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Would Paul not raise his eyebrows? From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?' by John Wijngaards

6. Would Paul not raise his eyebrows?

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

'... Disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on the head (1 Cor 11, 2-16)... no longer have a normative value. However, the Apostle's forbidding women "to speak" in the assemblies (cf 1 Cor 14, 34-35;1 Tim 2, 12) is of a different nature, and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognises as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf 1 Cor 11, 5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the christian assembly.

For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf 1 Cor 11, 7; Gen 2, 18-24); it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact. Nor should it be forgotten that we owe to Saint Paul one of the most vigorous texts in the New Testament on the fundamental equality of men and women, as children of God in Christ (cf Gal 3, 28). Therefore there is no reason for accusing him of prejudice against women...'.

(Roman Document on Women Priests.)

In my opinion we have here a classical example of how theology can misjudge the value of a biblical text. Paul did indeed forbid women to speak or to teach with authority during the weekly assembly. He did this in conformity with Jewish custom. He supported his point with a theological rationalisation. Neither Paul's prohibition nor his rationalisation is binding on us today. The prohibition concerned a passing custom that could be adjusted in changed conditions. The rationalisation served the need of the moment and did not contribute points of doctrine.

We speak of 'rationalising' when we try to justify an emotional attitude with a rational argument. Many Whites have an instinctive distrust of Blacks. They will justify this prejudice with a series of logical arguments, adducing cases where Negroes have proved untrustworthy, etc., whereas in fact their distrust is based on an emotional reason. Activists who are always ready to take on more work from an inner necessity to keep themselves occupied, will try to prove to others as well as to themselves that the work is forced on them from outside. A woman who for some instinctive reasons does not like a particular man will, on demand, produce rationalisations for her dislike. Rationalising means: convincing ourselves of having intellectual reasons for a view we have emotionally adopted.

Rationalisation also occurs in Scripture. It should be recognised as such; otherwise we may mistake it for teaching. The social custom of treating the seventh day as holy and a day of rest existed more than a thousand years before the rationalising explanation, 'For in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that these hold but on the seventh day he rested; that is why Yahweh has blessed the sabbath day and made it sacred' (Ex 20, 11; see also Gen 2, 1-3). The literal meaning of the words would suggest that the six-days' creation is an historical fact and the observance of the sabbath is an obligation deriving from it. However, it is really the other way about. Finding the observance of the sabbath of so great importance, the author deduces, 'meditates', that it must be so because of the way in which God has created the world.

God thirsting for blood?

Or consider the following incident from David's life. A severe famine of three years ravaged the country. A popular oracle attributed this famine to unrequited blood vengeance. Saul had committed some atrocity against Gibeon for which the Gibeonites had not been allowed to take revenge. 'The Lord said: "There is blood guilt on Saul and his house" (2 Sam 21, 1). To make up for this, David ordered that seven innocent descendants of Saul should be killed and hung on gibbets. Through this the famine was halted. 'After that God heeded supplications from the land' (2 Sam 21, 14).

If one reads the story superficially, one has the impression that Scripture attributes to God some remarkably vindictive action. God is dissatisfied because the Gibeonites did not get a chance to take blood vengeance on the family of Saul. So God inflicts a famine on the whole country. He does not lift the punishment until seven descendants of Saul's house have been executed. A lot of questions come to mind: if God is so angry about it, why did he take action only so many years after the crime? Why should he punish the whole country if only one man, now dead, had been guilty? Is blood vengeance of such great moral value that its practice needs safeguarding at all costs? Why should God take pleasure in the execution of seven innocent descendants of Saul if, elsewhere, it is stated in the Law: 'Fathers may not be put to death for their sons, nor sons for their fathers. Each is to be put to death for his own sin' (Dt 24, 16)?

The whole text is obviously a rationalisation. Whenever a famine occurred, people would ascribe it to God's anger. Searching for a cause, they might stumble on the Gibeonites' claim to blood vengeance and imagine this to be the reason why God is angry. When rains fell after the execution of the seven innocent men, it was again understood as a sign of reconciliation on the part of God. Such rationalisations are quite understandable and human, but we should beware of seeing in them teaching on God or on his will.

