Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Women: Be Silent And Subservient

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Timothy 2:8-15:

Today we continue looking at some of the difficult passages we find in scripture as they relate to women.  Last week we heard from 1 Corinthians that women should be silent in church, and I said that many scholars do not believe that passage was original to the letter, but instead think it came in as a margin notation based on the passage we just heard from 1 Timothy.  Just as a brief summary, scholars don’t think it’s original first because it doesn’t match what says about women, and their participation in church, in other parts of 1 Corinthians.  Second because it is not consistently found in the same places in the manuscripts we have giving some indication that the scribes were unsure where it properly belonged, which leads to the third point that the section of chapter 14 in which it is found is actually easier to read if it is removed because it interrupts what Paul is talking about otherwise.
So that leads us into today’s passage, of which there is no doubt is original to this letter.  Now where the doubt lies is whether Paul wrote 1 Timothy or not.  Although the letter says it is written by Paul, the vast majority of scholars do not believe it is written by Paul, and when I say the vast majority I’m talking close to 90.  Instead, this is a pseudepigraphical work, that is a work written by someone else in Paul’s name.  We have lots of different pseudepigraphical works as this was fairly common in the ancient world.  The main part of this is really a defense of Paul to say that I don’t think Paul ever said that women should be silent in church.  But even if Paul didn’t say it, it is still there, so how do we approach these passages?

The easiest thing to do would be to say that we are going to ignore it, pretend as if it doesn’t exist and go on to something else.  And the simple truth is we all do that all the time, we even do it with these passages.  So for example, the vast majority of churches that want to argue that women should be silent, and certainly should never be ordained, don’t require that women cover their heads when they come into church, as required by the rules Paul does stipulate in 1 Corinthians.  Nor do they stop women at the door of the church and tell them they can’t come in, because their hair is braided or they are wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothing.  So why is it that we ignore the rules that come right before choose not to ignore the one that comes after?  Is it because we often come to scripture looking for things we can use to justify our own biases while ignoring those that don’t?  And I’m not attacking a particular group, because all of us do exactly the same thing.  We all pick and choose what parts of scripture we want to follow, or force others to follow, and which we’re going to ignore or explain away to make our own point.

And that even includes the author of 1 Timothy because he explains, or justifies his reasoning, based on Eve.  He says that Adam was formed first and then Eve was formed, and therefore implies that the woman is therefore subordinate to the man.  There are two problems with this.  The first is, when is the second release of a product ever worse than the first release?  You could argue that man was the beta test, and then God worked out the kinks to make it better.  But the second, and bigger, problem is a scriptural one, and that is he has decided to pick and choose his passage to prove his point and ignored others.  Because the story of Eve being created from Adam is found in the second chapter of Genesis, which is actually the second version of the creation story.  But we find an entirely different creation story in the 1st chapter of Genesis, and in that creation story how are man and woman created, or we might say, when are they created?  At the same time.  So the author here ignores that story because it does not fit the preconceived notion he already has about men and women, and so he doesn’t even mention it.

He also conveniently twists the story of the fall for his own purposes as well, in saying that it was the woman who was deceived and not Adam.  But again when we look at the actual story we see that’s not quite the way it happens.  This is in chapter three of Genesis, and we find Eve talking with the serpent, who is never said to be Satan by the way, another way we add things to the text, and she takes the fruit and eats it.  Then in our popular understanding of the story, we imagine Eve then wandering through the garden until she finds poor, humble, innocent, naive Adam, and Eve uses her feminine wiles to convince Adam to eat too.  But what the story actually says is that Eve took the “fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”  Adam was there the whole time, and he did nothing to stop her, perhaps because he was equally deceived, or was willing to go along with it.  So to say that Eve was deceived and was the transgressor is not authentic to the part of the story from which he wants to reference.  So we all pick and choose, and we need to be cognizant of that, but back to the original question, how do we approach this passage with integrity and see a different meaning in it?  Do we have to read it and understand it and apply it today the way it was understood and in the first century, or does the fact that we live in a different time and place allow us to understand it and interpret it differently?

Fortunately for us as Methodists, we have a history and a tradition that allows this to be easier than for other denominations and that is because of what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  What John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said was the scripture should be interpreted using tradition, experience and reason.  So for me it’s not really so much of a quadrilateral as it is a three-legged stool, that scripture is the seat, upon which we base our faith, but scripture, tradition and reason all support the seat of scripture.  It was using this idea that allowed Wesley to radically reinterpret the passages we find in scripture relating to slavery, becoming the first theologian of any significance to come out in opposition to slavery on theological grounds, and to say that while scripture would certainly appear to support slavery, his experience of slavery as it was being experienced, in particular in America, stood in contrast to his idea of God.  And so he didn’t throw-out scripture, he read it in a new way, with a new lens.  He read it the way that most people today read it, although it took many people well more than 100 years to see it the way Wesley did.

So what does our tradition, experience and reason tell us about these passages as they related to women?  When we normally when we think about the tradition, it is that women cannot be in positions of leadership and certainly cannot become priests.  And this is true not just for the Roman Catholic tradition, but even the Protestant tradition.  Martin Luther once said that a “women should remain at the home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring us children.  If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not.  Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”  That seems to match what we heard from 1 Timothy, so by what we hear most often, tradition clearly supports a strong reading of keeping women silent.  Except that the tradition is much deeper and more complex than that.

