One of the most often used proof-texts is Paul’s statement (apparently) that women should keep silent in the church (I Cor 14:34). [I added the word “apparently” because I think there is reason to suggest that Paul is quoting these words from the Corinthian church’s letter to him (See 1 Cor 7:1) and refuting it in 14:36 with the words, “Has the word of God come to you (men) only?”] The word translated “only” is a masculine plural pronoun in the Greek text.
Whatever their source, these words from 1 Cor 14 settle the issue concerning women’s roles in the church for those of a fundamentalist mentality. It is to be a silent one. For those of this mind set, it is unnecessary to look at other texts to see if a different idea is expressed. In this case, we do not have far to look. All we have to do is go back to 1 Cor 11 to see Paul giving instructions as to how women should dress when they prayed or prophesied. To pray and prophesy and keep silent all at the same time is a pretty good trick. Further, I have often wondered if those who take this position ever consider how many Sunday schools would have to close down if the female teachers were removed! In order to maintain the position that women should keep silent in the church, they would have to make a distinction between Sunday school and church—a highly questionable distinction in my judgment.
I have observed through the years that those who use the proof-texting approach and take the texts literally are highly selective in what they take. A seminary classmate of mine related a story to me that vividly reflects this point. A female preacher was invited to preach at his church on a certain Sunday. After the service an elderly male approached her and very condescendingly said, “Sister Jones (not her real name), how do you handle the Scripture that says women should keep silent in the church?” Without batting an eye she replied, “The same way I handle the one that says ‘Greet the brethren with a holy kiss!’” End of conversation! And, just for the record, Paul wrote the command to greet one another with a holy kiss four times (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Cor 13:12 and 1 Thess 5:26.), whereas the command for women to keep silent (whatever the source of those words) appears only once. The usual response is that the kiss of greeting was just a cultural matter in the first century. Precisely—and so was the command for women to keep silent in the church.
Another favorite passage used to subordinate women is the creation story and the argument that the male was created first, and only the male was made in the image of God. This depends upon which creation story one reads. It will hold up to some degree for the second creation account (Gen 2:4-23) but crumbles under the first (Gen 1:1-2:3). Genesis 1:27 reads “In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (emphasis mine).
I will mention just one other passage that is often cited as mandating the submission of women to their husbands, and hence a secondary role in both the home and the church. Ephesians 5:21-23, and particularly the words “Wives, be submissive to your own husbands as unto the Lord,” is often cited as a proof-text that wives are to be under the authority of their husbands. However, the preceding verse gives a very different picture. Verse 21 reads, “Be submissive to one another out of reverence to Christ.” (emphasis mine) Verse 22 is a part of the same sentence. For every Christian to be subject authoritatively to every other Christian would lead to chaos. The submission in this passage is submissiveness to the needs of every other Christian, and submission of wives to husbands is just a sub-category of the submission of all Christians to one another.
Based upon the same passage, the idea of male headship gets a lot of press in fundamentalist circles. However, Bilezikian1 and others have demonstrated that the word arche (“head”) has the basic meaning of “beginning” or “source” and probably does not have the connotation of authority in any of the passages in the New Testament in which it is used. Furthermore, in this passage Christ’s headship of the church is presented in terms of his giving himself for it, not his ruling over it with an iron hand.
A second way in which fundamentalists distort Scripture in regard to women is to ignore or twist to suit their ends evidence from church history as well as Scripture. With regard to the former, Ute Eisen has conclusively demonstrated that in the first three centuries of the Common Era women held every title in the church that men held.2 Her evidence comes primarily from inscriptions on tombstones, city walls, etc. (which, by the way, are notoriously difficult to change!) Then there is the tired old argument that Jesus chose twelve males as his disciples, and thus showed that he wanted to continue the patriarchal system. A Roman Catholic nun of my acquaintance was heard to say, “Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, and God Almighty does not make mistakes.” I agree to the truth of both propositions. However, let us press the argument a bit further. Jesus chose twelve Jewish males to be his disciples. If maleness be a qualification, then how does one escape the logic that being Jewish would be one as well? Furthermore, let us not be too hasty in concluding that Jesus had no female disciples. I realize fully that when we examine the biblical text we read more about the twelve male disciples than any others. However, there is one text which calls into question whether the twelve male disciples were the only ones Jesus had. In Luke 8:1-3, we find these words: “And it came about soon afterwards, that he began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God; and the twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others (emphasis mine) who were contributing to their support out of their private means” (NASB). A careful analysis of this passage clearly shows that Jesus had a number of female disciples who both went around with him and were financially supporting his ministry. Why is it that we hear so little about these disciples? The reason, simply put, is that the society out of which the scriptures came was thoroughly patriarchal. All the biblical writers were male, as far as we can tell. The fact that we get even one brief glimpse into the female disciples of Jesus makes a strong case for divine inspiration, in my judgment. This statement creates the necessity for me to deal in some measure with the issue of divine inspiration, which I take up below.