This week's question comes in the wake of Mother's Day. "Aren't women supposed to be silent in church?"
The question stems from a reading of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth. The passage reads, "God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14.33-35). This passage has long been used to "keep women in their place" and to stop women from practicing many of the spiritual gifts especially when it suited the power-keepers of the church.
So aren't the supposed to be silent in church? The Corinthian letter has been a troublesome writing to women and to women's rights for almost 2,000 years. During the "Christian" age it has been used repeatedly to keep women from holding office in the church. In many denominations women are not allowed to become ordained clergy, primarily because of this passage. In others, women are not allowed to be lay-ministers such as deacons or elders and are prohibited from serving the Eucharist (Lord's Supper, Communion) and even passing offering plates. Thus, tradition and a nearly literal view of this passage has kept women from become full servants of God.
Did I say "nearly" literal? Yes, for here again those who interpret are doing so for their own benefit. According to a literal interpretation women should not be allowed to make any sound in church. They ought not sing in the choir, should not fellowship, and can't even tell their children to hush or behave. But we (the powers-that-be) want our women to sing and look after the wee-ones in church. So long as it's convenient for "us," the women may take part in the service. Except they can't _______ (fill in the blank) because women are supposed to be silent in church.
But aren't they supposed to be silent in church?
It all depends on how one approaches scripture. If we insist on a literal interpretation of a single passage removed from its historical context, then yes, women must be absolutely silent in church. On the other hand, if we look at New Testament scripture wholly, perhaps we can find a more balanced understanding.
The church in Corinth was troubled. All manor of chaos was breaking out in the church, especially in the worship services. Communion and the Love Feast (fellowship suppers) were fiascos (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.18-22). There was anarchy during worship because there was no order. Further, clearly neither the men nor the women were heeding the customs of civility. In response, Paul wrote this letter to restore order. In his writings he singled out a number of problems, one of which was the disorder by some women. Thus the command for silence.
But was this a command for all women for all time? Certainly not. Indeed, it wasn't even a command for all the churches of Paul's day. It was a dictum to a single church for a single incident.
How do we know? Because of what scripture says about women elsewhere. For instance, in Acts 31.8-9 we meet Philip the evangelist with his four daughters each of whom had the gift of prophesy. Note, however, that in scripture prophesy means neither fortune-telling nor future prediction, rather it indicates what we today call "preaching" (cf. 1 Corinthians 14).
More evidence is found in the order of names. In Greek rhetoric, order is important and names are often listed in order of importance. In Acts 18.26, Romans 16.3, and 2 Timothy 4.19 we read of Priscilla and Aquila who worked with Paul in his ministry. It is likely the church of Ephesus met in their home. Note, however, the word order. Priscilla is named before her husband Aquila. Because of this, many scholars and rhetoricians believe this is because Priscilla was the leader, the pastor, of the church.
So, should women be silent in church? If the church is to survive in a world gone mad, then it cannot relegate 50% (more like 75%) of its members to silence.