First Mennonite Church
May 20, 2018
Paul and His View on Women in Ministry
Our passage for today is one that for many Christians sets the boundary between those who can serve in ministry and those who cannot. According to this group, pastoral ministry is reserved only for men. Women should learn in silence or by asking their husbands when they are at home. Women should not teach men. On the other hand there are those who try to understand why this teaching is not consistent with other undisputed letters of Paul. And there is clear evidence in Paul’s other writings that demonstrate a different attitude and practice in Paul than what we find in 1Timothy 2:8-15 and in 1Corinthians 14:34-36.
We should go a little further back. We should be reminded that Paul’s theology was shaped by both the Hebrew Bible and by Jesus’ teaching and practice. Paul was mindful that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul often wrote, did relate to the people of Israel in a world which was basically a man’s world. The culture surrounding ancient Israel was pretty much a patriarchal one. In such a time and culture where learning was often reserved for men, it was natural for men to take leadership roles. Therefore, from a sociological perspective, it was not that women could not lead, but that they were deprived of the opportunity to do so. Men dominated. Leaders were often men. But if indeed God established the rule that only men should be leaders, instructors, liberators, prophets for the religious and social order, the question is, why then did God use women to play vital roles in each of those fields on given occasions?
In 2Kings 2, when King Josiah became desperate to hear word from God, he commanded the temple priests to seek word from the well-known prophetess, Huldah. Huldah exercised such great spiritual authority that even the king sought her advice. She not only revealed God’s plans for Judah but also told the king he would be spared of the destruction to come. In Judges 4, we also read of God using Debora, who was a prophetess and also a judge and liberator.
In the case of Jesus, we find in Luke chapter eight that he did not object to Mary’s desire to receive instruction along with the disciples. Allowing women to sit along with men learning the Torah would have been a scandalous idea. But Jesus instead of rebuking Mary for wanting to participate in his teachings, commended her for doing so. In the eyes of Jesus, Mary was no more an inferior as a disciple than was Peter or John. In fact, the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus was not Peter, nor John; it was Mary. The angel did not say to Mary, “You know, Mary, there is an important message the Lord wants to communicate to his disciples, but you are a woman. Sorry, you cannot speak on behalf of the Lord.”
In the book of Joel, God promised to “pour his Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy; God would pour his Spirit even on the male and female servants” (2:28, 29). That event took place on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:7-8). What we often fail to realize is that not only is God’s salvation for everyone, but also is the empowering gift of his Holy Spirit. That means that within the fellowship of the Lord social differences exist no more. Above all, what is clear both from the Old and New Testament accounts is that the one who has the authority to call either men or women to his service is God, not culture, nor religious tradition. God is the one who saves and empowers through his Holy Spirit those he calls for his service. And as we will see, Paul affirms these truths as well.
Paul’s Ministry in a Patriarchal society
Despite the male dominated culture in which Paul carried out his ministry, many of his collaborators in ministry were women. On several occasions he designated them with the same title he had for himself—a servant of the Lord or a minister of the Lord. The Letter to the Romans was hand-delivered by a woman named Phoebe, whom Paul called a deacon—minister of the church in Cenchreae (16:1). And in the list of people Paul greeted in this chapter, we find seven women mentioned. It is important to take notice that out of these seven women, six were acknowledged for their special service in the church. Priscilla and her husband had “put their necks” on the chopping block for the sake of Paul. In the book of Acts we find Priscilla and her husband teaching Scriptures to Apollos. Paul also mentions Mary as one who had worked hard for the sake of the Roman church. Tryphaena and Tryphosa were workers in the Lord and so was Persis. But the most interesting greeting goes to a woman named Junia. She is a prominent apostle. Junia is the only female apostle mentioned in the New Testament. Was Paul only trying to be nice to these women or sort of chauvinistic? Was he being politically correct by acknowledging these women because he was also acknowledging men? Or was he simply affirming the Roman church practice of including women in ministry, which in other settings would not be possible? I believe Paul was consistent with his understanding and teaching about the equality there is in Christ. In Galatians three, Paul writes: For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (3:26-28). Paul understood that every social and cultural stratification is eliminated through baptism in Christ. The Christian family is now one in Christ and everyone in the body is a brother and sister and a servant to each other. If that were not the case, how could Paul encourage each member of the body of Christ to serve and seek the well being of the other members, if women could not exercise any gift of up-building the body?
So Why Did Paul Say Something Differently in 1Timothy?
