• The church: No place for spirited women

    I’m currently in Sweden, attending a mathematics conference.  Over the next few days, I will be hearing from some of the world’s top minds in my area of research.  Many of these experts are women.  Of course, this won’t seem much of a surprise to those in academic circles, where the ability of a researcher is judged on merit, not gender.  At the end of my trip, I’ll return home to Australia, a country run by a female prime minister, a female governor general and, ultimately, by a female monarch.  Women make fine leaders.

    Or at least that’s the way it is in the secular world.  Before I left home, I heard a radio interview with Julia Baird, an ex-member of the Sydney Anglican Synod, and an advocate for women in ministry.  The interview was a discussion of her recent article  in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled No place for spirited women.  The interview and article touched on quite a few areas regarding women and the Sydney Anglican Diocese, including a recent change to the standard marriage vows.1  But, while these are interesting in their own right, I’m mostly interested here in the topic of women in church leadership roles.

    It seems that the British and American branches of the Anglican/Episcopal Church have long ago recognised female priests.  But this is not so in Australia.  In 1992, the Australian Anglican Church voted to give individual dioceses the right to ordain, or not ordain, female priests as they saw fit.  Sydney saw fit not to, and has remained in that position ever since.  Women are officially “allowed” to teach children and other women.  But not men.

    I won’t be focussing here on what the Sydney Anglican Church (henceforth, SAC) thinks about women’s roles in ministry, but rather their reasons for thinking the way they do.  Sydney Anglicans are renowned for their very literal interpretation of the Bible.  So it’s really no surprise that women are not allowed to teach men in the SAC.  After all, it’s in the Bible:

    I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”.  (1 Tim 2:11)

    So that settles it, right?  It’s in the Bible.  So that’s the way it is, whether you like it or not.

    Well, this literalist approach would at least seem understandable if this was the attitude taken by the SAC across the board.  But here’s the problem:  there are plenty of things in the Bible that are nevertheless ignored or disregarded by the SAC.  For example, let’s take the above verse from 1 Timothy and place it back in its immediate context:

    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. 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 will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:11-15)

    Not only is a woman forbidden from teaching a man, she is also commanded to remain completely silent.  In fact, we are even given reasons for why this must be so.  We have learnt from the Garden of Eden story just how untrustworthy those women are.  Elsewhere, we find these words:

    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 Cor 14:34-35)

    It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church!  The Bible is very specific about this.  Also:

    But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,and the head of Christ is God.  Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.” (1 Cor 11:3-6)

    Why does the SAC not require women to cover their heads when praying in church?2  And why are women not required to remain completely silent in churches?  These things are all in the Bible!  Why is the disgraceful practice of women speaking in churches allowed to continue unabated?  Why is the disgraceful practice of women going hatless in churches allowed to continue unabated?  Though I utterly oppose the Westborough Baptist Church in just about every possible way, it must be said that they are far more consistent in their obedience to such Biblical passages.3

    These kinds of things are usually ignored on the grounds of them being “cultural”; commands for the first century church, but not the twenty-first century church.  A typical argument might run as follows:

    Would God, the creator of the universe, really have His mind set on such petty things as women remaining silent in church?  Of course not!  Women were just uneducated back in those days, so naturally it made sense for them to remain silent in church, or else think of the mayhem that would ensue!

    I won’t go into too much detail of why such interpretations are likely to be nothing more than the post-rationalizations of embarrassed modern Christians living in a post-feminist culture .  But I’ll mention two things.  First is the observation that the verses don’t mention anything about uneducated men remaining silent.  And second, the 1 Timothy passage gives very explicit reasons for why women are not to teach men, and it has nothing to do with their level of education.

    I will also only mention in passing the fact that the entire book of 1 Timothy is widely believed by Biblical scholars to be a non-Pauline forgery,4 and that there are good reasons to suppose that the two passages from 1 Corinthians are non-Pauline insertions,5 though the latter is not the majority view.  Though it would be extremely ironic if the SAC’s entire stance on women’s roles in church was based on material that should not be in the Bible in the first place, my focus is on the way the church uses what is in the Bible as we have it today.

    The point is that if the culture argument is deemed sound, then doesn’t it apply equally well to the issue of female church leaders?  Modern women have access to education that first century Palestinian women could only dream about.  A woman can obtain a Masters of Divinity, or a Doctorate in Theology.  And a woman is just as likely to be a good public speaker as any man.  Why should such a woman “remain silent in the churches” and “ask their own husbands at home” if “they want to inquire about something”?  I don’t see why and neither, it seems, does most of the worldwide Anglican Church.

    So why the double standard?  It seems the church is happy to defend some of their doctrines with the safe “It’s in the Bible” line, but go directly against what the Bible says in other instances.  It seems to me that the church does what it wants, and defends their choices to follow the Bible with “It’s in the Bible”, but comes up with clever arguments involving context and culture whenever they wish to go against Biblical commands.  So the real question is:

    Why does the Sydney Anglican Church not want women to teach men?

    Only they can answer that one.


    1.  Apparently women don’t have to vow to obey their husbands any more, only to submit to them.  (For all the ensuing talk of marriage involving mutual submission, I’m yet to hear a man vow to submit to his wife in a marriage ceremony.)

