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