Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 2)

The first crack in the complementarian wall came during seminary. I wasn’t entirely expecting this, since my school was at least nominally complementarian.

But one New Testament professor had an incurable habit of getting on his soapbox whenever he felt someone was “abusing the Bible,” as he called it. And one of his favorite soapboxes had to do with an apparent inconsistency in Paul’s logic concerning women:

  • In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commands women to “remain silent in the churches.” This is one of a handful of texts often sited in support of the complementarian view, which says women are to be subject to men in the church and at home.
  • Yet in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul basically gives the women of Corinth a dress code to follow when prophesying in church. A prophet was basically someone who gave advice on God’s behalf. Kind of hard to imagine women doing that with their mouths shut.

So we’re forced to entertain a few possibilities:

1. “Silent” doesn’t mean what we think it does. A bit of a stretch, especially for a word (Greek, sigao) that carries a strong sense of telling someone to “shut up.” (See, for example, Luke 18:39.)

2. Paul was being inconsistent — or someone tampered with his letter after the fact. Authorship is a hotly contested issue for many books in the Bible, but 1 Corinthians isn’t one of them. There is, however, some evidence the statement in chapter 14 was added later. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Paul was responsible for the whole letter, including the bit where he tells women to shut up. It’s hard to imagine someone of Paul’s intelligence contradicting himself so badly in the space of a relatively short letter.

3. Paul was being sarcastic. (This was my NT professor’s theory.) One of Paul’s favorite tactics in 1 Corinthians was to quote something his readers were fond of saying to justify their behavior — like, “I have the right to do anything” — and then refute it. What makes it tricky is that Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation, so deciding when Paul is quoting something is a matter of interpretation. But if Paul was sarcastically quoting the Corinthians when he said, “Women are to remain silent,” this would go a long way toward making sense of his next statement: “Or did the word of God originate with you?” Which was basically his way of saying, “Who do you think you are?”

4. Paul’s feelings about women in the church are more complex than we realize — more nuanced, depending on the specific context he’s addressing. Which would explain why he can heartily greet female apostles in one letter and prohibit women from teaching altogether in another.

With option #4 in mind, it’s worth considering N.T. Wright’s explanation of 1 Corinthians 14. It was common in many ancient churches for the men and women to sit apart. Women, not having access to formal education in the first century, would be at a disadvantage — especially if the service was conducted in a more formal or classical style of language. So eventually, the women would get bored and start talking among themselves.

Wright imagines the scene like this:

The level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, ‘Will the women please be quiet!’, whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet; and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home.

Whatever we make of 1 Corinthians 14, it’s not a simple matter of saying, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says about women and the church.” Because the Bible says lots of different things about women and the church. And not everything the Bible has to say on the matter is universally applicable.

Simply put, the Bible didn’t set out to be a book about gender roles. So you should never trust someone who tells you, “It’s quite clear the Bible teaches women should XYZ…”

It’s not.

Part 3 of this series can be found here

7 thoughts on “Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 2)

  1. I’m commenting mostly to see what others have to say about this post, as I’ve always been kind of fascinated by this passage. I remember posting a non-literal interpretation of the “shut up” section in a paper in college, and having the prof tell me that I was reading it wrong and it meant that women weren’t supposed to teach publicly. Curious if he’d still say the same today, especially if I could make my points more eloquently than my 19-year old self could.


  2. I have always understood any of the spiritual gifts as something from the Holy Spirit, not from man. I have understood the Holy Spirit moving in a person is subject to the person He is moving in as Paul says. So if God is moving in the service for the gift of prophecy (even if it were for the early church only) It is God who is instructing through the His Spirit in the woman. If it is of the Spirit, it is more than just giving advice on God’s behalf. If the woman wants to teach on her own accord men, this is where she has crossed the line for Paul. She should want to teach other women is what scripture teaches, especially the younger women.

    The way I understand it, I don’t see the rub. If you think the gift of prophecy does not have its origins in the Spirit, I could understand how one could think Paul was preaching out of both sides of his mouth.


    1. I think a lot depends on how big a distinction we make between teaching and prophecy. I don’t see that big a difference. A big element of prophecy is simply reminding God’s people what he expects of them. Much bigger, I believe, than other elements such as, say, describing the future. Also, I would hope that both prophecy and teaching (to the extent that they’re two separate things) are both “of the Spirit,” as you say.

      I wouldn’t accuse Paul of preaching out of both sides of his mouth. But there seem to be some letters where he appears more comfortable with the idea of women leading the church and others where he seems to forbid it. I don’t think he’s contradicting himself; rather, I see him as adjusting his message to the cultural climate of his audience. He had bigger fish to fry. So when he was addressing a church where women in leadership might cause cultural problems (as was the case in Ephesus, the church Paul had in mind when he wrote “I do not permit a women to teach or have authority over a man”…but more on that to come), he was more restrictive than he otherwise might have been.

      Hope this helps clarify what I’m thinking.


  3. Conrad Gempf offered me the wise observation that whenever Paul appears restrictive in gender roles it is in response to a specific issue or question, but when speaking generally about the church he emphasis inclusiveness.


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