind.
On another hand, with the issue of a woman holding the office of pastor I might contend, but I do allow (albeit somewhat reluctantly) for freedom of individual conscience in interpretation of scripture on that subject.
I really appreciated this very good article.
You provide a nice bit of background and context for this topic...one I'm actually struggling with in my new church. On a personal level, I find it difficult to accept, particularly since preachers and deacons are meant to minister to the whole congregation--not just the male portion.
Another difficulty for me is that the apostles (according to scripture) and later church figures all seem to have been more conservative in regard to their views of women's capacity to serve than did the focus of our faith--Jesus.
But I digress...thank you for sharing such an interesting and informative piece.
Todd: In the Bible, bishops were over a group of home churches. Now, dpending on the denominations, a bishop is over one church or a city. In Paul's lists of spiritual gifts, he differentiates between preachers and other church leaders. This article was on preaching, not on bishops, another question entirely and not one dealt with in this article. not interpretation but a matter of semantics.
Paul also deals with this issue in Timothy. In 1 Timothy Chapter 3 on the qualifications of Elders and Bishops, (Pastors). He tells Timothy that they should be a man of one wife. This leaves little room for interpretation on Gender.