“Women should be silent!” Says who?

“I did read that women should be quiet in church, does this mean anything?”

(Mr. L., student of Discover course.)

Answer given by pastor Christian Salcianu,
2 November 2022, Watford

The biblical texts brought to the table, or raised as stumbling blocks in such a discussion, are clear. Bearing the Pauline signature, they read:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NIV)

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:9-12, NIV)

Today’s reality

The situation seems to be clear: women should be silent in meetings, not speak, not teach anyone, to keep quiet…

Does she speak? Shhhh. (It’s a… shame.)

What is amazing is that in most Christian churches these verses seem to be ignored. We see everywhere how women are promoted – they are teachers in the church, professors in theological seminaries, they are pastors or even bishops. (No woman has yet become a Pope, but that’s a different story.)

From a wider perspective, we find women serving as as presidents, prime ministers, European commissioners, head of the International Monetary Fund, queens, ambassadors etc. Big companies or organisations have been and are led by women, experts in their fields. Our schools and medical institutions are indebted to them. And in the church world, people perhaps speak more often of the Virgin Mary or other saints (Mother Teresa) than of some male saints.

Apostle Paul seems to have an upside-down perspective on our world today.

I must say that in the church I belong to (the Seventh-day Adventist Church) we have women involved at (almost) every level, serving for/as: children’s ministry, deaconess, community leader, choir director, elder, missionary, pastor, college and university leader, conference president, vice president at the General Conference. Anyone who has entered an Adventist church has heard of Ellen G. White, a prophet recognised by Adventist believers. Her writings still speak today, her counsels are still heard at our pulpits. Therefore, we start from a different position compared to other churches which tell us that “the women should be silent”.

How are women presented in the Bible?

At first glance, the women in Paul’s churches seem to be condemned creatures, a lost Eve, just like some think about Job’s wife, a person who is a bit unstable, ready to be locked up in some institution. In other words, some expect women to be humble, silent, more like a quiet nun. However, women are not presented like that in the Bible, nor in the New Testament, nor even in the writings of Paul. Surprised? Read on.

In the Old Testament we find not only a sinning Eve (although, between us, we are talking about “Adam’s sin”, not Eve’s), but we also meet Sarah (Genesis 12-23), Miriam (Moses’ sister; Exodus 15:20), Naomi and Ruth (ancestors of David), Anna (mother of the prophet Samuel; 1 Samuel 1-3), prophetess and judge Deborah (Judges 4:4), prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22), Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3) and so many other women actively involved in God’s plan of salvation. Every little girl who reads the Bible wants to be a Queen Esther!

In the New Testament, right from the very first pages in the genealogy of our Lord, several women stand out, having a key role (position) there. Mind you, it is the genealogical tree of Jesus, where the history of salvation is highlighted. Check for yourself and find Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary.

At the temple, sitting next to the baby Jesus, Anna prophesies (“she began to speak about Jesus to all those who were waiting for the salvation of Israel”; Luke 2:38). Elizabeth and Mary speak of the Lord without fear (although their husbands have stumbled).

Jesus showed an exemplary attitude towards women. This is evidenced on the occasions when women like (Mary) Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna “and many others” (Luke 8:2-3) follow Jesus, after they had been healed of all their sufferings by Him. Or, remember the heat of Samaria, when Jesus talks to a woman (no name?) with a chequered past, and the disciples didn’t like the situation at all (John 4:27). Don’t forget, the Samaritans listen to her and come directly to the Messiah Jesus (John 4:28-29 and 39,42).

Later, under the shadow of the cross, prior to the Last Supper, Mary Magdalene anoints the Lord’s body, a gesture that the male disciples can only criticise (Matthew 26:8). And the Lord says that in the whole world, whenever and wherever the Gospel will be proclaimed, it will be said what this woman did, “in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). In other words, we will have to learn from her! (By the way, she and other women were also among the first witnesses and heralds of the resurrection; Mark 16:9. Please, where we would have been without these not quite silent messengers? Some are willing to rebuke the angels for charging the women to… speak!).

After the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on all those gathered in the house, joined “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). They all begin to prophesy, speaking in foreign languages, in which they preached Christ to the Gentiles who came to Jerusalem to worship. Joel’s prophecy was effectively being fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and it was promised to come “on all people”, explicitly: sons and daughters, on servants both men and women (Acts of the Apostles 2:17-18). It is not surprising that we later find a house of prophetesses in the home of Philip the Evangelist. “He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9).

The women in Paul’s vision

Apostle Paul spoke to and interacted with many women. In Berea, Paul preached to “a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:12). When writing to Timothy, Paul is reminded of some good times in the past, recalling how sincere faith “first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice” (2 Timothy 1:5). 

When talking about the first Christian woman in Europe, Luke plainly says that Lydia “was a worshipper of God” and that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. But she is also the type of woman who “persuades” (Acts 16:14-15) Paul and his companions to stay in her house. Pretty cool, right?

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul recommends the deaconess Phoebe to the church in Rome, who “has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Romans 16:2). Paul also does not forget to mention the couple Aquila and Priscilla, “my co-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3), who “risked their lives for me.” In the same list at the end of Romans we find Mary, Junia (“outstanding among the apostles”), Tryphena and Tryphosa (“those women who work hard in the Lord”), Persis (“another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord”), the mother of Rufus (“who has been a mother to me, too”), Olympas and “all the Lord’s people”.

I felt such a review was essential to dispel the idea that Paul despised women. The Christian church would not have progressed as much (or perhaps at all) without the involvement of women.

