Headship and Silence – Father’s Day-9

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.   [I Timothy 2:11-12]

It sounds as if Paul is saying that women, like children, are “to be seen and not heard,” but is this really the whole picture?  Care must be exercised not to isolate any passage from the greater context and balance that the Bible may have on any subject, and this one in particular.  As well, what concept did the original language, Greek, have in regard to the word “silence”?  And finally, one must also keep in mind that human nature is often offended by some of the things God says to us.

Although that may sound ominous in regard to this discussion, it is not really an attempt to forewarn the reader that  this will be a negative and unpleasant post, especially for women.  For the moment, consider John 6 as Jesus declares that “unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you” [v 53], which results in “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” [v 66].

In reality, Jesus declares comforting news that will take tangible shape later in Holy Communion – there is forgiveness, life, and a deep personal relationship to be had from “the Bread from Heaven” (Jesus).  Yet this is something the people do not want to hear – the human nature, which is so dedicated to be anti-God, ends up rejecting even what is good.  So it is important then to look carefully at what it is to which we are reacting and why – our offense at God’s Word may actually not be as “honorably” and even “self-righteously” motivated as we think.

Looking at the I Timothy 2 passage, what is the swing of Paul’s argument previous to the given verses?  He has just said that men lift “holy hands, without wrath and debate (dispute)”; that women “in like manner” be adorned “modestly and with sound mind” “by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” [vv 8-10].  In such an environment, the women should learn in “silence.”

As has happened with other words in this series of posts, “silent / silence” may be an unfortunate choice of English word.  Looking at different lexicons (sort of like dictionaries, but which survey how a word is used in ancient literature), the sense is not so much “don’t open your mouth” but rather that it indicates the temperament of a “God-produced calm which includes an inner tranquility that supports appropriate action” [Helps Word Studies; copyright © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc; http://concordances.org/greek/2271.htm, retrieved 2012-09-17].

Therefore Paul uses basically the same word for those who “work in quietness and eat their own bread” [II Thessalonians 3:12].  When a Jewish riot is fomenting, Paul is permitted to address them in Hebrew, at which “they kept all the more silent” [Acts 22:2] – that is, rather than prolonging the uproar, they stop to pay close attention to what he is saying.  In fact, earlier in I Timothy 2, Paul urges prayer for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable (“silent”) life, godly and respectful in every way” [v 2].  This would also seem to be St Peter’s frame of mind when he says, “rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” [I Peter 3:4].

In a sense, the English “silence” may be an appropriate word, as for instance, to “silence one’s heart” or to “silence one’s mind,” which would reflect more the mind at ease, the heart contented, the freedom from rebellion, and the openness to learn and grow.  But this is not in the way that we normally use it and therefore it can have a misleading interpretation.

I Corinthians 14, however, has a contrasting concept with a different word: Paul is just finishing a discussion in regard to how “God is not the Author of confusion but of peace” [v 33], and then adds

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. [vv 34-35]

The word here for “silent” is a different one – it does mean in essence, indelicately put, “close your mouth!”  But this is a different circumstance.  To begin with, remember that in the early Church the people still follow the synagogue seating arrangement, where the women would sit on one side, and the men on the other.  When Paul says “if they want to learn something,” it would seem that he is addressing a situation where some women are asking questions, possibly of their neighbors or of their husbands on the other side of the group, and disrupting the worship.  Therefore comes the admonition that they should “ask their own husbands at home.”

So, whereas this “silence” deals with outer disruption and therefore is cause to admonish that one should “close the mouth,” the “silence” of I Timothy rather emphasizes “the inner God-produced calm,” which provides an atmosphere within the congregation fertile for learning.

Still, in I Timothy 2:12, Paul adds, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”  Again there must be a balance in understanding.  Her commission is to be a real contributor in the joint task of being “the Image of God” – after all, she is “the helper suitable for man” [Genesis 2:18] who represents Jehovah’s “help” and salvation to the man.

So no mere onlooker or figurehead, she is rather a co-worker with the man, having a God-designed different perspective, with whom the man is to be constantly in reference and in consultation.  As mentioned in a previous post, God made no human to be sufficient in and of him/herself.  Therefore the man needs her “help” if he is to fulfill his mission to creation.  The design still holds even after the Fall into sin – God’s design does not crumble nor is negated by human rebellion (otherwise man would lose his responsibility as well).
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In I Corinthians 11:3-16, Paul discusses when a woman “prays” or “prophesies,” which seem to be not private or just familial activities but rather worship-community related activities, that is, leading in prayer or preaching (more than simply “future-telling,” “prophesying” is to reveal the Lord’s will, past, present and/or future).  Paul does not forbid the woman of these activities, but rather emphasizes that they be done within the proper decorum, which is to acknowledge the sequence of headship, so that there is no usurpation of authority, which would lead to confusion and chaos.

