Worship, Gifts and Women

It’s okay if you disagree with me, but I think there may be something seriously wrong with the way my fellowship underutilizes the gifts of women, especially in public worship.

I’m not keen on using the term “women’s role” as I find it pretty much extra-scriptural.

“Gifts,” however, is a perfectly scriptural term and I’m quite comfortable using it.

Many writers with far keener scholarship than I can point out to you that in the New Testament, women served as prophets, fellow workers, deaconesses (female servant-ministers), instructors, encouragers, and hosts of church assemblies in their homes. You can look them up in your own Bible, and I won’t bother to proof-text the citations for you.

All that evidence notwithstanding, we find ourselves setting all the precedent for our fellowship policy by a couple of New Testament scriptures. One is a single verse in the first of two personal letters from the fatherly mentor Paul to his young protege Timothy:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 

Well, it says what it says, doesn’t it?

(Except maybe the “silent” part. Surely it’s okay for women to sing, isn’t it?)

Yes, it does say what it says. But to say that it applies universally in all situations, in all churches, in all eras, with all women and men, requires what I like to call “skinchwise logic.”

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with advising women to learn in quietness and full submission. Men should, too. Women may be the recipients of this advice from Paul to Ephesus through Timothy (and Corinth by letter) because they were disrupting the assemblies, possibly with questions they should have waited to ask later. (Just as men, a few verses earlier in I Timothy, were the target of Paul’s wish that they lift holy hands in prayer without arguments and disagreements … evidently because they were praying while holding grudges, possibly even “praying against” each other.)

Think about what has happened in both of these cities.

Corinth, a center of pagan worship that involved many female priestesses engaging in (maybe riotous) sexual activity with male “worshipers,” and Ephesus – where Artemis/Diana was the primary goddess of choice – were cities where Christians were being converted from among such belief systems.

Both men and women of these Gentile milieus were being drawn into the very gender-stratified and conservative surround of a synagogue-like church. The earliest Christian churches comprised mostly Jewish men and some women who were not perhaps even used to sitting with men in the same room while worship and teaching was going on, though probably on a different side of the room or in the back. (In Corinth, the church originally met in a synagogue – until evicted, when it moved next door to the home of Titius Justus. In Ephesus, Paul originally taught in a synagogue – until he was evicted and moved to the lecture hall of Tyrannus.)

So it’s rowdy Gentile meets contemplative Jew in these houses of worship.

We have something of a clash of cultures.

The pagans have absolutely no background in scripture, and scripture reading is almost certainly an important part of the assembly. (The Bereans, remember, were checking the prophecies daily to see if what was being taught among them about Jesus was true.)

So questions will arise.

And in the Greco-Roman culture, where dialogue is encouraged (see Paul’s address on Mars Hill in Acts), the questions are likely to be asked on the spot. In the new church with the synagogue heritage, scripture was read and explained and everybody listened (pretty much like our churches today; you disagree with the preacher afterward in the foyer).

There were no Roberts’ Rules of Order for the early church, so the Holy Spirit moved Paul to write some.

Second, the pagan religion involved a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. In the Jewish faith, there was and is one-and-only-one God. Storytelling was an intrinsic part of both cultures, but in paganism, embellishment and creativity and outright originality in adding to the richness of the Mount Olympus saga was encouraged. In Jewish belief, storytelling was done with scrupulous regard to accuracy.

Culture clash.

Pagans would have found the Jewish stories a delightful addition to their panoply of pantheist story culture. Fallen angels and their gods and goddesses could easily live in the same story together. And pagans would have begun integrating them right in. Jewish Christians would not have appreciated this, and would have discouraged it.

So the creation of pagan stories would go underground, become secret; become secret knowledge; become gnosis.

Pagan stories, some emphasizing the superiority of feminine gods over masculine ones, would rewrite interesting Jewish stories such as the creation narrative. So goddesses Pistis and Sophia and others would empower Eve over Adam, sometimes even giving life to Adam through Eve. To a pagan used to idolizing (literally) Diana, it made a better story than the rather male-heavy Jewish version.