However, the two texts at the beginning are unequivocal. Yes, that is mainly at a first glance, and especially when taken out of context. For those who want to learn interpretations of the texts, there are enough materials where you can find very good explanations of the ministry of women in the Bible, as well as analyses of the text for the passage in Corinthians (English and Spanish) and the one in Timothy (English and Spanish). [Type “woman” here.]

What was the actual situation?

Most likely it was a matter of social interaction and the involvement of women in the church worship service. Paul knows about the “quarrelling about words” in the churches (2 Timothy 2:14), about the temptation of women to be “malicious talkers” or “slanderers” (1 Timothy 3:11; Titus 2:3). 

Undoubtedly, the apostle knows how to differentiate between holy women and those who are “busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to” (1 Timothy 5:13). He is fully aware of the danger lurking in the church, given by the opponents of the truth whose mission is “to worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6). 

Perhaps Paul was tired of certain women who “always learn” (perhaps through many questions) and yet “never able to come to a knowledge of the truth”… We all know that type of people who are always asking questions and for whom no answer will be deemed as satisfactory. If there are also some individuals skulking behind these women, about whom Paul says that they feed with “foolish and stupid arguments”, then only “quarrels” and “foolish controversies” can be the results (2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9).

Paul believes in the woman-prophet!

Paul believes in the woman-prophet! (Yes, it is worth repeating it.) He speaks of women recommending them to “pray” and “prophesy” (1 Corinthians 11:5). Even in the same verse (from Timothy) where one reads only about “silence”, Paul clearly talks about women as public testimonies and worshippers of God (1 Timothy 2:9)!

The context makes it clear that Paul is aware of the spiritual gifts given to women, therefore he wants to place women’s ministry on the best trajectory. He pays all his attention as to how the activities of the church are being carried out. In his words: “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32) — that is, not everyone does just as he/she thinks… And he continues: “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (verse 33). 

It would therefore be a challenge — in Corinth or elsewhere — for a woman to stand over her husband’s head (so to speak), in full assembly, having or voicing a different opinion. OK, it seems as if Paul would say, there can be questions, dilemmas, ambiguities. But these are better be discussed at home. Not at the church, not during the worship service, not in front of others.

Apollo-Priscilla, and Barac-Deborah

An interesting New Testament character is Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, who “spoke with great fervour”, being “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”. However, it was only at Aquila and Priscilla’s home that he understood more, since, as the Scripture says: “they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:23-28).

Let’s be honest here, if Apollo had to learn from Aquila and Priscilla, then there is no shame in learning from a woman.

I believe that a woman can and should speak in the assembly, she can pray, she can sing, she can preach. It is her opportunity to give glory to God for the great salvation in which “there is no longer male or female” (Galatians 3:28). 

But I also believe that a woman should put her husband first, learn from him before learning from individuals who plant doubt (like Satan) and then use parishioners to plant doubt in the congregation as well. Here, it seems to me, is Paul’s point and the parallel he draws with Eve’s delusion and Adam’s temptation. (Please read once more Titus 2:3, where Paul advises his younger church leader to “teach the older women to […] teach what is good.”)

On the other hand, giving an example from the Old Testament as well, an interesting situation is found in Judges 4–5. When men cannot carry out or refuse to carry out their God-given task, then women enter the scene. “Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). 

And when Barak calls on her services to obtain victory in battle, she says: “Certainly I will go with you […] But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera [the enemy] into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:9). 

In other words, if there is an assembly, an army or any group of people without any real man to step up, then choose a woman. And this is not a second-class choice, instead it is a new opportunity for God to work through weak vessels whenever the human (male?) power seems to be shallow. You may disagree with me, but hey, this is a part of Israel’s history, the story heralding the resurrection of our Lord, even the story of Ellen G. White becoming a prophet following the refusal of two others – men.

What then?

[Some fair, real-life questions:]

A woman at the pulpit? Hmm, some don’t want that… Should the church choir be males only? This is what some would like, as a woman would then not teach others, not even through singing. Do we invite only men to pray? Absurd, but, bear with me, isn’t a woman teaching others even through prayer? Or, would some say, women can only teach children, young ladies and unmarried young men? Some want all of the above, no matter how capable or gifted she is. 

But what if a song is written by a woman? Shame… And what if a poem has been given birth by a female author? Should we say that she probably wasn’t inspired by the right One?…

Obviously, we understand today that such approaches are quite absurd. It’s a shame that in some places such situations are still a reality. 

It would also be extreme to say that if she wants to learn, she should “ask her husband at home”. What if she is unmarried or a widow? What if she doesn’t have a home (you know, a refugee)? What if the church is in her house? (I got you here.) Or what if her man is violent? Or just a beginner in faith, or maybe uninterested, or even faithless…

The bride says “Come!”

The great controversy, the greatest battle between good and evil will mean, among other things, obedience shown to one of two women. Obviously, symbolic women.

All the kings of the earth will listen to one harlot, and she will destroy them (Revelation 17). Such a Jezebel does not deserve airtime. We wouldn’t want her at the pulpit of a church (Remember Revelation 2:20).

On the other hand, the saved saints will follow a pure woman. She is the Bride of the Lamb. “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say ‘Come!'” (Revelation 22:17). We should always listen to the counsel of a Holy Spirit inspired woman.

Listening to the message of a pious woman in our congregation, one like Lydia, or the Samaritan or a new Mary Magdalene, who all stood at the feet of Jesus or the apostles, we would be like the Samaritans who said to the woman: 

“We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

(John 4:42)

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