We see that Paul is not creating a law for the Church here; he is very specific about this. He claims not on Holy Authority for these pronouncements, but founds his argument on the ‘nature of things’. And the nature of cultural concepts are not stable, they change between cultures. It is not always, in every society, dishonourable for a woman to have short hair. Therefore Paul asks his readers to judge for themselves. He only asks that if it is dishonourable, then do not do it in Church.
Evangelical Christians who hold to the exclusionist position found their argument on Paul’s teachings. This position, which has become known as ‘headship’, relies on his writing. But we must keep in mind that Paul is writing for a specific reason, he is writing a pastoral letter for a specific church, not a law book for the Universal Church. To fully understand Paul’s message in order to faithfully apply it to ourselves we must try to uncover his reasoning, not just his pronouncements.
Paul describes a hierarchy of authority. First God, then Christ, then man, then woman at the bottom, who has authority over no one, but has man in authority over her. Paul appears at first glance to be prescribing this, but is this the case, or is Paul describing the culture of the time? We must ask this question, and we must work out why he finishes his description with the passage: “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.” Is this a parallel of Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We must take scripture seriously, what does Paul mean by reminding his readers of this deep spiritual truth. Could it be that despite the culture of the Corinthians, the Kingdom of God has a different culture? Paul says that woman was made from man, referring to the Eden story, but then makes sure to remind his readers that man is also born of woman. We cannot take one without the other; we cannot take Paul to mean that women are second to men - that men were first and must remain first. Paul qualifies, and trumps, Eden with Christ.
And the submission argument from 1 Timothy 2, what of that? Does God command that all women everywhere, in every time and place, learn quietly, and with full submission? Or do we have Paul saying that “I do not permit”? Why does Paul not permit women to teach or have authority over men?
Paul’s argument is bookended with two justifications; the last is the Eden story again, a cultural touchstone of the Jews. This is the argument that since Eve was deceived by the serpent in the story, therefore all women for all time should be considered easily deceived and not placed in authority over men. Do we believe, as Paul appears to believe, that this story is biological proof of this natural quality of women, their natural inability to tell right from wrong as well as men can? Do you think that men are more naturally resistant to temptation? We know this not to be the case. History, science, reason, even the Bible itself describes how easily swayed by temptation men are also. What Paul and the ancient Jews believed about the different inbuilt qualities of men and women, in their pre-scientific, patriarchal society, is proof of nothing - we no longer have to hold such assumptions. If we choose to.
Paul’s first justification though is his concern that the believers should be of modest appearance. He does not want believers to be seen by pagans to be immodest, or out of control. Christianity for him is to be quiet and peaceful and well behaved. Therefore, since the Greeks viewed women being vocal in public gatherings as an immodest thing, just as they viewed adornment, elaborate hairstyles, and expensive clothes to be immodest, the believers should refrain from this, because of what it says about them to the pagans.
Surely this is part of Paul’s fundamental position, preached throughout his letters, that believers should do nothing to bring disgrace on the faith. Yet, how does this fundamental command, so fervently held by Paul, translate to our own time and culture? In the West it is now considered disgraceful in our society for women to be excluded from positions just because of their gender. How then, following Paul’s approach, should Christians choose to order our worship today?
Many argue that it is important for Christians to act differently to the world, to do or not do certain things as a statement of our difference, and we should not change our ways just to fit in with the changing fashions of our age. This is true. But surely it is not a blanket truth to be followed blindly for its own sake. We do not do things just to be different, otherwise we would make sure we stood out more, in ways practised perhaps by certain followers of Hindu sects, who spend their lives refusing to sit down, or stand up, or wash.
It is not the fact of being different that is important; the differences should be applicable only to specifics, which we must figure out ourselves by asking questions: what does abstention from this thing tell the world about Christ? Does excluding women from positions of authority and leadership give a good impression of Christ’s Kingdom to the society we live in. Or does it rather cause disgrace and derision towards that Kingdom? Is that why Paul told believing women to be silent, so that the kingdom would be brought into disgrace? Or did he do so specifically for the opposite reason.