“The Place of Women in the Church”

I occasionally get a useful insight regarding a text’s meaning or application from The Interpreter’s Bible commentary set which was printed in the 1950’s by the United Methodists. I know that it has liberal tendencies, but I’ve sometimes found some helpful meat amidst the bones—even if it’s just a clever turn of phrase. Today was not one of those days. Here’s the commentary on 1 Timothy 2:9-15 under the heading “The Place of Women in the Church” by Morgan P. Noyse:

“There are few passages in the Bible which have aroused more heated discussion than these verses. Taken literally as authoritative commands, they would exclude women completely from all leadership in the church. Obviously such an interpretation does not square with the universal practice of the N.T. churches. The epistles of Paul contain the nam es of many women who were prominent in the work of the church in various ways: Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Eudia, Syntyche, and others. The epistle is explicit, however in forbidding women to speak in the churches, and in subordinating them to the authority of men. No doubt its position was influenced by the customs of the day, in the light of which Christian women would have been subject to criticism had they been conspicuous in public. In some churches in the Far East it has been necessary for women to exercise a voluntary self-restraint in the matter of public appearances in order to avoid misunderstanding in localities where women have been traditionally secluded in the home. The argument of the epistle, based on a reference to Adam and Eve, seems far-fetched and unconvincing. In actual practice, while the churches have for the most part declined to ordain women as ministers, the great gifts of women have been employed as teachers, missionaries, and in a multitude of ways. The movement to recognize complete equality between men and women in the work of the church grows with each passing year, and the usefulness of the church is increased by the larger place given to women.” (vol. 11, p. 404-406)

Here, Noyse quotes a portion of the National Council of Churches’ report entitled “Women in American Church Life” which concludes as follows:

“The grave situation in the world today with mounting secularism can only be met by a truly unified church that uses all the talents of all its members, whether clerical or lay, male or female. Perhaps what is really needed is to give new meaning to the basic Protestant concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers.’” (vol. 11, p. 406)

Noyse concludes the section with even more overt criticism of the Scriptures:

“Obviously the disposition of this epistle to limit the service of women in the churches does not accord with Jesus’ attitude of complete respect and chivalry toward women. It is not in keeping with the modern attitude which moves steadily toward the equality of the sexes in so far as rights and privileges are concerned, and does so under the pressure of the spirit of Christ. It does not meet the needs of the world which could not afford to be without the special gifts which women bring to the leadership of the churches. Here is a case where an early Christian’s understanding of the will of God needs to be corrected by the further light which God has caused to break from his holy Word.

[Writing partner Fred D. Gealy] aptly refers to this attitude as an instance of ‘stabilized piety,’ a rigid loyalty to older Jewish practice and unreadiness to recognize the call of the Spirit to new ways. This is a constant temptation in other matters in addition to the question of the place of women in the church. ‘Stabilized piety’ for generations defended slavery, child labor, slums, racial discrimination, and other evils, and claimed divine sanction for them because of their antiquity. What are the entrenched wrongs which ‘stabilized piety’ maintains in being today?” (vol. 11, p. 406-407)

I won’t take the time to interact with the commentary at length. I will, however, make three quick observations:

1. Notice his theology. He has no qualms with attributing error to the Scriptures.

2. Notice his audacity. He accuses Paul (or “the writer”) not only with being mistaken and outdated (which he assumes to be a given), but with being a dim-wit (using Adam and Eve as an example) who is morally spineless (continuing to subvert women, a la those who defend slavery and child labor) and a who threatens the health of the church and the world.

3. Notice his piety. Even in the midst of attacking the Scriptures, Noyse refers to “the spirit of Christ” and God’s “holy Word” as arguing against what Gealy calls the author’s “extremely dictatorial” stand. So he invokes Christ and Scriptures as the root causes of his undermining of the Scriptures. What he fails to do is inform us as to what exactly the “holy Word” is, or how we can know which portions of the Bible are holy and which are erroneous and harmful. What a conundrum.

Mercy. What a compelling example that the gender issue isn’t about biblical interpretation; It’s about inspiration and inerrancy.


