Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Free speech in Church

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.


  1. Is patriarchy always bad?

    And what does 'equality' mean?

    1. I think any situation where someone is placed in authority over another based solely on gender and not on merit, social position, experience, age, etc. is oppressive to the second gender. Patriarchy is often tied into the concept of a parent's authority over the younger generation and I think this is necessary and right. But both parents should have the same rights, not restricted to one gender arbitrarily. The negative effects of a social structure that restricts rights based solely on gender can be minimised, but they cannot be removed entirely. What would you use as an example of beneficial patriarchy (or matriarchy for that matter)?

      Equality refers to equal rights, responsibilities, and status.

    2. Although I see that you disagree from some of your other posts, I do think the Bible outlines a beneficial patriarchy and hints at the Satanic deception that is possible when this order is overturned in the notorious 1 Tim passage. This seems to be connected to the fatherhood/motherhood roles being blurred, discouraging the creation of children, thus leading Paul to assert that 'the woman will be saved through childbearing'. That this deception leads to death makes sense now, as average indigenous European birth rates continue to be below the replacement rate of 2.1, leading to inevitable decline. That this doesn't happen when women are encouraged to embrace - rather than limit or consumerise - their role as mothers, would be a beneficial outcome of Biblical patriarchy.

      I would suggest that your definition of equality is built on secular Enlightenment ideals that are not derived from the Biblical tradition. What would be best to say, I believe, is that we are all equal in spiritual potential and worth, but not in roles or abilities (which is clearly not true).

      But of course, the technocratic establishment will continue to seek a homogenizing equality to steamroller all difference. Brave New World-style artificial wombs will probably be necessary to free women from the awful inequality of having to bear a child for nine months. Then they'll be able to enjoy the freedom of slavery to the corporate bureaucracy all the more...

      I'm being capricious, but it looks likely that things are heading in that direction, given the nature of secular equality.

    3. I think it is problematic to use 1 Timothy 2 in isolation as a prooftext for beneficial patriarchy. It does not mention any benefits of male authority, only counsels against women ‘speaking’ in the context of a teaching/studying situation. I think the context is not 100% clear, but it seems to me to be presenting the case that in a situation where a woman is learning (doctrine?) from a male teacher, she must be submissive to them and learn quietly. This is not so much a gender thing to me as a student/teacher thing. I think anyone would counsel a student to listen in quiet submission during class! Of course in the 1st century Mediterranean the only teachers were male, so that is why the topic is genderised.

      But when 1 Timothy 2 is read alongside other passages in the Bible, and the message of scripture is taken as a whole, it can be seen that the genderisation of the issue is not a fundamental but a circumstantial factor. Otherwise how could Priscilla have taught Apollos in Acts 24:26, how could the female prophet Huldah teach Hilkiah the priest about the word of the Lord in 2 Kings 22, how could Timothy have been taught his faith by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois as Paul is delighted to acknowledge in 1 Timothy 1, how could Deborah have taught and led as the prophet and Judge of Israel, how could Paul have described Junia as a fellow apostle in Romans 16, even ‘outstanding among the apostles’. It is vital to read 1 Timothy 2 through the lens of the rest of scripture, and not force the rest of scripture to conform to the lens of 1 Timothy 2.

      The respective roles of men and women, especially their biologically and Godly appointed physical roles, are another matter entirely. A woman can certainly embrace her biological role as mother and it is certainly beneficial to do so, just as men should be encouraged to embrace their roles as fathers. But these roles can be embraced without necessitating that mothers submit to a patriarchal system as well. There is absolutely nothing in the biological role of mother that dictates the need for the woman to have a man placed in authority over her. It is especially pernicious that the two arguments have been so inextricably intertwined historically, that people believe that encouraging woman and men in their respective roles as mothers and fathers is impossible without supporting patriarchal authority and female subordination, and vice versa, attacks on patriarchal systems have been intertwined with attacks on biological roles by others, which merely perpetuates the misunderstanding.

      My definition of equality may be influenced by enlightenment thinking, it is of course impossible to extricate one’s thinking entirely from one’s cultural upbringing. But I certainly find strong support for it in scripture and the history of the early Church, and so I do not think it is unbiblical, but rather biblical in foundation.

    4. The context of 1 Tim 2 is likely to be church teaching, which would allow women to 'teach' a man in some other context, as you list. But my point is that Paul's underlying logic seems to be linked to unique male and female roles, involving the having of children. So I think the apostle is the one who intertwines parenthood and 'official' patriarchal authority in the family and church. To disrupt one is to disrupt the other, with deathward consequence, as I have noted.

      We miss this, of course, because sex has become so separated from procreation over the course of the 20th c. Patriarchy didn't grow out of nasty men seeking to oppress women, but because in cultures where women have more children, such time and energy is needed to care for them that inevitably men have to take more of a public and authoritative role. Of course this can and has lead to abuse, but it needn't if informed by love for God and each other.

      The whole language of rights was cooked up by Masonic deists. It was an attempt to create a human identity purely by man's self-will, rather than God's revealed will. Such is the foundation of modern 'equality', a diaphanous notion malleable by the elites for the purpose of social engineering. Such is the lens I would suggest you are using to view the Bible through.

    5. I agree that the concept of church teaching is intertwined with the patriarchal society of the time in Paul’s argument, but in other contexts it is not intertwined so I stand by my comment that patriarchal structures are not fundamental to scriptural teaching but circumstantial. Once one attempts to understand scripture in its entirety and consider the principles behind the teaching rather than just selecting single verses and compiling them into a list of rules, I feel we are able to get much closer to God’s revealed will.

      Patriarchy may have come about ‘naturally’ due to men needing to take positions of authority while women were otherwise engaged. But the stratification of this into proscribed laws was hardly necessary, it was an abuse of power. What about women who are not currently incapacitated by childbirth, such as those who are barren or past childbearing age, or (shockingly) may not want to have children? While you may not agree that women should be permitted to evade this responsibility due to this ‘causing death’, I think a well formed society does not need to have every single woman constantly producing children in order to be healthy and prosperous. There is plenty of room for some women to use the other gifts they may have rather than just that one between their legs. The propagation of our species is not the only thing God put us on earth to do after all.

      My whole argument is that a person’s gender should not dictate the roles they are permitted to do. If someone is quailed to teach for instance they should be allowed to teach and not restricted because society considers it a better use of their time to breed and nurture children (even if they can’t or aren’t very good at it – despite their gender). Likewise a specific man may actually be more nurturing than his wife, and thus be better suited to raising their child while the mother has her identity in the business world.

      I have no idea whether the Masons had anything to do with the language of rights at all, but it really doesn’t matter what they were trying to do. Language is defined by what its speakers use it for, not its founders. And I am using it to express scriptural concepts.

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