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Why I Believe: That Sisters Should Cover their Heads in Assembly Gatherings (2)

J Hay, Comrie

Recent generations have seen enormous cultural changes in the western world. Universal suffrage is well established, and "equal opportunities" is the stated aim of government despite complaints of lingering discrimination. The strident voice of feminism has prevailed, encouraging a massive shift in thinking that has swayed the politicians lest they be seen as an impediment to "progress". Consequently, there has been a surge of measures to increase the number of women in government, and to facilitate the combination of motherhood with a successful career. Generally, a mother’s role as family anchor and homemaker is regarded as outmoded.

This trend has swamped the religious world, and the major Protestant denominations have revised their thinking on women’s issues. For many years, non-conformists have encouraged women to take the pulpit. More recently, the Church of England has ordained women priests, with moves afoot for the appointment of women bishops, a logical advance on the previous step. The evangelical world has embraced this whole ethos, and vocal participation by women is firmly established in gatherings for both worship and preaching.

In the midst of these huge cultural changes, New Testament assemblies are holding to a traditional view that the sisters should be silent in assembly gatherings. Is that outlook sustainable? Is it merely a reactionary attitude on the part of religious dinosaurs? Clearly, it is a minority view, but is it founded on the Scriptures? As with the issue raised in the previous article, I believe that the silence of sisters should be maintained, not because of a chauvinistic mind-set, but because the Bible teaches it: "Let your women keep silence in the churches" (1 Cor 14.34). It all boils down to one’s attitude to the teaching of the Word. Do we accept its teaching as binding, or do we meddle with its precepts to move with the times?

Women’s Ministry

In New Testament times there were Christian women who displayed a loyalty to Christ that on occasions eclipsed that of the men. They endured the fierce flames of persecution as when Saul of Tarsus was "entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8.3). No one could ever have doubted their devotion and courage.

Some, like Dorcas, were outstanding in their service. She made an impact on her community in giving valuable assistance to needy widows. "This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did" (Acts 9.36). She has her modern counterparts, sisters who are known in their districts for their kindness and generosity, a valuable ministry that enhances the testimony.

With Aquila, Priscilla enlightened Apollos regarding the truth of God (Acts 18.26). To do it, she had to be familiar with the doctrine herself. Again, there are many women whose Bible knowledge outstrips that of their brethren. That knowledge can be imparted to others personally, and no doubt it was in that environment that Philip’s daughters communicated their messages from God. They "did prophesy", but we never read of them doing it in public gatherings (Acts 21.9).

Among Paul’s acquaintances at Rome were a number of women who had rendered him assistance in various ways. Phebe was "a succourer of many, and of myself also" (Rom 16.2). Priscilla had risked her life for him (v.4). Mary had "bestowed much labour" on him (v.6). An unnamed woman had mothered him (v.13). Others in the chapter had engaged in various aspects of service. The point is that dear sisters need not feel excluded because the Scriptures forbid public participation in the gatherings. Apart from the great honour that many have of bringing up children for God, a wide range of opportunities for serving the Lord is available (1 Tim 5.9-10).

The Rule of Silence

The overall theme of 1 Timothy is behaviour "in the house of God" (3.15), so the general teaching relates to assembly matters. In that context the statement is made, "I suffer not a woman to teach" (2.12), with the reasons advanced that the man was first in creation, and that the woman, being deceived, was first in transgression. Every believer is a learner, but the women have to "learn in silence" (v.11). God gave the man precedence in creation and He has extended that to the teaching role in the assembly. Older women have a teaching function domestically as they "train" young sisters in matters of home-making skills and child care (Titus 2.4, RV). That domestic responsibility does not breach the directive against public teaching in the assembly.

The rule of silence covers prayer meetings as 1 Timothy 2 again makes clear. "I desire therefore that the men pray in every place" (v.8, RV). The Greek word for "men" means males exclusively, and is not the generic word of v.1 which includes men and women. In New Testament times women attended prayer meetings (Acts 1.14; 12.12-17). No doubt they prayed, but their prayers would be like Hannah’s: "she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard" (1 Sam 1.13). There is reference in 1 Corinthians 11.5 to "every woman that prayeth or prophesieth". Possibly this was in vogue at Corinth, and Paul does not interrupt his teaching on headship to deal with it there, but reserves the issue until ch.14. More probably, he is speaking of women being in the sphere of praying and prophesying, but, whatever the meaning, a basic rule of interpretation comes into play. The explanation of a verse that is difficult to understand should never contradict a plain statement elsewhere.

The rule of silence (1 Cor 14.34) is so binding that it excludes sisters from even asking questions publicly (v.35), with the added word of caution, "it is a shame for women to speak in the church".

Objections

Some contend that it is unthinkable that over 50% of assembly members are gagged. They express outrage and disbelief. Remember, this is not the diktat of a religious sect, but the Word of God.

Others say that the main context of 1 Corinthians 14 is tongues speaking, and v.34 prohibits female participation. Remember, it covers even asking questions (v.35). The suggestion has been made that the command for silence was to forbid excitable Corinthian women chattering irreverently in the meetings. The word "speak" in v.34 is the ordinary word for "speak" and if you translate it "chatter", v.29 would read, "Let the prophets chatter"! Accept the word as it stands, and see the command as no mere by-law for Corinth, but a binding principle for every place in every generation: "Let your women keep silence in the churches".

To be continued.

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