9 Responses

  1. I’ll add a quick fourth point:

    4. Notice his artificial alternatives. According to Morgan, to obey Scripture’s commands by not allowing women to lead or teach men in corporate worship is to deprive the church of women’s giftedness and ministry altogether. Contrary to his either/or scenario, however, it is possible to both apply the passage’s teaching regarding gender roles in the church and still benefit from the faithful service of godly women.

  2. In line with your comment, “He has no qualms with attributing error to the scriptures”, the first thing that jumped off the page to me right at the start was this quote in regard to the passage in question; “Taken literally as authoritative commands, they would exclude women completely from all leadership in the church.— Obviously such an interpretation does not square with the universal practice of the N.T. church”. After having said that he assumes the church’s practice is OBVIOUSLY more authoritative than the LITERAL commands of scripture, you just knew the rest of the story was liable to go anywhere. It is both sad and striking to me that this attitude is so prevelent today when you talk with people- that it just really doesn’t matter what the bible says, what matters is our tradition and what we’ve always done.

  3. This is one reason why my wife and I left a church!

  4. Was that because they wouldn’t let your wife preach Doug? :-)
    I can see how you would be mad about that.

  5. Calvary must be really slipping. :)

  6. I hear enough of her preaching! Why share it with everyone else? :D

  7. I don’t want to appear as a heretical loose cannon, but I do have some questions about the so-called complementarian viewpoint. I think I would agree with Noyse that a face-value, literal interpretation of I Tim 2 does make most even fundamental churches seem liberal. I know very few who would not allow a woman to speak at all. Tri-County’s position does not really square with me (i.e., women may not teach men). Are women allowed to sing special music to men in your church? What if a women were to sing “His Robes for Mine” at Tri-County–could that possibly be construed as having nothing to do with teaching? What if the woman soloist were to write a song and sing it–would that be allowed? If so, how does that square with the no-woman-teaching-man interpretation? If not (in other words, if the writing of the song is the forbidden act), would your church allow a man to sing a song by Fanny Crosby? Can a woman give a testimony in your church? If so, can a testimony really be devoid of teaching?
    I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I care nothing for inspiration and inerrancy. I believe, hold to, and defend both. But I get a little queasy when other evangelicals accuse me of heresy for my interpretation while blurring the lines of their own.

  8. Dan,

    I think your equating of formal doctrinal instruction in a public setting (which is the issue being addressed in 1 Timothy 2) with other ministries like singing or writing is misguided. Were Paul to have written under the inspiration of the Spirit that women should not sing in the church—or play instruments, or teach children and women, or give testimonies, or powder their noses—we’d not allow those things, either. But what it specifically forbids is formal instruction and leadership in the church, so that’s what we avoid.

  9. Oh Chris,
    You argue that 1 Timothy 2 “specifically forbids” a woman to give “formal instruction.” I wonder at that. Certainly, 1 Timothy is a pastoral letter. And, thus, much of its specific teaching may be recognized as involving church setting. Yet I would not for the world argue that a few verses earlier Paul has in mind that men should refrain from quarreling and anger only in formal settings or much less only as they formally teach. Likewise women should adorn themselves modestly whether during formal times of learning submissively or as they walk about in town.

    But even more, as I then run headlong into verse 12, the specific distinction you would have Paul mention there of only “formal” teaching seems rather absent. Adding to Scripture is a dangerous practice. Deciding that Paul must be speaking only of formal instruction rather than informal is itself questionable. To then argue that singing, rather than speaking, to the hushed attention of the congregation during a formal church meeting is actually an informal exercise really strains credulity as well as the interpretation of this passage. Perhaps in our haste to justify current customs we have tainted our interpretation so that we must find a way to make acceptable some teaching by women while avoiding other types of teaching so that we can still claim some semblance of adherence with the text.

    Again, I mean no disrespect in my reply. I found your website through discovery of your song “His Robes For Mine” which I believe to be excellent in truth and poignancy. A person who can dedicate his soul to the creation of truth and beauty in such a fashion surely must be taken seriously as one who seeks to know his Lord and God’s Word in sincerity. So, my comments are not meant to taunt or to inflame. However, I am serious as I say the teaching and practice of some churches makes me wonder at the interpretative liberties seemingly taken to find what may be called easy solutions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: