Because life is a series of edits

Women and Head Coverings

In Thought on June 4, 2008 at 7:47 am

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.

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  1. Great post…a couple of things I had not considered before. One thing that has really helped me with these passages, and I wanted to post here, was to remember the genre of what we are reading, as you reminded us yesterday.

    The letters to Timothy, for example, are just that: letters. Not only that, but they are between Paul and arguably his most trusted apostolic delegate. There is a lot of a shared knowledge between them through years of ministry and instruction together. So when Paul writes 1 Timothy, he is not setting out to give a theology of women in the church: Timothy is going to do that (or Paul when he gets there). Rather, he is simply reminding Timothy of the salient points he was to make sure he communicates to address the particular issues that may come up in his absence.

    Remembering this really helps me to not read it like it is a theology textbook, which I often do. Because it isn’t. The apostle John notes in 20:30-31 that there were many, many other things that Jesus did, but the events he described and recorded were done so with a particular pastoral purpose. Paul is no different, and nor is any biblical author.

    1 Corinthians is the same way, where Paul is directly confronting the “wise” Corinthians who think they are the most “spiritual” because of their “outward signs” of belief. And Paul commends them to some extent; but he also humbles them by pointing out that they still have a lot to learn, and a lot to apply from what they have already learned.

    One other important fact for me in these passages regarding women is that both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 are in the context of worship services (1 Timothy the “call to prayer” is most likely, I think, a worship service, or at the very least, a gathering to pray). That is to say, Paul not talking about life in general, at least in these passages. So we should be careful how and when we apply these passages, and not make more prescriptive than Paul did.

    Lastly, if one is going to examine Paul’s view of women in the church, let’s examine all of his writings. For example, Paul clearly expects in 1 Corinthians 11 that women are praying during the worship service! (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why your quote above the Dictionary of Paul and his letters notes that this is not a blanket statement of silence, but a particular call to silence because of a particularly disruptive practice). Paul also entrusts women such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1) with valuable partnership in his ministry.

    This is just a brief set of thoughts I have been pondering for a while…but I hope it still contributes to the discussion.

  2. Very helpful, Dan. I appreciate your comment about the genre being informal (letters) and especially the reminder that Paul is speaking about worship within the church and the marriage/family relationship; outside of these contexts, it would seem neither Paul nor God speaks against any particular role for women. In a country like ours, women can and should feel free to lead out in business, education, and politics – there’s no problem with a woman being President (though as of Obama’s securing enough delegates last night, I doubt it’s going to happen in 2008).

  3. I appreciated your perspective and insights offered to this often confusing passage. If I may be so bold, I’d like to take a moment to share some additional information which has helped in my understanding and interpretation of this passage.

    First, I have found it helpful to remember that Paul is dealing with a first generation church. In America, we are so used to the congregants being primarily churched that we often fail to realize when the Biblical text is addressing issues due to the fact that all (or at least a large majority) are very new believers.

    Temple prostitution plays a big part in this passage. As I recall, the words translated “authority over” actually have a sexual connotation in the Greek. In addition, it was the practice in the pagan temples to go and ask questions of the temple priest or priestess–like should I invest in this business or another, or will it rain soon, etc. Since the women in the Corinthian church had this as their primary experience of worship practice, Paul simply says “until you better understand how the worship of Yahweh is different from your pagan experiences, keep silent.”

    Also important to interpreting the text is the last part of verse 10 in I Cor. 11. “because of the angels” We may remember how Genesis 6 briefly mentions angels and the “daughters of men” producing giants . . . . Well, in Paul’s day there was a continued belief that angels were watching and at times lusting after the women. Hence Paul’s solution: either shave your head so as you are praying the angels can’t tell that your a woman; or cover your head so the angels can’t tell that your a woman.

    However, for a woman to shave her head was a sign that she was a prostitute–so as Paul states that was not an acceptable solution. And for a woman to not cover her head (in that culture and context) is implying that the woman is welcoming an advancement of a potential angel (or at least enjoying the idea that she is flirting)–which is of course dishonoring to her husband.

    And since the belief at the time was that all angels were male–the men did not have an issue requiring their heads to be covered. In fact to do so would mean they were trying to dress or behave as a gender they were not–possible implications for some earlier posts found in that understanding.

  4. Oh, I forgot one thing. In case we think that we have gone beyond this understanding of being watched by angels in worship. Check out your hymnals for a song entitled, “Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones.” This concept lives on in our hymnody. :)

  5. Charliam, I’m not sure I buy the “lusting angels” interpretation. Wouldn’t Paul have made more of this here and elsewhere in his writings had he believed that a current threat? Seems a little “out there” to me. I’m not saying we’re not watched by angels, but I don’t think I’d go as far as “lusting angels” on this one.

    I think one could make an argument for male human lust. For instance:

    “Women’s hair was a prime object of male lust in the ancient Mediterranean world; societies which employed head coverings thus viewed uncovered married women as unfaithful to their husbands, that is, seeking another man (virgins and prostitutes, conversely were expected not to cover their heads, since they were looking for men). Women who covered their heads could thus view uncovered women as a threat; uncovered women, however, undoubtedly viewed the covering custom as restrictive and saw the way they dressed their hair as their own business.

    Significantly, the uncovered women probably include the cultured women of higher status, whose family homes hosted most of the house churches. Statues show that well-to-do women pursued fashionable hairstyles and uncovered heads, styles that poorer women probably considered seductive. Given the class conflict in the Corinthian church…this would easily have flared into a major issue of controversy.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (p. 585)

    Just more interesting cultural stuff…

  6. I understand your reluctance to the “lusting angels” concept. It is different. Unfortunately, I do not recall the source for a more complete understanding.

    In response to your question,”Wouldn’t Paul have made more of this here and elsewhere in his writings had he believed that a current threat?” Not necessarily. As has been mentioned, this is a letter. The original readers most certainly have a better understanding of its meaning than we; so saying much more than the last bit in verse 10 may well have been unnecessary. In addition, from my recollection this is the only place in Paul’s writings where Paul addresses “head coverings” at all. Thus, if the issue may be,in part, “lusting angels” then it would most likely be addressed when Paul deals with the issue of having heads covered and uncovered.

    Nevertheless, it makes for interesting discussion.

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