This past Sunday my sermon was about 1st Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul talks about women in worship. After giving the sermon, we had an excellent time at sermon discussion group. I want to review some of the questions we talked about.
As I mentioned in the intro post last week, I’m concerned that bringing up the topic of women in worship could lead to divisiveness, but that is not my intent. The moment I decided to preach through 1st Corinthians, I knew that the study would take us into some difficult territory. But since Paul knew he needed to address it, we should too. I’ve been regularly astounded at how often Paul’s words from nearly 2000 years ago speak so powerfully to us today. This section about women in worship is no different. Hear my heart: I want to raise some questions, and perhaps even challenge your thinking, but in so doing, my intent is to promote love and unity, even with those of you who disagree. So here goes:
If I could summarize what Paul says about the role of women in the church it seems that he is teaching egalitarianism in complementarian clothing.
What do I mean that I think Paul is teaching egalitarianism in complementarian clothes? Because the culture in Corinth, and really in the whole Roman Empire, was extremely patriarchal, women were most often viewed far below men, sometimes as possessions, sometimes lower than animals. So when the women in the church at Corinth started behaving in an extremely counter-cultural way, perhaps removing their veils, perhaps cutting their hair to look like men’s hair, Paul knows that this behavior could marginalize the church and it’s influence for the mission of Christ. Basically, if the church gets the reputation for having out-of-control women, likely very few people would want to be a part of the church. Therefore Paul tells the women to act in a way that is in keeping with cultural norms. But he doesn’t stop there. Right in the center of the passage, verses 11-12, he clearly explains that men and women are equal in God’s eyes, a radical notion for the men of that culture!
Do you see what Paul does there? By asking the women to maintain a complementarian approach to worship, Paul preserves the deeper teaching of egalitarianism for the future! It is a move of genius that lays a foundation for a very different approach to the role of women in the future. We see Paul’s teaching bearing fruit in our country today. In the USA we believe that men and women are equal, though we still have work to do! One issue, for example, is women not receiving equal pay for equal work.
Going back to what Paul was teaching, I think Paul was a radical feminist. Look at the place he gives to women in Romans 16. I think Jesus was a radical feminist. Look at the all the ways he dignifies women and includes them in his ministry. One person calls Christianity the best thing that ever happened to women. When we look at Jesus and Paul from the vantage point of our culture, it can be very easy to think that they could have done a lot more to enhance women’s rights. Why didn’t they teach more clearly that women should rise up and take their freedom?, we wonder. But seen from the viewpoint of the Ancient Near East in the first century AD, Jesus and Paul were egalitarians, pro-equality for women, in their teaching and ministry practice!
What this says is that Paul’s teaching to the women to cover their heads, to have long hair, and to learn in quietness in the church, was intended as temporary, for that church in that culture to maintain its viability and thus to advance the Gospel. Clearly in Romans 16, Paul refers with gratefulness to the women who were serving well in various roles in the church. This is evidence that perhaps even Paul didn’t feel his teaching to the Corinthians (and similar things he would say to the church in Ephesus in the letters to the Ephesians and to Timothy who pastored there) was universally applicable. Therefore, if a church is located in a cultural situation such that men and women are considered equal, for example a cultural situation like ours in the USA, we can, and I would say should, practice egalitarianism in the church.
The battleground is whether or not Paul’s teaching here in 1st Corinthians is for all time, all churches everywhere, or just for the Corinthians in their time. I believe Paul’s was complementarian teaching for the specific situation of that time, while laying an egalitarian foundation for very different cultural situations then and in the future. If that is true, is it possible that complementarian teaching and expression might actually be a hindrance in our egalitarian culture? Given the godly, deeply scholarly evidence for egalitarian approaches to ministry and the church, why do some people hold on to complementarian approaches, approaches which by their nature lower women? I have read numerous complementarian approaches by men who love their wives and want to promote equality for women. I give them credit. Deep down they are trying to be faithful to how they read the Scripture. I’m not trying to tear them down. I know women who hold to a complementarian approach as well. They love the Lord and are deeply passionate about serving him. So please know that when I ask the questions above, I ask them in a spirit of love.
What hits me in the gut about Paul’s teaching is the motivation behind it. I see Paul as lovingly, passionately concerned that this church, this group of people he has great affection for, was jeopardizing the mission of God’s Kingdom. That means we disciples of Jesus need to ask ourselves, is there any way that we are being a hindrance to the Gospel? How might our church be a hindrance to the Gospel? At this point the sermon discussion group had some great ideas! Here are some examples of how we can potentially be an hindrance to people becoming disciples of Jesus:
- Our desire to get people to come to us, rather than us going to them.
- Being so busy about our lives that we have little or no time for neighbors and friends.
- An expression of church that is legalistic, rule-based.
- Asking people to conform to our rules before being a part of our fellowship.
What other ideas can you think of?