5th February 2017
‘I do not permit a woman to teach.’ As most of us have long realized, the chaplain has a perverse sense of humour. If I am not permitted to teach, why has he invited me to speak today, and why has he given this title to what he expects me to say? What am I to do? Sit down and shut up, or stand up and speak out? Do I obey what some Christians devoutly believe to be ‘the Word of God’? Or do I try to ‘listen for the Word of God’ as our service order puts it in a passage where it may be difficult to hear? If Simon was hoping for the shortest sermon ever delivered in this chapel he will be disappointed, for throughout my career I have constantly challenged accepted views. I must clearly do what I have been trained to do – ask ‘Who? What? Why?’
Who wrote this extraordinary command? Our Bibles attribute it to St Paul, but if Paul wrote it I’ll eat my hat. I once spent a whole week in Rome studying the First Letter to Timothy in depth with 30 other Pauline scholars, and the experience convinced me for all time that Paul could not possibly have written it. The vocabulary, syntax, style, attitudes, manner of reasoning and theology are all very different from Paul’s. Who then? Probably an admirer of Paul who was attempting to pass on what he thought Paul would have said to Christians of the next generation – but an admirer who had not really grasped the essential heart of Paul’s theology, and was in any case chiefly concerned with the problem of keeping order in a community which he thought was getting somewhat out-of-hand. Nevertheless, what he wrote is there, in our New Testaments. What are we to do with it?
A well-known biblical scholar used to insist that it was important to look at both the text and the context. Texts torn out of context are inevitably distorted. What was the context in which our author was writing? Churches – small Christian communities – had been established throughout the Roman world. But living in this world was dangerous. In the previous generation, Paul had faced constant danger from his fellow-Jews, who were trying to destroy what they saw as heresy. Now the greatest danger came from the Roman authorities, concerned about anything which might endanger the state or disrupt the Pax Romana. If the Church was to survive, it was important not to be regarded as challenging imperial power or to be undermining society. There came a point, of course, when Christians felt it necessary to do both these things, but for our author that point has not yet come.
And so he begins by urging his readers to pray, and in particular to pray ‘for sovereigns and all in high office, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life, free to practise our religion with dignity’. So far, so good. It seems good advice, as much for our modern world as for the one in which our author lived.
In our democratic world, we have the freedom to express our disagreement with our leaders in a way in which he did not – but we may well feel that those leaders are in dire need of our prayers. And we may well find ourselves saying ‘hear, hear!’ when he goes on to talk about the need for truth, which for him is clear and unmuddied by any strange notions of ‘post-truth’. For him, this truth is embodied in the gospel which Paul had been commissioned to take to the Gentiles.
It is when we get to the second paragraph, that our hearts may well begin to sink. ‘It is my desire’ he begins – and notice that this is what he wants; he refrains from suggesting that it is a divine command – ‘It is my desire that everywhere prayers be said by the men of the congregation’ – and immediately we know where he is coming from, for this was the custom in every Jewish congregation in the ancient world, and the Christian community had begun as a sect of Judaism, and inherited its core beliefs and many of its customs. Men and women sat separately in synagogues – and have continued to do so in the majority of synagogues right down to modern times. Men led the worship, and it was unthinkable that a woman might take part. No wonder, then, that our author decrees that men should be offering prayers, and that women should keep quiet. That’s how things had always been, and how they must continue to be! He goes on: ‘I do not permit’ – notice that ‘I’ once again – ‘I do not permit a woman to teach; they must keep quiet’. Of course! At least he allows them to listen and to learn! But they must not get above themselves. Women, he says, must dress modestly and soberly.
Why does our author think it necessary to lay down the law on these matters? The answer perhaps lies in the teaching of St Paul, that great champion of women’s’ rights, who refers frequently to women whose ministry he greatly valued – women who were leaders and teachers in his congregations. Paul, too, wrote about the appropriate behaviour for men and women when they were praying, but his advice was very different. Addressing the Corinthians, he told them that when a woman was praying or prophesying, she ought to have some kind of head-covering as a sign that she had been given authority. Once again, we need to ask about the context of this text. The city of Corinth was famous for its sexual licence. Pagan worship encouraged worshippers to sleep with prostitutes. Women who appeared in public without some kind of head-covering were clearly no better than they ought to be. Paul did not wish the Christian community to be brought into disrepute, so he instructed the women to cover their heads and the men to remove their headgear. As a result, Christian for the next two thousand years continued to obey his rules: women wore hats to church, and men removed them. Society had moved on, but the church, slavishly obedient to the text, had not.