    2.  Interestingly, the worldwide Anglican Church seems to enforce the corresponding command regarding men not wearing hats in church.

    3.  They do seem to pick-and-choose a little from the Old Testament though.  Thankfully, I am yet to heard of any of their children being stoned to death for disobedience (in accordance with Deut 21:18-21).

    4.  See the wikipedia article on the authorship of 1 Timothy.

    5.  See the wikipedia article on the authorship of 1 Corinthians.

    Category: ChurchFeminismWomen


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Copyleft

      That’s what’s so great about a vague and contradictory religious text that’s been the subject of countless interpretations and re-interpretations for centuries. You can use it to prove any damfool notion you please.

      Anything whatsoever! Slavery? You bet! The Bible supports it, if you read it a certain way. Pro-choice? You betcha… but also pro-life, if held at the correct angle and interpreted according to the following assumptions and the notion that Jesus was “just kidding around” about certain comments, plus the awareness that certain words mean the opposite of what they say if you translate them ‘correctly.’ Anti-gay? Obviously. Pro-gay? Just as obviously.

      The Bible is the literary equivalent of abstract art; you can see whatever you want to see in it, if you squint hard enough. And then you can claim God is on your side!

    • No Such Thing as Blasphemy

      Bart Ehrmann, the biblical scholar whose last book (on the existence of Jesus) I don’t like one bit, claims in his 2011 book “Forged” that not only in 1Timothy a forgery, but further, the sexist parts of 1 Corinthians are also later insertions from misogynistic scribes and so none of this material came from the historical Paul. Regardless, they are in the bible and we are stuck with them. I am sure very few of the faithful have even heard that these parta are disputed.

    • im-skeptical

      I think the text that ended up in the biblical canon was selected and perhaps modified to fit the agenda of the early church. There are other writings of the period (for example the gnostic gospels) that may present a somewhat different view of the role of women.

    • Reasonably Faithless

      Copyleft – that’s is right. The pro-slavery folk were using the bible to support their case, as were the abolitionists. Basically it comes down to what people think is right. And they will find the scriptures to back them up. Sometimes they can back it up with a black and white verse (thou shalt not kill) but sometimes it takes some ingenuity – for example, translating a Hebrew or Greek word in some clever way so as to make a verse mean exactly the opposite of what it really says.

      No Such Thing as Blasphemy – I did mention that in the article. I think the irony is amazing. Christians more or less think that whatever is in the Bible was spoken by God in some sense. But certainly this should make them all the more desperate to find out just what really was originally in the Bible. I tend to think that now they are so concerned with not looking stupid for the last 2,000 years that they mostly would not want to admit these verses shouldn’t be there, and therefore start treating women with the respect they deserve.

      im-skeptical – I think I’m a bit less skeptical than you regarding this. The Gnostic texts were written rather a lot later than the NT documents. There is evidence of modification though, and this is one topic that seems to have good evidence for that.

    • Bigdog

      Re the supposed insertion of the passages you quoted in 1 Corinthians. Erhmann is in the minority of scholars on this one. The variants of the specific texts quoted are not so much in the words themselves, but in their location within chapter 11 and 14. The thing is every extant manuscript has the verses, no matter where their location. The committee, chaired by Erhmann’s doctoral supervisor, which publishes the eclectic text of the New Testament most widely used by scholars argues that ubiquity of these verses in the manuscript evidence indicates them to be original.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Hi Bigdog 🙂

        Thanks for reading and commenting. I know Ehrman is in a minority, but that is irrelevant when it comes to evidence. Though, as you say, a majority of scholars on a certain board (that publishes the eclectic text) think otherwise. This at least provides evidence that perhaps the texts are authentic. But I think that the differing locations supports the possibility that they were originally inserted in a margin (probably early on, if they are in most/all surviving texts – how many early surviving texts do we have though?).

        But regardless of whether they are authentic passages or not, there are two unpleasant options left:

        (1) The church has based its decisions on phony texts, or

        (2) Paul is as sexist as a literal reading of these texts makes him out to be.

        Do you think women should be allowed to preach in church?

    • Bigdog

      Hello again Reasonably Faithless.
      I take it that the committee which has assembled and published the eclectic text which is used by the majority of scholars worldwide is representative of the majority scholarly view on these texts. Only 1 out 4 commentaries I have consulted on these texts agrees with Erhmann that they are a later addition.
      I suggest that your two options represent a false dichotomy.
      Having said that, in answer to your last question, I do think women should be allowed to preach. I’m not particularly interested in defending or attacking the Sydney Anglican position on this. My post was simply to suggest that was more to the story than your post indicated.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        You do make a good point, Bigdog, and I’ve updated the paragraph accordingly. Does that sound better?

        Thanks for answering that question, though I might have been too vague. Do you think women should be allowed to preach to men? To be senior ministers?

      • Commentaries written by Christians surely are more biased towards accepting the paragraph as original? Why would Paul contradict himself about women in church? Why would the passage be in different places in some texts? Because it was obvious that it doesn’t belong there?? I just don’t think that the majority of (Christian) scholars arguing for it being original holds all that much weight. There is lots at stake if it is an insertion.