New Testament verses on the leadership of women
Based on selected biblical texts on the role of women (Galatians 3.26-29, I Timothy 2.11-12, I Corinthians 14.33-35, Romans 16.1-5, John 4.23)
“Women should remain silent in the churches.” Ouch. “They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” Ouch. “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.” Ouch! “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Ouch!
So wrote the Apostle Paul as represented in our New Testament, in the Epistle to the Corinthians. Or, did Paul really write those verses?
Now, you should know that the Apostle Paul is a huge figure in Christianity. His letters to early Christian communities comprise a major portion of our New Testament. Paul is an enormously authoritative voice. And it is Paul who writes: “Women should remain silent in the churches. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their husbands at home.” Ouch.
But, wait a minute, did Paul really write those lines? Are we sure?
And, don’t think for a minute that these few verses haven’t shaped the church across the millennia. Those verses lay the foundation, the justification for all the patriarchal churches: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. After all, no less an authority than Paul wrote: “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.” Ouch.
But, did Paul really write these lines? There’s a lot of scholarly suspicion that Paul didn’t write those sentences, that they were inserted, snuck in much later; that they are a later interpolation; that they are fraudulent, a forgery; that someone posing as Paul, assuming the identity of Paul, pretending to be Paul … maybe some anonymous monk? Imagine a monk in a dark monastery, 3rd or 4th c., bent over a desk, copying a manuscript by candlelight, furtively slipping in these verses when no one is looking. Maybe this monk hated his mother; or, maybe at a tender age he was spurned by a girl to whom he had taken a fancy; or maybe this young monk was an underachiever and calculated that if he could eliminate half the competition that might get him the edge he’d need to get ahead in the church.
In any case, there’s good reason to suspect that Paul never wrote those awful verses; verses that have done untold harm across the centuries. Why do I say this? On what evidence? Because those verses directly contradict an earlier passage in the very same letter in which Paul celebrates women’s prayers and prophesy in church. And, because in other letters written by Paul – for instance, his letter to the Romans (perhaps Paul’s most influential letter) – he writes: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church”. A deacon! How do you get be a deacon and not speak? Deacons serve the bread and cup of Christ’s communion table.
Deacons say the most important words we utter in church: “The bread of heaven broken for you. The cup of salvation poured out for you.”
Oh, and this: deacons baptize! How do you baptize without speaking? How do you baptize without invoking the Trinity, without “I baptize you in the name of …”
And, note this, when Paul describes Phoebe as a Deacon, he employs the same word, exactly the same work, Diakonos, (Gk), that he uses when he refers to Timothy as a deacon and it is the same word Paul uses in regards to his own ministry. In other words, Phoebe is no deaconette, no sub-deacon, no under-deacon, no vice- or junior- deacon, no deacon-in-training, no deaconess-lite. There is nothing diminutive or lesser; nothing reduced about Phoebe’s role. Phoebe is Diakonos, the real deal, the full Deacon.
There’s more. Elsewhere in his letter to the Romans Paul writes: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila…” Stop there, right there! Priscilla and Aquila? In that order? They are a married couple. Priscilla, the wife. Aquila, the husband. Not only here, but elsewhere, Paul names Priscilla ahead of Aquila. It’s the equivalent of replacing, “Greet Mr. & Mrs. John Smith…” with, “Greet Mrs. & Mr. Jane Smith…” Oh, and note this: Paul calls both of them “my co-workers in Christ Jesus.”
From the earliest beginnings of the Christian movement women were important, were leading members. Women played prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry. There were women disciples at the foot of the cross. Women were reported to be the first .
As time went on, groups of Christians organized within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were held in high esteem and assumed leadership roles. Such roles were exercised by women such as the sisters Mary and Martha; Lydia of Philippi, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth; Phoebe, Chloe, and Rufus’ mother. By building up her own house-church a woman could rise to leadership, improve her social status, and gain in both power dignity in the early Christian movement.
All of which is to say that those few verses – those offending and offensive verses in the Epistle to the Corinthians – are outliers, aberrations, anomalies. They go against the grain. They contradict the preponderance of Paul’s other writings in which he affirms women as full leaders who held roles and responsibilities in every way equal to those of men.
Which is why, forty-four years ago today on July 29, 1974 some women and men of the Episcopal Church in America took it upon themselves – because the Episcopal Church itself wasn’t ready – to right an old wrong, to begin to ordain women to the Episcopal priesthood
They held an ordination service on July 29, 1974. Eleven qualified women deacons presented themselves for ordination that day. Three retired bishops were prepared to break ranks with the church and to take it upon themselves to do the deed. Appropriately, the ordination service was held on The Feast of Saints Martha and Mary. Equally appropriately, it was held at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia.
The church was packed. It buzzed and pulsed with some two thousand worshippers, mostly supporters, with a few protesters. Harvard University professor Charles V. Willie, who was also the vice president of the Episcopal House of Deputies, preached the sermon entitled, “The Priesthood of All Believers.” He began with this verse, “The hour cometh and now is when the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.23)
Dr. Willie, himself African American, went on to declare: “As blacks refused to participate in their own oppression by going to the back of the bus in 1955 in Montgomery, women are refusing to cooperate in their own oppression by remaining on the periphery of full participation in the Church.”
In the middle of the service, as a part of the rite of ordination, one of the bishops said, “If there be any of you who knoweth any impediment or notable crime in these women, let him come forth in the name of God...” At that point several priests proceeded to read aloud their statements against the ordinations. Once these statements had been made, the bishops responded that they were acting in obedience to God: “Hearing God's command, we can heed no other. The time for our obedience is now.” They proceeded with the ordinations. Forty-four years ago today.
Following the ordinations the Episcopal House of Bishops declared the ordinations invalid. But wait! The House of Bishops’ hurried declaration that the ordinations were invalid, was swiftly over-ruled. It was overruled by astute theological and ecclesiastical experts who declared that the ordinations were in no way invalid for they met all the criteria: 1) They had been performed by bishops in good standing; 2) They had been performed according to the Ordination Rite in the Book of Common Prayer; 3) They had been performed by the laying-on-of-hands within the Apostolic Succession; 4) and, the deacons who had presented themselves for ordination were in every way prepared and ready.
And so the ordinations were rebranded. Not invalid, but irregular…and so they remain. The women ordained that day – dubbed The Philadelphia Eleven – were, and remain irregularly ordained, but ordained: fully, validly, ecclesiastically and, as attorneys are wont to say, as a practical matter.
There are several morals to this story –
First, don’t believe everything you read, even if it’s in the Bible.
Second, beware of the anonymous 4th century monk who, without proper supervision presumed to “improve upon” the Apostle Paul.
Third, retired bishops have more courage than acting bishops.
Fourth, in our Congregational tradition we have been ordaining women since 1853 which makes the UCC, not better, but certainly, more agile than the Episcopal Church.
Fifth, it is both possible and imperative to test, to probe, and to inspect our sacred texts; to ask of them hard questions, to challenge, to compare and to dissect them. We can ask: Does this ring true? It is inwardly consistent? We can ask: Is it expansive? Is this passage and its meaning as deep and wide and high as the God whom we ourselves have met in Christ Jesus? We can ask: Is there room here for everyone? from the Epistle to the Galatians
A few verses that pass those tests, from the Epistle to the Galatians were read earlier and are printed on page four in your bulletins. Please rise, in body or in spirit. In honor of The Philadelphia Eleven, of the Church of the Advocate, and of three retired Bishops who did the deed, let us proclaim together: You are all Children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3.26-29)
And let the people say, Amen.