What nobody obediently following Paul’s guidance noticed, however, was that in this passage he was assuming that women were praying or prophesying – in other words, leading church worship and preaching. They were doing what Jewish women had never been permitted to do. Paul is well aware that this is a revolutionary step. That is why he interprets the woman’s head-covering as a sign of authority. He saw it as a sign that she is modestly glorifying God, not bringing honour to herself.
Understanding the context in which a text was written helps us to understand it. Taking it out of context distorts it – and this is precisely what our forefathers did for generations. I say ‘forefathers’ advisedly, because it was male translators and commentators who interpreted Paul’s teaching in the context of their own time, where women were expected to be silent and subservient. Unable to believe what Paul appeared to be saying when he wrote that a woman must have authority on her head when she was praying or prophesying, the King James’ Version helpfully added a note to the text explaining that what he meant was ‘a covering in sign that she is under the authority of her husband’. St Paul says nothing about husbands, but he does say that the women are praying and prophesying, something which was ignored for almost 2000 years, until women exegetes began asking questions about the text.
Paul’s words must have encouraged women to take an active role in worship. Was this what worried the author of 1 Timothy? Were questions being asked about behaviour in the churches, bringing them into disrepute? Both our authors addressed men and women separately, but with very different advice. Paul's conclusion is that ‘in the Lord’s fellowship woman is as essential to man as man is to woman’, which he backs up by pointing out that though the first woman, Eve, had been created out of man, it is now through women that men come into the world: both have an important role. The author of Timothy got hold of the same story about Eve’s creation, but used it in a very different way. Adam was created first, he reminds us, then Eve, but it was Eve, not Adam, who was deceived by the devil, and so sinned! He had clearly not read Romans 5, where Paul goes to town on the sin of Adam, and makes no mention of Eve’s part in the story. Echoing Adam’s words in the original story in Genesis, our author lays all the blame on Eve. But there is hope for her, he adds, for she can be saved by bearing children. This must surely be the low-point in NT theology. I can imagine St Paul reading his disciple’s efforts, and writing a very large NO! in the margin.
So what are we to do with 1 Timothy? What is my answer to those who regard the Bible – all of it – as ‘the Word of God’? As the chaplain suggested last week, it is a mistake to use this description of the written words of the Bible, but many Christians confuse the two.
There’s a hymn which begins with the words ‘O Word of God incarnate’, and when I was very young I used to sing it with gusto, believing that I was addressing the Bible. After all, it was in the section of the hymn book labelled ‘The Holy Scriptures’. But the hymn goes on, rightly, to distinguish between the Word of God incarnate and the words written in the Bible. For Christians, the Word of God was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible is not ‘the Word of God incarnate’, but shows us what men and women at different times have believed God to be saying to them in their particular situations. The problem with words is that they are vulnerable – they can be misheard, misunderstood, mistranslated, misinterpreted, and the words in our Bible were words written by men who were endeavouring to interpret what they thought God had said to them. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they didn’t.
So what are we to do with our text? We must read it in context! And when we do that, we find someone attempting to guide the church in a difficult situation. From St Paul he had learned that, whether or not the church approved of the Roman Empire, it was best to avoid confrontation with Rome if possible. From Paul, too, he had learned the need to ensure that the Christian community’s behaviour did not bring it into disrepute. Both of them attempted to balance the insights of the gospel against the risks involved in confronting contemporary power structures and beliefs. That gospel would eventually change society and topple states, but it would take time.
Paul had begun the process, recognizing that the church was being guided to accept the role of women in worship, while aware at the same time that he must accept many of the customs of the age. Perhaps, a generation later, our author felt that his community was getting out of hand – and sadly, he set a precedent for ‘keeping women in their place’. Both of them lived in a world dominated by slavery, racism, and misogyny – but it took centuries for the Church to challenge those forces, and it is still fighting them today, sometimes within its own doors.
From our standpoint at the beginning of the 21st century, it’s not surprising if we feel that our author’s endeavours to deal with the problem were, to say the least, disappointing. But before we simply dismiss his advice, it is well to ask how we are dealing with similar questions in our very different context. We may well pray for our leaders; but how do we balance our support with our opposition to their policies when we think them misguided or downright evil? Do we conform to society’s conventions or challenge them with the message of the Gospel which, as St Paul insisted, declared that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and no male and female? (Gal. 3:28). Racism, slavery and misogyny are still all too dominant in our 21st century world. The truth expressed in Paul’s gospel challenges us still.