Few things bother me as much as misinterpreted and misapplied scripture. And (I believe) one of the worst examples of this is around the issue of women’s role in ministry in the church.

There are many that disagree with women being active in ministry, and others that would go so far as to say that they should be silent participants in church. Not only do I feel that this is based on a misinterpretation of the intent of the Scriptures, but it also creates a situation that forces society to question the validity and relevance of the Word in our world today.

First let’s look at the passages used to support this idea:

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

– 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

– 1 Timothy 2:11-12

Seems pretty clear, right? I mean, Paul doesn’t even stutter when he lays outs this direction.

But responsible Bible interpretation isn’t as easy as just looking at these passages at face value and saying that God is trying to tell us that women should never talk in church. After all, when Paul wrote this he was writing specifically to a first century audience dealing with very specific first century issues.

This means that there are cultural and sociological differences that we need to consider for us to fully understand what’s happening here. We must also take these passages in their literary context by understanding how they fit into the entire writings to which they belong. So here are a couple of questions that we need to consider before we can apply these ideas to the church today.

Who is Paul writing to and about?

The simple answer is that he’s giving instruction to a first century church and church leader. Because these passages are about women, we should understand what first century women were like. More often than not, women in the first century would have been very uneducated. They may be very skilled in the ways of keeping the home and raising the children, but most would not have been very educated at all, but especially in the Scriptures. Many may not even know how to read, but due to the lack of availability of literature they probably wouldn’t have needed to read in the first place.

Therefore, it would have been very common for women to have questions when listening to a great intellectual like Paul. It would have been the modern equivalent of a fifth-grader trying to listen to an Albert Einstein lecture. So they would have had questions about what Paul was teaching… LOTS of questions. And who would they turn to? The passage in 1 Corinthians answers that one pretty clearly.

Why would Paul be addressing this issue?

Considering that these curious women would’ve had lots of questions, and would’ve been asking things like, “Hey honey, what does he mean by we are ‘saved by grace’?” The women’s inability to understand complex intellectual and religious concepts would’ve created quite a disturbing chatter for someone who was trying to teach (probably in pretty tight quarters). These uneducated women were interfering with Paul’s teaching! I can imagine Paul thinking, “How rude! I wish these women would just be quite for a minute! They can ask their husbands what I meant later!” Oh… he did say that…

So what’s Paul’s intent?

Especially considering the surrounding text for the passage in 1 Corinthians, I believe that Paul is trying to talk about respecting the service than he is trying to prove male dominance in the church. Even the passage in 1 Timothy can be interpreted as being more about order, structure, and respect, than it is about keeping women quiet.

How does this translate for today?

Well, first of all, women are much more educated today than they were back then. And this level of knowledge/wisdom means that chattering, confused women are not interrupting the church services today like they would have back then. And if we look closely at Paul’s intent and the state of the church today, then Paul’s word might actually apply to many men as well.

And with other writings (like the Book of Acts) clearly pointing out that women often had a prominent role in ministry, it makes it hard for me to believe that Paul (and God) intended for women in today’s church to remain silent and miss out opportunities to minister to others.

What factors do you consider?

What else do you consider when interpreting passages like these? How do you reconcile these passages with others that clearly show women as active parts of ministry? What role do you feel women play (or don’t play) in church today? Why?

This post is for The Idea Camp blogging series during #ICSEX Gender Week.

a hermeneutic on gender and ministry [#ICSEX]

by Dan King time to read: 4 min
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