Paul wrote that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be silent.” But what lessons can we draw from such an instruction today, when such a message seems so abhorrent to our modern culture. Are we supposed to follow Paul’s letter to Timothy as though it was written directly to us, ignoring the distance in time and geography that separates us from Paul? Many say yes. It doesn’t matter why Paul said what he said. Since he said it, we must obey. But to me this argument seems to rely solely on legalism, following the letter of what is written, rather than trying to discern a spiritual principle from it. Should we follow the spirit of the law, or its letter? This is a fundamental question that much of Christianity wrestles with, and is too great to go into here. But personally I do not believe Paul was attempting to set down a new law for the Church in his letters, not so soon after the joyful fulfillment of the old law. I believe he was advising the early churches based on underlying spiritual principles, and it is those that we should follow.
Firstly I believe that Christianity has to recognise the fact that the Scriptures were written in a time and culture when patriarchal dominance was both the standard and expected form of ordering society, family, and religious communities. Like the institution of slavery, it was very difficult to both imagine a different form of ordering human relationships, and to practically encourage such a counter-culture. Especially while at the same time ensuring that the fledgling religion wasn’t perceived by its neighbours as being detrimental or dangerous to the existing order.
The early Christians struggled with the tension between needing to set themselves to a different standard than the authorities of the world in which they lived, while not seeking to, or being seen to desire the revolutionary overthrowing of this established order. They were strictly a religion of peace, and they could not set themselves against the authorities they lived under otherwise not only would they be persecuted even more than they were, but they would be fundamentally going against their founding principles.
The authorities were not just the far off kings and Emperors, but the male community leaders and patriarchs that ruled every community of the ancient world, from city elders to synagogue and temple priests, from politicians to heads of families, clans, and tribes. Everything was run by male patriarchs. And anything that was seen to be disruptive to this social order would have been quickly and violently stamped out. But not only this, it would have caused the new Church to be seen as a religion of violent revolution, not as a religion of peace. Jesus and Paul both preached carefully and firmly about this point, arguing that Christians were not to set themselves against the social orders of the day, but to work within them as far as they could obeying the authorities set over them.
Saying this, I believe that Jesus and Paul did preach a radical counter-cultural message, as far as they could. Not radical and counter-cultural to our modern society, who over two thousand years has taken the message of Christ further than was possible in first century Judea, but certainly radical and counter-cultural at the time. Paul preached that the heads of the household, the male patriarchs, were not to use the authority and power their positions in society gave them to treat the people in their household badly, but to love their wives like Jesus loved the church, to give themselves up for their wives. This was an incredible teaching for the time, a radical message that has been lost when translated to our modern day. Paul preached equality between the sexes under God, something astonishing for a Roman male, who was used to being the highest religious authority in his own house, acting as priest over the household shrine, being the only one allowed to approach the family’s gods.
But, in appreciating this counter-cultural theological message, we must remain aware that Paul was careful not to permit any sense that the early church was seeking to overthrow public order and bring down communities by attacking their fundamental foundations. In Jewish synagogues and pagan temples the women were not permitted to speak, such a thing was abhorrent to the society. So I believe that Paul was counselling that it would be helpful in that context if the Christians did not open themselves up to ridicule and perceived disorder by allowing the women to speak in their own services. It was a cultural taboo, and, as Paul writes, “all things are permissible, but not everything is helpful”, as well as “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.” I read this principle as though it can equally be read as: ‘If your brother or sister is being injured by what you permit, you are no longer acting in love.’ This argues that if someone was troubled and offended by women speaking in church, it was be doing them a kindness if they were not subjected to it, and made to feel awkward or uncomfortable when worshiping God. I believe he was arguing that going around breaking social taboos would have not been acting out of love for their neighbours and communities.
For the purposes of social harmony, Paul advised that certain rights and freedoms that Christians had should not be insisted on. I believe in the same way Christ advised that the occupied Jews should peacefully pay their taxes to the oppressive Romans and Paul advised that slaves should continue to obey their masters. I believe Paul recognised that society is fundamentally unequal, and though Christians do not accept this inequality, we choose to live among it for a time, for the benefit of the world, just like Jesus did.
However, the danger in doing this was that in the process of obeying these unequal social norms, we lost sight of our equality under Christ, and started to think that those social inequalities were a good thing in themselves! And then even worse, when those social norms changed and became more equal, we actually continued to hold on to them!!
Nowadays culture is different in most places, and the principle of not making anyone uncomfortable by the willful breaking of cultural taboos, I believe should result in the norm being that women should be permitted to speak as they wish. However, in many cultures, perhaps in majority-Muslim societies, it could be beneficial not to insist on this right, in order to show love and charity to the believers’ neighbours. Paul offers his advice as a means of encouraging charitable behaviour and loving relationships amongst new Christians. He argues that Christians should be less concerned with what they are permitted to do, and more concerned with how they can show love and kindness to each other. This is a good principle; however it needs to be translated for everyone’s own time and culture.