Thursday, May 31, 2012

Women Should Be Silent In Church, Part 2

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  Although technically the text was Acts 2:1-21, it was really on 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36:

This morning we conclude our look at Paul’s reported injunction from 1 Corinthians which says “women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.”  Last week we spent a long time looking at whether this passage was original to Paul, or whether it was added into the text later.  The argument against it being original is based first on the fact that the passage is not always found in the same place in our manuscripts.  Second, if this passage is removed from its location, as if it didn’t originally belong there, it doesn’t make the surrounding text harder to read but in fact makes it easier to read, and finally this passage contradicts things that Paul has already said in 1 Corinthians about women praying and prophesying in church, two roles which would require them to speak.  It also contradicts statements that Paul has in many other places which indicate that women were clearly leaders and involved in the communities founded by Paul.  I also discussed the possibility which is that rather than making this statement himself, that Paul is instead quoting something that was being said by others, which he then rebukes.  Now we spent a long time looking at these issues, and I apologize for dumping so much on you, of being “very technical” which is what Linda told me, and I promise I will not make it a regular practice, but I thought it was very important to look in detail at this text since it has very real application and import for more than half of the people sitting here this morning.

I believe that all too often we try and simplify scripture.  I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “the Bible says it, I believe it that settles it.”  The problem is that it doesn’t really settle anything, because rarely does the Bible say something.  A much more appropriate statement would be to say scripture says, or even better, the Isaiah says, or Paul says, or the Book of Leviticus says, because the Bible is not one cohesive whole, instead it is a series of books that are in dialogue with each other, and sometimes not in support of each other.  As we saw earlier the Book of Ruth is in dialogue with the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in fact they stand in stark contrast to each other.  In addition, as we touched on last week, the lens through which we read scripture has enormous impacts on how we interpret scripture.

So, returning to where we ended last week, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this statement is Paul’s own statement, that he truly said that women should be quiet in church, and not just in one particular instance, which is what some people want to claim that this only applied to whatever was going on in Corinth that prompted this letter.  But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is a universal statement that says that women should be silent in all churches, at all times.  The question we must ask is how we should read and interpret that statement in light of other scripture with which it might be in dialogue?  And we must also ask how we interpret it based on our understanding of Christ’s mission, as well as if our understanding of the world, and in particular how we view the genders, changes our understanding, like what we have done with slavery, for example?

My argument, and hopefully you are beginning to see the pieces fall together from the stories of the women in the Bible that we have already encountered, is that we can absolutely read this in a radically different light and interpret it differently.  As Methodists we are called to read scripture through what is known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.  Although Wesley did not specifically articulate the quadrilateral the way we understand it, he did propound the pieces, which are scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  I actually don’t like the term quadrilateral because that would imply that all four parts are equal.  Instead I prefer to think of it as a three-legged stool and scripture is the seat.  Scripture is primary, but tradition, experience and reason all help support our understanding of scripture, and the other parts are all necessary.  Wesley would in fact claim that those who would attempt to approach scripture by itself, as if that could actually be done, are “rank amateurs.”  Scripture is the primary source of Christian authority, but it is not the only source, and we must interact with it in meaningful and important ways using tradition, experience and reason.

It is clear, as we saw from when we looked at Mary Magdalene, that Jesus’ had female followers.  There were women who not only supported him and the disciples financially, but who also followed them around, including to Jerusalem for the final week.  After all the male disciples had fled, it was women who were at the cross.  It was the women who went to the tomb, saw it was empty and who were sent by Jesus to proclaim that he was raised from the dead.  And we have today’s story of Pentecost, which we recognize as the birth of the church, with the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes upon the disciples like tongues of fire.  When the people accuse the disciples of being drunk, even though it was only 9 in the morning, and Peter answers, quoting from the prophet Joel, saying that God will pour out the Spirit on “both men and women.”  And as we know, and as this story tells us, when you are filled with the Holy Spirit that you cannot contain or control it, you have to tell others, and thus cannot be quiet no matter what people say.