There is a window in which we can peek into Paul’s practice of ministry. In 1Corinthians, 9:21-23, Paul writes: To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. Paul acknowledge the variety of cultural and religious settings in which he exercised his ministry. Paul carried out his ministry pragmatically. He himself demonstrated it. If for the sake of the well-being, unity and progress of the gospel he should impose upon himself a restriction, Paul did it. If Paul’s eating meat would become a stumbling block for a new believer who is vegetarian, Paul said he would become vegetarian, so that he would not cause his brother or sister to be offended (1Corinthians 8:13). Paul adapted himself to his situations and he requested the churches to do the same. If there was a problem, Paul would take the safest route to avoid the problem, especially if the Christian freedom and egalitarian spirit would clash against the culture or become a barrier for the advancement of the gospel. For that reason Paul recommended women in the Corinthian church to cover their heads when they came for worship. Decent women and especially married women covered their heads as indication they are no longer available for marriage. Being that the gospel is a message of Christ’s liberating power, some women in the Corinthian congregation wanted to do away with the cultural differentiations among married and single women. So Paul gave this instruction to the Christian women: cover your heads as a symbol of authority.
First, we should try to understand who Paul had in mind when he gave the instruction in 1Timothy. In Greek, the word we have for women is the same as is used for wives. And the word for men is the same word as is for husbands. And based on the preceding and succeeding contexts, it would seem more likely that Paul was giving an instruction for domestic or household importance. (Paul even speaks of childbearing, which is a matter of private life.)
In our passage for today, Paul forbids women to teach men, of which he clearly has no objections elsewhere (Romans 16; Philippians 4:2, 3). In 1Corinthians 14, Paul wished and prayed that everyone in the church would prophesy. Obviously, Paul did not have only men in mind when he said that. Women were among those who not only spoke in tongues but who also prophesied in the church service. Therefore, it is very likely that Paul was addressing a specific situation in this community. As we can read in the following letter to Timothy, women had become the easy prey of false teachers, and women, including widows, were being misled (2 Timothy 3:6,7). Therefore, this prohibition became necessary, although it was contrary to Paul’s general view of women in ministry. Paul did not want the church to be led astray because of ill-prepared or misled teachers, whether men or women. This is another example of Paul being pragmatic about his ministry. If there is something he needed to avoid, he would do it at all costs. But obviously, those situations did not set the norm.
By saying that such a situation does not set the norm I do not mean to annul the authority of Scriptures. But, we all know very well that not everything in the Bible is the norm for all and for all times. For instance in 1Timothy 5, Paul gives instructions to have a list of widows who have washed the feet of the saints. It was obviously intended for a given circumstance and does not set a norm for church life everywhere. Again, when Paul commands women to cover their heads, why is that not practiced in the church? Again, because it is not a norm for church life but a cultural compliance necessary for Christian women in Corinth. Again, Paul commanded the church of Thessalonica to greet each other with the holy kiss (1Thessalonians 5:26). Why besides by my wife and children, I do not expect to be kissed by the church members. Once again, because this instruction was given in the context of a cultural practice of the church of Thessalonica. Again in Timothy, Paul gives the instruction to “drink a little wine.” So why is it that oftentimes the very Christians who are against women in ministry, would be completely against even a sip of wine?
But despite Paul’s instruction for women not to teach because of their possible lack of knowledge, Paul did not want these women or wives to remain ignorant. He wanted them to learn in the proper context. You see, we often read, “learn in silence,” and think the emphasis lies on “silence.” That these women were to learn “quietly and submissively” may reflect their witness within society. Women were normally expected to be passive learners. Not only that, in ancient culture all beginning students (unlike advanced students) were expected to learn silently; that was why women were not supposed to ask questions. Again it appears that Paul’s long-range plan was to liberate, not subordinate, women’s ministry. The issue is not gender but learning God’s Word within the cultural stipulations.
Paul’s use of the case of Adam and Eve to base his argument for this instruction is what baffles many scholars. It does not reflect the typical use of Paul. And so, once again the issue of authorship of this letter. Yet again, if Eve’s deception prohibits all women from teaching, Paul would be claiming that all women, like Eve, are more easily deceived than all men. Does that mean, my dear sisters, that you are more prone to be deceived than we men? Does that mean that even if you teach other women, you would deceive them all, as well? If, however, the deception does not apply to all women, neither does his prohibition of their teaching. Paul probably used Eve to illustrate the situation of the unlearned women he addressed in Ephesus; but he elsewhere used Eve for anyone who is deceived, not just women (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Because I do not believe Paul would have contradicted himself, his approval of women’s ministry in God’s Word elsewhere confirms that 1 Timothy 2:9—15 cannot prohibit women’s ministry in all situations; rather, he addressed a particular situation.
Today, as Paul did and is witnessed in the whole Bible, God called both men and women into his service. Regardless of their cultural bindings, women served when called by God. For that reason we should affirm those whom God calls, whether male or female, and encourage them to faithfully and rigorously learn God’s Word. The word of God is not less powerful in the mouths, charisma, and service of women than it is in men’s, if God is calling women for ministry. Amen!