Before we try to apply a right hermeneutic to one of the passages in question, let’s apply its principles of authorial intent and audience need to the Bible as a whole. Allowing the literature to provide its answer of authorship, we understand the Scripture was written by God. Granted, there are huge questions that go with this statement (who is God? what does inspiration look like?, etc.), but for the sake of brevity (and regardless of what we think about it), we must understand from the text (see 2 Timothy 3:16 for an example) this ultimate ascription.
That determined (again, whether one agrees or not is not the point; we’re simply trying – from the text – to establish claimed authorship), what was God’s intention in inspiring/writing it? Based on numerous passages of Scripture, God’s ultimate goal seems to be revelation – the revealing of himself as author, creator, redeemer, savior – of those he claims to have created and for whom he takes responsibility. In other words, the authorial intent is that God wants people to know about him so people can know him.
Know him why? What do we understand from the text as to what the author claims his audience’s need is? There seem many possibilities: love, forgiveness, redemption, discipline, provision, care, etc. Without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing on one or more for now, if we rightly understand the overarching narrative that runs through the Bible – not just pulling out strange or confusing passages (we’ll deal with those later) – we recognize that, when it’s all said and done, 1) the author is telling one ultimate story; and 2) that story – like all the best stories (think Lord of the Rings) – is made up of many smaller stories that help tell it.
Now, with regard to Paul and the early church concerning women, what is the author’s (Paul’s/God’s) intent and the audience’s (people then and now) need? Some cultural background (taken from Dictionary of Paul and His Letters):
“Although some Greek and Roman women became philosophers, higher education in rhetoric and philosophy was usually reserved for men. In a society where most people were functionally illiterate (especially much of the Empire’s population), teaching roles naturally would fall on those who could read and speak well. Nearly all of our Jewish sources suggest that these roles were, with rare exceptions, limited to men.” (p. 589)
This in and of itself is descriptive, not prescriptive; in other words, just because the Greek and Roman cultures were like this does not mean it was right, nor that Paul/God endorsed it; it was simply (and sadly) reality. But what about Paul’s words about women in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence”? Doesn’t this line up with the same perspective held by the Greeks and Romans?
Here’s where our historical/cultural (I would argue “American”) prejudice I mentioned in my previous post comes in. In light of our preoccupation with/worship of freedom and free speech, we read Paul’s words as limiting, sexist, and (perhaps the biggest offender) un-American. But think about this with regard to the Timothy passage, as well as the other controversial passages on the topic (1 Corinthians 11 and 14):
“It was common in the ancient world for hearers to interrupt teachers with questions, but it was considered rude if the questions reflected ignorance of the topic. Since women were normally considerably less educated than men, Paul proposes a short-range solution and a long-range solution to the problem. His short-range solution is that the women should stop asking the disruptive questions; the long-range solution is that they should be educated, receiving private tutoring from their husbands.” (p. 590)
While feminists today would probably scoff at this as patronizing, we have to remember that, for the time, Paul was among the most progressive of ancient writers on the subject of a woman’s intellectual potential. The issue of “in silence” was not how just women were to learn; this would have been the way all novices were to learn, and characterizes the desired behavior of the whole church (1 Timothy 2:2).
What about the question of a woman teaching? Again, let’s consider the context of the audience’s need in Ephesus (the city in which Timothy was pastoring) and Paul’s intent as evidenced by the text in addressing it:
“Clues in the text indicate the following situation: male false teachers (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:17) have been introducing dangerous heresy into the ephesian church (1 Timothy 1:4-7; 6:3-5), often beginning by gaining access to its women, who would normally have been difficult to reach because of their greater restriction to the domestic sphere (2 Timothy 3:6-7). Because the women were still not well trained in the Scriptures, they were most susceptible to the false teachers and could provide a network through which the false teachers could disrupt other homes (1 Timothy 5:13; cf. 1 Timothy 3:11). Given Roman society’s perception of Christians as a subversive cult, false teaching that undermined Paul’s strategies for the church’s public witness could not be permitted.” (p. 591)
As I’ve already mentioned, Paul’s solution to dealing with these heresies was not to shut women up but to let women learn, which they did. So does that mean women should be free to teach? No and yes. F.F. Bruce writes in his NIV commentary:
“When, however, it comes to the matter of teaching, Paul’s tone becomes more authoritative. In addition to repeating his exhortation regarding ‘quietness,’ he declares categorically, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. This prohibition in no way contradicts Titus 2:2-3. It relates to teaching in the church in the presence of men and to the fact that authority in matters concerning the church is not committed to women. The apostle’s argument is founded on the initial relationship of man and woman.” (p. 1477)
In other words, Paul’s statement of the differences between the roles of man and woman is one of purpose, not of worth or order. This goes back to God’s original model in Genesis 2:18-24 (again, we have to remember to keep the smaller narratives within God’s larger, overarching narrative as the text claims he is the ultimate author), and I don’t find this model changed or repealed in the Scriptures since. As Jack Collins notes in his commentary on Genesis 1-4:
“Paul’s argument does not turn simply on the order in which they were made; otherwise the animals would be over man! Rather, the Genesis text itself declares a rationale for the woman: she is not the same as the man but complements him. For many people in the modern Western culture, this is sexist or discriminatory. This is because for them, to be equal means to have equal access to any role one aspires to…[but] simply to label something sexist because it sees a difference in men and women does not say anything worth saying, because nature itself is sexist in that sense (since men do not have access to child bearing). Rather, a more useful definition would be one that grounds any differences between men’s and women’s roles in different relative worth of men and women – and there is no evidence that the Bible employs such a rationale in its teaching.” (p. 141-142)
With regard to head coverings, we need to understand their purpose at the time and in the culture – to outwardly illustrate the aforementioned idea of women submitting to God in their role of complementing men. Should women have to wear head coverings today to do that? Based on our study, no – there are plenty of more culturally acceptable ways for women to demonstrate obedience to God’s purpose for them (not crying “sexist” would be one), so ladies, feel free to leave the head coverings at home.
Okay. We’ve tried to understand authorial intent and audience need with regard to Paul’s/God’s teaching about women in the church. If I were teaching my high schoolers, this would be where I assign a response essay; instead, I’ll just ask you to comment. What do you think?
I’ll try to deal with the Old Testament passages in question in another day or two.