We also know that there were women involved in other ways in the early church.  Paul has interactions with several women who not only sponsor him, but who also host churches in their homes.  Probably the most interesting list of these women come to us from the last chapter of Romans, which if you have your Bibles with you, I would encourage you to turn to chapter 16.  Paul greets a list of people in the closing, some he knows and some he doesn’t.  Of the ten who are only indirectly known to Paul, 2 are women and 8 are men.  But of the people Paul knows, 9 are men and 8 are women; of the people with whom Paul routinely works almost half are women.  As we covered last week, there is Phoebe, who is delivering his letter to the Romans, who is called a deacon, which is clearly a leadership position in the church although it is not clear this early exactly what they do.  There are Prisca and Aquila, presumably a married couple, who he says “risked their necks for my life.”  What is interesting here is that Prisca, the woman is listed first, and if you remember back to the message about Mary Magdalene and also Zelophehad’s daughters, you might remember that the person listed first indicates a position of prominence.  Finally there is Andronicus and Junia, again possibly another married couple, who Paul says are “prominent among the apostles.”  Junia, a woman, is prominent amongst the apostles.

In addition to Paul’s letters, we also have other sources which tell us about the role of women in early Christian church.  In correspondence from around 120 between the emperor Trajan and Pliny, who was governor of one of the territories, Pliny reports that he has arrested and interrogated the leaders of one of the local Christian communities and they are women, slave women.  As the church began to grow in numbers and prominence, the fact that there were women in positions of leadership, let alone slave women, would not have been seen as a positive by many people outside the church and inside as well, and I believe that one of the reasons why statements limiting the authority and role of women in the church were made.  Nearly every movement as it gains in popularity wants to begin to conform to the culture in which it resides in order to become more acceptable to outsiders, especially those which begin and grow on the fringes of a group, as Christianity did.  And so those things which do not conform to the wider society begin to be controlled and tamed, and I think that is what we see happening with women in the early church, because the same thing happened within Methodism.

In the early Methodist movement, there were some women, in particular Mary Bosenquet, who came to John Wesley, and said that they believed they had been called to preach.  Being a man of his age, Wesley didn’t really know what to do with them as he supported Paul’s injunction, but then received a letter from his mother.  Susanna Wesley was incredibly influential in his life, as were his five older sisters.  Susanna, who was very educated for her day and also advocated the education of women, told John that the women should be known by their fruits.  If they could bring people to Christ then it would prove that God had called them, and if they didn’t then they should be removed, just like his male preachers. This caused John to change his mind and to write, “I do not believe every woman is called to speak publicly, nor more than every man to be a Methodist preacher, yet some have an extraordinary call to it, and woe be to them if they obey it not.”

But as the movement grew and spread, and as it sought more respectability, women began to be excluded until they were once again forbidden from preaching.  The first woman to be ordained in the Methodist church in America was Anna Howard Shaw, a graduate of Boston University’s school of theology who was ordained in 1880 by the Methodist Protestant Church, but the other annual conferences and other denominations refused to recognize her ordination, and many local churches also refused to receive her as a minister.  But, with pioneers like Dr. Shaw, women did not receive full ordination rights until 1956, and even still women clergy face an uphill battle.

I have been blessed to have had several women clergy be very influential in my life, but I have also seen how they are treated by some.  I routinely hear derogatory comments about women clergy by some of my male colleagues and others, and I know that appointments for women in this area are very difficult.  You have yet to have a woman appointed here and I really wonder how they would do and how they would be received, not because I believe you would not be incredibly gracious and welcoming, just as you were with me, but because this area is so impacted by denominations which are not welcoming to women in leadership positions.

So, to come to a sort of conclusion on this question, I believe that the key thing we have to deal with in looking at this question is whether we have to continue to see things the same way that they were seen in the 1st century, and we don’t.  Just like with Zelophehad’s daughters, laws change with new realities, and regardless of where you stand on this issue the simple truth is that we see the genders very differently now than they were seen at the time that any of the scriptures were written.  The ancients did not see men and women as equal parts of one hole, of just two different manifestations of humans.  It was not like two sides of a quarter, where they are both parts of the quarter, but instead men and women were like a quarter and a nickel, they might both be coins but are obviously not one and the same thing, and you’d rather be a quarter than a nickel.