I’m not making this up. Read a few of the narratives of the Hypostasis of the Archons or On the Origin of the World or The Apocryphon of John or other Gnostic works. I know scholars say these works came later than the time of Timothy or Paul, but there is no proof of that assertion – and the fact is, many writings come a long time after the origin of stories’ verbal traditions, even in the Old Testament.

I’m suggesting that the verbal versions of these stories may well have originated in the time of Paul and Timothy.

And if so, they would definitely help explain the mysterious verses which immediately follow the two cited above from that first letter between them:

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women (literally, she) will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 

I think it’s quite possible that Paul was refuting what he calls in the first chapter “endless genealogies” and would later in the letter call and “godless myths,” “chatter” and even “old wives’ tales” – refuting it by retelling the simple truth. If bold converted-pagan Christian women were teaching these stories that they had made up and preferred, their audience needed to be reminded that it didn’t require generations of goddesses to create man; that gods did not immediately ravish an image of Eve created by the goddesses to protect her; that Eve was not superior to Adam in intellect and courage because she craved the secret knowledge of the forbidden fruit and was bold enough to gobble it down – or any of that other goofy pagan stuff.

God made Adam, then Eve.

She was deceived by the serpent, because Adam didn’t speak up to assert the truth.

Eve sinned as surely as Adam.

And anyone who taught otherwise, Paul says, should shut up and sit quietly and listen and learn the truth. You have to learn before you can teach. As nearly as I can tell, in Ephesus, some of those who were teaching before they learned were very likely the mostly younger single/widowed women who were supported by the church to do good works but who had become “gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to” (later in the letter) – some of whom, “… have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” That’s a harsh reproof, indicating a serious offense – like false teaching; not just idleness or gossip. So Paul directs the advice quoted above to Timothy about these women specifically.

Paul doesn’t permit them to teach falsehood or to teach in a way that usurps authority over the men, claiming that women are better rather than equal to them. The truth is, God created them male and female; side-by-side (though, yes, one was first). I wouldn’t permit women to teach otherwise, either. Nor would I permit men to teach such tripe.

Neither gender has an edge in God’s sight.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed, God never cursed one over the other. In fact, He didn’t curse either one.

He cursed the ground, to make Adam labor. And since neither of them had chosen to eat of the tree of life, they would have to perpetuate their species through childbirth, and that would be the labor of Eve. It’s not a curse. It’s a consequence.

Just like death itself, about which He forewarned them.

But He put an end to death through the Offspring of heaven and earth, Who has brought the kingdom of heaven down to earth.

That is the gift He gave us all. That should bring gratitude and worship to the lips of each person. That’s good news that everyone should tell.

Even the Samaritan playgirl who has encountered Someone extraordinary at a well.

Even Mary of Magdala at the sight of her beloved, risen Lord.

Even Priscilla, when explaining baptism more fully to Apollos.

Even the head of a household of believers like Lydia.

Even Junia and Euodia and Syntyche and all the others.

Even me.

Even you.

20 thoughts on “Worship, Gifts and Women

  1. any title that contains the words “gifts and women” catches my interest.Very good post. I wonder how people my misinterpret letters and sermons written today if they did not understand the culture we are living in. It is a dangerous thing to pull one passage from a letter and build a set of rules around it. I have been guilty of not only doing this, but believing it to be THE WAY to do things.Thanks again.

  2. Keith, this sheds new light on an old system. Things I had never thought about before are included in this post, and I think that will be truefor many. I am going to point several firends to this lesson. Thanks for your work and for sharing it with us.

  3. I think this is one of the easiest to follow explanations for why Paul said that (the silent women stuff) that I have ever read. Thanks.

  4. Thank you, Keith. Finally some real data to back up years of gut feelings. I should dissect this some more. This was the scripture I put on DU’s blog a while back as one of the most “abused” scriptures. Thanks for doing some leg work on it.LaraP.S. How funny is it that you remembered Chuck as a Time of Day singer and now he’s helping me put notes to your words? God’s way cool!

  5. Keith, you need to publish this one…….or at least make sure it gets into “New Wineskins”! AWESOME! Thank you SO MUCH for your scholarship. As Mike has said, it’s funny to me how we think God allows women to SAY or DO ANYTHING 167 hours a week, but not THAT one hour. Deliver me!God forgive us,DU

  6. This is by far the best explanation I’ve ever read about scripture and women and – well – all of it.Thanks, Keith. Very much. Thanks.

