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.