Plato believed that only men were given souls and Aristotle said that “women are defective by nature,” they were not exceptional enough to actually become men as they developed in their mother’s womb.  There was a prayer said in synagogues in which men would thank God for not making them women, and in the Gospel of Thomas, which is a non-canonical text, in the last saying, which is about Mary Magdalene, Jesus says “Look, I will guide to make her male…. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t think this is an authentic statement of Jesus, but it definitely serves to illustrate how men and women were viewed within the ancient world.  It wasn’t that men and women were different parts of the same whole, but instead that women were something entirely different from men that really only men could be considered human.  So it is that understanding of women with which statements like this from 1 Corinthians and from 1 Timothy would have been understood.

The simple fact is we fundamentally have a different understanding of men and women than they did in the ancient world.  I have known several misogynists in my life, and while they would clearly argue that women are the weaker sex, and that they can’t do some things men can do, not one of them would say that they are not equally human.  Now, I am not arguing here that men women are the same, because there are differences.  When a woman talks about highlights, she is usually not talking about something she just saw on ESPN, and when men say they are going to hang a rack up in the house, it usually has nothing to do with spices.  We are different, but that does not mean that we are not also equal.  Just as our understanding of slavery changed, which changed how we viewed scripture, our understanding of gender has also changes and our reading of scripture must change to recognize that reality.  Things change, realities change, and when that happens the laws, even God given laws, also change.

We saw that God said that what the daughters of Zelophehad had said was right that they as women were entitled to inherit the land, and so the law was changed, and then was changed again by Moses.  Moabites and their descendents to the 10th generation were forbidden by law to enter the tent of the meeting, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, but King David, whose grandmother Ruth was a Moabite entered into the tent.  Jesus told the Canaanite woman that she was a dog and what he offered was not for her, but she told him that even the dogs eat the food from the master’s table, and a new reality that Jesus’ mission was for Jews and Gentiles, which was integral to Paul’s mission, came into existence, and even though the testimony of women was not to be trusted, it was the testimony of Mary Magdalene which announced that Jesus was risen and she became the apostle to the apostles.  Paul radically changed the Christian understanding of the law, and I think that understanding continues to change and as we have seen time and time again, God participates with us in that change.

Very recently Jimmy Carter left the small Southern Baptist church where he has been attending since he was an infant, and where he has been teaching Sunday school for most of his adult life.  He left because he could no longer reconcile the denomination’s position on women with that of his own or the new realities of the world, of what his experience and reasons showed him to be true.  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women,” Carter said.  “They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the later.  Their continuing choices provide the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.”

In my opinion I don’t think that Paul actually wrote the passage that we encounter in 1 Corinthians.  But even if it is original, even if Paul did say that women should be quiet in church, I do not think it is an injunction which applies to us today simply because we live in a very different world.  We now view men and women through very different eyes then did those of the 1st century, and we can see that God calls women various vocations, including entering into the ministry and being leaders in Christ’s church, not our church, but Christ’s church, and Christ welcomed women into his ministry just as much as he did men.  But the women do this not by becoming men, but by being who they are as women.

And so as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is poured out by God on both men and women, we remember Mary Magdalene and her proclamation that the tomb was empty, we remember the Canaanite woman who expanded Jesus’ ministry, we remember Ruth, the foreign woman who began the family line which leads to king David and then to Jesus, and we remember Zelophehad’s daughters who had the temerity and the tenacity to not only challenge a law given by God, but even won, and we celebrate the witness of the women we find in scripture and the women who have made such a difference in all of our lives, especially those who have spoken even when told that they were not allowed to speak.

I believe that we are called to see God’s word as a living document, something that is still meaningful and relevant to our lives, something that can be lived out and applied today, but that also means that we have to allow for and be open to new interpretations and new realities.  As Methodists we understand this to be played out in our lives by using experience, tradition and reason as we engage with scripture, and when we do that, then I believe we come to a new understanding of the role of women in the church and we will stop blocking God from being able to call all of his children into the ministry and leadership in the church and in the world.  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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