  7. These are the very thoughts I have been putting “out there” for several years. I find it interesting that when it is posted by a woman, she is verbally attacked as one who twists scripture to suit her agenda. But when a man posts it, he receives kudos of “Very good post,”this sheds new light,”this is one of the easiest to follow explanations,”Finally some real data,”you need to publish this one,” Excellent!,” This is by far the best explanation I’ve ever read.” I believe this is the frustration as posted by “Anonymous”.We still have such a very long way to go.

  8. Oh, my gosh!! I just made the connection – I have been to PV! And, having been there (as a visitor – my in-laws went there until maybe 2-3 years ago), I am wondering how in the world does this kind of thinking fly with your church family?! When I was there, the praise team consisted of men who stood up front facing the masses, while the women members of the team sat on the front row.

  9. Well, in case you’re scratching your head, going “Huh?”…. my hubby says no, different churches. Are (were) there two CoC’s on your road (RP)?It just doesn’t take much to confuse me.

  10. I don’t know of another church of Christ on Rodney Parham … but your fella’s right, vicki, we’ve never had a praise team. Maybe some day….So far, no one has given me any grief about this post at church, and I still work there. If I taught it in class, there would doubtless be an uproar. I don’t plan to teach it in class.There are lots of things I’ve written in this blog that I have no intention of teaching in a class at PV.I don’t have an agenda, other than to encourage folks to look at scripture without preconceptions; read it for what it says and hopefully find themselves closer to God through His Son as a result.I know that’s a disappointment to some who would like more advocacy – and a great relief to some who would prefer no more “innovation” – but I believe that Jesus’ prayer for us to be one (and Paul’s desire that we be “perfectly united in mind and thought”) does not mean that we march in lockstep on every issue or interpretation or opinion or even belief.I think it does speak to our need to be constantly moving toward Christ, from whatever direction or distance we come – pointing others to Him as we go.

  11. Keith – I think if we are afraid to study together, we fail to trust God, His Word, and a Savior’s ability to completely redeem. Several years ago we were in a congregation that was discussing whether or not we would study this issue of “women’s roles”. (I, too, cringe at the term). Afterwards, an elder’s wife came up to me (preacher’s wife) and said that we would study women’s roles “over my [her] dead body.” And we didn’t. I always wondered of what she was afraid.May I ask, do you have daughters? It is easy to sit back and not rock the boat, that is, until your young daughter, sitting beside you in worship, asks you why her brother can participate, and she can’t. It is easy to sit back and not rock the boat until your young daughter, whose play time includes preaching from the pulpit to her brother, asks you why she can’t be a preacher like her daddy. It is easy to sit back and not rock the boat when you are a man. It is the very fact that you ARE a man that makes it so important for you to use your voice. The masses will not listen to the voices of women. But they will listen to the voices of men. It is much like the Civil War and civil rights. It took the support of whites to bring freedom and equality to blacks.Floyd Rose wrote to me in my copy of his book, “When a person’s courage catches up with their knowledge, they will act. They must!”May the day when your courage catches up to your knowledge come soon. We can rock that boat because we know Who calms the sea.Thank you for conversing with me on this.

  12. vicki, I’ve already blogged about < HREF="http://keithbrenton.blogspot.com/2005/03/slants-and-slopes-and-cants.html" REL="nofollow">my concerns about my daughter<>. But I also have a mom-in-law who attends church at PV with us, and whom I love dearly. She, like the elder’s wife you mentioned, would be scandalized, hurt and disfranchised to find herself in a church where women suddenly led. Why do her needs take precedence over my daughter’s? Life span. Laura may live to see such changes, which will come slowly no matter who advocates them, or how strongly, or in what context.I don’t think it’s a lack of courage that keeps me from splitting a church over this. It’s just a matter of timing.You’re right; I am a man and so this matter, from your point of view, must not seem urgent to me. But a lot of other matters are also urgent to me – yet I know I will not see them resolved in my lifetime, and that I have very little influence over them. I’m at peace with that.I’m not a preacher or minister. I am on staff at my church to produce the bulletin, Web site, and powerpoints. Sometimes I am asked to teach, though I’m sure that’s viewed as risky when I’m asked. My sphere of influence is small there; it’s probably greater on this blog than anywhere else.I will do what I can.I am acting, and so are you.