Martin Luther comments on this idea:

Paul did not forbid this out of his own devices, but appealed to the law, which says that women are to be subject (Gen 3:16).  From the law Paul was certain that the Spirit was not contradicting Himself by now elevating the woman above the men after He had formerly subjected them to the men; but rather, being mindful of His former institution, He was arousing them to preach, as long as there is no lack of men.  How could Paul otherwise have singlehandedly resisted the Holy Spirit, who promised in Joel (2:28): “And your daughters, who all prophesied.”  “And Miriam the sister of Moses was also a prophetess” (Exod 15:20).  And Uldah the prophetess gave advice to pious King Josiah (II Kings 22:14-20), and Deborah did the same to Duke Barak (Judges 4:4-7); and finally the song of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55) is praised throughout the world. Paul himself in I Cor 11:5 instructs the women to pray and prophecy with covered heads.  Therefore order, discipline, and respect demand that women keep silent when men speak; but if no man were to preach, then it would be necessary for the women to preach. [“On The Misuse of the Mass,” Luther’s Works, vol 36, pp 149,150]

There is a curious case presented by Aquila and Priscilla [Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3; I Corinthians 16:19; II Timothy 4:19].  They are introduced in the standard ancient practice, which always mentions the man first, then the woman.  But then, except for I Corinthians, Priscilla is afterwards mentioned first.  As a contrasting example, in Acts, up unto the first missionary journey, whenever Barnabas and Paul are discussed, Barnabas is mentioned first, which would indicate that he is the lead person with his “assistant” Paul/Saul.  But as the first missionary journey begins, soon it becomes “Paul and his party” [Acts 3:13] and “Paul and Barnabas” [v 43], indicating that the lead person is now Paul.  So, when Priscilla is mentioned first, is it because she is the lead person, possibly having the greater gift for their work?

When Paul says, “I do not permit a woman … to have authority over a man,” the word “authority” in the Greek is noteworthy.  This is the only place where it appears in the New Testament, and lexicons indicate that it is quite a harsh word, as according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon [Electronic Database. Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2006, 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc.  All rights reserved.  http://concordances.org/greek/831.htm  Retrieved 2012-09-17]:

1) one who with his own hands kills another or himself

2) one who acts on his own authority, autocratic

3) an absolute master

4) to govern, exercise dominion over one

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance even suggests “domineer over.”  This then speaks of a usurpation of power, a deliberate perversion of the order of headship, and a conscious rebellion against the humility and mutual submission which Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 5:21.  In this context, then, a woman deciding on her own to take on a teaching role over men is entirely inappropriate.

However, there are times when “the helper suitable for man” does have greater expertise in a certain subject than the man.  In mutual submission, there is no objection to the man deferring to her who has the greater knowledge and background rather than proving himself a fool.  So the man who has no medical education might learn from a woman who is trained in a medical profession.  A woman who has studied and can present sound arguments in regard to doctrines can be in an excellent position to provide valuable insight – teaching –  to  a group of men. This is no overstepping of the sequence of headship, but rather a delegation within it, which recognizes God’s gifting of both the male and the female.  Paul maintains, though, that such delegation should be clearly identified (he speaks of “the head covered” as symbol of the chain of authority [I Corinthians 11:3-10]) so that there is no confusion and misunderstanding as to what is happening.

Indeed, a woman can be very capable!  Proverbs 31:10-31 describes a most competent, knowledgeable and industrious woman.  She is a very important contributor to the life, welfare and strength of her family as she makes decisions, carries on business and directs her servants on her own.  Although she here is presented as an ideal, there is the indication that a woman can certainly be this proficient and still not violate the headship sequence – there is no usurping nor domineering.

Still, there is the “headship” issue which human nature does not like.  This can easily be similar to when in John 6, Jesus makes statements that cause some to be offended and walk “with Him no more.”  Somewhere along the line we are faced with the decision as to whether God does have ultimate say over what He designed, or whether He has become passé based on our “new and improved” concept of humanity.  We will take Him when He is convenient, but will turn away when He describes what is “unfair discrimination.”

It is important to remember that Paul is not “anti-woman” but rather he is identifying God’s principles (which we have been tracing throughout this series of posts).  He reminds us that the woman was created for the sake of man, but then also reminds us:  “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.  For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” [I Corinthians 11:8-12],  There is a balance to be kept in mind and, ultimately, we kneel at the feet of our God – in the “silence” of I Timothy 2.

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