While Jesus choose 12 men to be his disciples, it is also clear that there were many women who not only followed Jesus, but who played important roles in Jesus’ ministry. When all the disciples had fled, it was the women who were faithful.  It was the women who were at the tomb.  It was women who first encountered Jesus, and then went on to proclaim the message of the resurrection to the disciples.  An apostle is one who was sent, and within Biblical witness tended to include those who had seen the resurrected Jesus, and so the first apostles, are women. 
We also know that there were women involved in lots of other ways in the church.  Paul has interactions with several women who not only sponsor him, but are also hosting churches in their homes.  Probably the most interesting list of these women come to us from the last chapter of Romans.

Here 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, that is of the people Paul routinely works with a large percentage of women.  We also have correspondence from around 120 between the emperor Trajan and Pliny, who was governor of one of the territories, and Pliny arrests and interrogates the leaders of one of the local Christian communities and they are women, slave women as it turns out.  I believe that one of the reasons why statements like we find in 1 Timothy are made is because every movement as it gains in popularity wants to begin to conform to the acceptability of the culture in which it resides, and so what had once been acceptable begins to be controlled and tamed.

The same thing happened in the early Methodist movement.  Several women came to John Wesley and said that they had been called by God to become ministers.  John, being a man of his time, didn’t know what to do with them, and I think really wanted to reject them.  Except he talked to his mother about them, and his mother Susanna played a dominate role in his life, as did his sisters.  He had seen that Susanna was in reality a much better minister and pastor than his father was, and she told them that the women should be known by their fruits.  If in preaching they could bring people to Christ, it would prove that they had been called by God, and if they couldn’t produce fruits, then they weren’t, and the same was true for men.  And so John began allowing women to be exhorters, as there was no ordination for anyone at this point, although with special rules.

But, as Methodism began to spread and as it moved into the middle and upper classes and sought to become more “respectable” women were removed from their positions and no others were allowed to enter. It wouldn’t be until 1956 that the Methodist church allowed for the full ordination of women, and the first women in New Mexico weren’t ordained until the 80s, and many of them left the church or the conference because of the substantial opposition they experienced.  I have been blessed by my relationship with several clergy women who have played significant roles in my development as a minister, but I also still routinely hear negative comments made about women clergy by other male pastors even today.  Some of these prejudices have deep roots.  But the tradition is not as black and white as some would like it to be.

But what about our reason and our experience?  We tend to think of men and women as too sides of a coin.  That is they are the same, and yet they are different, and the French would say “Viva la difference.”  But even the biggest misogynists I have known would not argue that women were not human, it’s just that they are the opposite side of the coin.   But that is not how women were viewed in the ancient world.  The ancients did not see men and women as equal parts of one whole, of just two different manifestations of humanity.  Instead, there was sort of a progression of existence, starting at one end with small things and moving up the scale with the gods at the top, but just below the gods were men, and below that were women and children.  Plato believed that only men were given souls and Aristotle said that “women are defective by nature,” the women were not exceptional enough to actually become men.  In the Gospel of Thomas, which is a non-canonical text, which is a collection of supposed sayings of Jesus, 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.  The simple truth is, regardless of where someone might stand on this issue, we fundamentally understand men and women differently than did the ancient world, just as we understand slavery differently than did those of the ancient world, and thus we now interpret the passages on slavery differently.

Things change, realities change, and when that happens, the laws, even God given laws, change, as we will see that played out next week in the remarkable story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  These passages might have made sense in the 1st century in which they were written but do they make the same sense in a 21st century context? I believe that our interpretation of these passages must change with the time.  And as much as we ignore the rules that come before that line from 1 Timothy, and most also certainly ignore the line that comes after it because we don’t argue that women can only find salvation through childbearing, and Paul definitely would not argue such a thing, why do we want to hold onto that one line?  It think it says more about us then it does about scripture.

I read someone this week who was talking about the difficulty of keeping fidelity to scripture amongst the seduction of certitude.  That is we want things to be black and white, we want scripture to be certain, and that’s seductive and leads to danger as must seduction does.  But instead we can remain faithful to the idea of scripture while not having the certitude we might desire.  Because what certitude tries to do is to box God in, to force God and God’s word into a small container where we can contain and control it.  But the problem is that God has a habit of breaking out of that box, of moving way beyond our certitudes, way beyond our desire to control things, way beyond our desire to see others as beloved children of God, way beyond our simple understanding of what God was trying to say to us from the beginning, and we can either be open to God blowing away the box or not.

 Jesus was one way that God blew apart the box, and not everyone was ready for that then, and not everyone is ready for it now, and God also uses the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to blow away our boxes that try and contain God.  But I am not arguing that we throw these passages out, or even ignore them.  I am arguing instead that we simply admit that we are going to read it differently today, the same as we do for other passages, and say we are going to understand it in its context which is radically different from our context and interpret it differently.   To see the movement of God in a whole new light, to see God’s radiant glory and mercy and love in a whole new light so that rather than drawing circles that exclude, as the world is so want to do, that instead we draw circles of love that include and see God’s call to each and every one of us and judge each other not by outward characteristics, but instead by the fruits of our labor.

And so as we celebrate this third Sunday of Easter we remember that it was the women at the tomb who made the first proclamation that Jesus was risen, and we celebrate that and we celebrate the witness of the women we find in scripture and we celebrate the witness of the women who have made such a difference in all of our lives, especially those who are continually told by others that they are not welcome.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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