  13. Keith – I read two wrong assumptions in your reply.One is that speaking up about the use of women’s gifts will cause a church split. Not so. Intolerance causes church splits. We have no business living in fear of studying Scripture.The second is that the older generation will not accept this teaching. I worship with a CoC family that is mostly “older”, 75% are over 60. We use women’s gifts in every area. These are women who have believed all their lives that this teaching of silence and authority was wrong, but were afraid to speak up.I remember how surprised I was when, in private conversation some 10+ years ago, my mother voiced her belief to me that women could serve communion alongside men. Who knows what lurks in the minds of women who are afraid to use their own voices?The elder’s wife who objected so vehemently was afraid of losing control. There is no one more powerful in the church than an elder’s wife. It was not about theology at all.I’ll be watching for your courage to take voice in WINESKINS.

  14. vicki,Bless your heart – my assumptions may be wrong at your church, but they are right at mine.I look forward to seeing your courage – and passion! – submitted to Greg Taylor at <>New Wineskins<> (< HREF="gtaylor@garnettchurch.org" REL="nofollow">gtaylor@garnettchurch.org<>).I’m already overexposed there!

  15. Keith, an interesting line of thought, well worded. From what I can tell, the things you put forward as fact really are facts. I’d even go with the points you offer as conjecture.But I have a quibble or two. (Could see that coming?) It is at the points where you draw conclusions that this line or reasoning begins to fade. The main question I have is, If the problem at Ephesus is really about the content, about the “what” and not so much about the “who” of teaching, then why would there be a need to silence the women? Wouldn’t it make much more sense, and be more consistent, for Paul to say, “Girls, get it right. When you speak, stop it with this pro-female myth stuff. Instead, tell the story that’s true.”? In other words, in 1 Timothy 2, I still think that the issue surrounds the gender of the teacher and not the gender being promoted in the teaching, again assuming that we know what was being taught if and when the women spoke. Along this line, it’s worth noticing that Paul nowhere states that any woman has said anything in the Ephesian congregation. It must be assumed (rightly so?) that there’s a problem with women piping up. But again, this has to be assumed. It is not stated.

  16. Frank – sorry if Blogger cut you off before your comment was complete! And I’m glad you reposted the whole comment.A lot of what this post proposes is conjecture. To me, it makes more sense than the traditional explanation/exegesis of this passage in I Timothy. It’s more consistent with the nature of Christ, who never discouraged women from witnessing about Him. It’s more consistent with the nature of Paul, who encouraged women to pray and prophesy, though with their heads covered in deference to custom and public perception.You can’t isolate I Timothy 2 from I Timothy 1, where the opening emphasis is on silencing false teachers, two of whom are named. If women weren’t trying to teach in Ephesus, why would Paul forbid it – especially when he permits it (with a condition) in Corinth? (I Cor. 11)I don’t think anyone reads I Timothy 2 or I Corinthians 14 so literally that they forbid women to speak in the assembly at all; to sing, to read scripture in unison; to say an “amen” if they wish. So the instruction to “remain silent” pretty much has to be conditional. In Corinth, it seems to address interrupting the assembly with loud questions. In Ephesus – to me; and I admit this is conjecture – it seems to address false teaching in an environment where it is rampant. Women speaking in the assembly there is, as you say, not stated. What I said proposes, not assumes, that either as a preventive or corrective instruction, women should keep silence because what some of them were saying “they ought not to” (I Timothy 5:13)

  17. Great post. JP Manzi pointed me here. I had posted on the same topic recently. It was very helpful for me to see how you approached this.

  18. I really appreciate this paper. I feel that you may have some good insight. I attend a Church of Christ in Sacramento, CA. It was a pleasure to read this. (Hard to overlook the contribution of woman to advance the gospel)

    Thanks for your sincere effort,
    Ps: I saw this on Wes’Woodell blog

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