Friday, 1 March 2013

Women in leadership 2 – the Bible says…

The argument that many Christian evangelicals often use to exclude women from leadership is usually an appeal to scriptural authority. This is the solid rock, the safe fortress for any Christian who chooses to exclude women from certain roles to retreat to. If the Bible says something, we have to follow. Who are we to go against scripture? Paul did not allow women in positions of leadership, and he was an apostle. So we have no authority to go beyond what Paul did. What the Bible says is what God says, the two are the same, and woe to the person who goes against God.

The counter argument is that the Bible also says lots of things we no longer do, such as to abstain from pork or shellfish. The Bible is clear that we have to stone people for wearing mixed cloth, and we have to sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists. But these points are easily argued against, as examples of the Law which we are no longer bound by, while Paul’s teachings are for the good and godly organisation of the Christian Church after the Law has been fulfilled.

Yet what about Paul’s regulations for the church, which we also no longer follow? He demands that women wear hats in church, and men aren’t allowed, that women have long hair, and men have short hair. In most modern churches you will see many women with their head’s uncovered. Yet Paul clearly writes in 1 Corinthians 11: 1-16:

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.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

This is the ‘headship’ argument, used by many Christians as scriptural authority that forces them to exclude women from leadership. If Paul had not written this then maybe it would be fine for women to lead church services, and teach the scriptures to men if that is their gift. But since Paul wrote this they cannot in good conscience allow it. He also wrote in 1 Timothy 2: 8-15:

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.”

So there we go, the ‘headship’ and the ‘submission’ argument together. So this is cut and dried then. No women are allowed to be leaders. Paul said it, therefore scripture says it, therefore God says it.

But is it that simple? What does the text actually say? Why do we still keep women out of leadership while not worrying about wearing hats or not? And what did Paul write elsewhere?

The text needs interpretation. Such a statement makes many Christians’ bristles rise immediately, as they hear ‘interpretation’ to mean arguing ‘away’ from God’s Word, rather than ‘towards’ it. But there are a number of strange things that appear to us on a surface reading throughout scripture, which need to be understood for us to fully comprehend what God is saying to us. The Bible is not, and was never intended to be, a set of legal prescriptions to be blindly followed. It is not a simple legal constitution; it is a complicated book, a set of complicated books in fact. And questioning them has been man’s prerogative since they were first written. Indeed this often leads us closer to God rather than the opposite.

Is Paul really making a list of rules here, which all Christians everywhere for all time should follow? Some might argue yes, but we can see that the Church has never thought so. Priests, bishops, and monks have, since the start of Christianity, worn special headgear when preaching, praying, or celebrating liturgy. We have to look further.

The key is that Paul was writing his letter in a specific time and culture. In Corinth in those days, the Greek and Roman men did not wear anything on their heads when they were with each other. It was disrespectful to wear a hat in the presence of someone else. Greek men in Corinth prayed with their heads uncovered, but in other places you would find Roman and Jewish men praying while wearing a veil or head covering, as this was their custom of respect. In Middle Eastern culture when people met the king, they covered their head and remained standing. In the same way, the priests and bishops of the church have traditionally covered their heads in respect to the King of kings present in the Church. If you go to Upper Egypt, you'll still see men covering their heads when they meet together or when they are in church - not just the priests.

Therefore we can see that Paul’s argument is predicated on the cultural symbolism of his time. In Corinth it was considered disrespectful for men to cover their heads in the presence of authority. Therefore can’t we see that Paul is arguing that this should be the practice of the Christians, since if they removed their hats for earthly ‘heads’, how much more should they for their heavenly ‘head’.

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