Wearing a veil

Paul wanted women to wear a veil when Christians met together in common assembly. It was a Jewish custom to which some women at Corinth had taken exception. Paul devotes a lengthy argument to it, producing the one theological rationalisation after the other: man does not need to wear a veil because he is more directly related to Christ; man is the image of God and reflects God's glory; man was the first to be created; woman depends on man in all these things. Paul himself realises the weakness of all this theologising and finally comes to the point when he states: 'To anyone who might still want to argue: it is not the custom with us, nor in the assemblies of God' (1 Cor 11,1-6).

Paul is one of the greatest theologians of the New Testament. But he certainly slipped up on this passage. In his anxiety to justify the common practice of women wearing a veil, he allows himself to be dragged into theological speculations that are typically Jewish, not Christian. Some of his arguments we cannot even fully understand as they pre-suppose Jewish theology no longer available to us. Why would a man 'disrespect his head' if he prays with his head covered, and a woman 'disrespect her head' if she prays unveiled? Why should a woman cover her head 'out of respect for the angels'? St Paul is on thin ice here and it would be unfair to him and incorrect in theology to take his argument seriously. The most we can say is that, in his rationalisation, Paul shows how much he is still imbued with the Jewish social myth of male predominance.

Speaking in the assembly

Another Pauline custom that belongs to this category concerns women speaking in the public assembly. Although Paul finds it normal for a women to pray or prophesy in the assembly ( I Cor 11, 5), he forbids her 'to speak':

'As in all the churches of the saints, women are to remain quiet at meetings since they have no permission to speak; they must keep in the background as the Law itself lays down. If they have any questions to ask, they should ask their husbands at home: it does not seem right for a woman to raise her voice at a meeting.' (1 Cor 14, 34-35).

'During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. I am not giving permission for a woman to teach or to tell a man what to do. A woman ought not to speak, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman was led astray and fell into sin' (1 Tim 2, 12-14).

These texts were made much of in scholastic theology to prove that women could not be given any authority in the Church. Cornelius a Lapide, writing in 1616, expressed common opinion when he called the prohibition for women to speak: 'absolute and universal'. He listed five reasons for this prohibition:

  1. It follows from woman's nature and God's positive command in Genesis 3, 16.
  2. Silence is more suitable to woman's humble status in the presence of men.
  3. Man possesses better reason and judgment and more discretion than woman.
  4. By speaking, woman may be tempted to lead man to sin.
  5. It is better that woman should remain ignorant of what is not necessary. By asking stupid questions in church she would give scandal to others.67

Cornelius' exegesis was obviously tainted with prejudice. He read more into the text than is warranted because he was anxious to see it confirm what he already believed. But, if we condemn this, does the Roman document in its argumentation not merit a similar judgment? Does the document not overstate the importance of the passage because it is anxious to find a text excluding women from ordination? Why would wearing a veil be of less importance than speaking in the assembly? Paul devotes many more verses to the former than to the latter custom. Why would Paul's wish that women attend the meeting with heads covered be time-bound whereas his refusal to let women speak would amount to an exclusion of women from priestly service on doctrinal grounds? Can this momentous differentiation really be proved from Scripture itself?

The official commentary on the Roman document has a phrase that makes one suspect it was the traditional use of the text in medieval theology that determined its sense. The similarity with Cornelius' exegesis may be more than accidental! 'Theologians have made abundant use of these texts (1 Cor 14, 34-35; 1 Tim 2, 11-14) to explain that women cannot receive either the power of magisterium or that of jurisdiction. It was especially the text of 1 Timothy that provided St Thomas with the proof that woman is in a state of submission or service, since (as the text explains) woman was created after man and was the person first responsible for original sin.'68 In other words: because theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Cornelius a Lapide understood the text in this way, we too should understand it as such. But, as I have shown before, and as the document admits, the theologians of the Middle Ages were biased against women and often drew wrong conclusions from these same texts. Thomas Aquinas had such strange ideas about the sexes that, commenting on 1 Cor 11, he could say that nuns who take vows 'are promoted to the dignity of men.'69 Is he then, in the present context, a safe guide to judge Scripture passages by? Or to turn the argument: if Thomas had known the modern exegesis on the subject state of women in 1 Tim 2, 11-14, would he himself not revise his stand on women's ordination? His reason for stating that women cannot be ordained is that 'It is not possible for the female sex to signify eminence of degree as it is characterised by the state of submission.'70 In judging these difficult Scripture texts the scholastics are better left alone, because they too lived in a male dominated social system.

Bound up with creation?

The document on this same subject of women speaking in the assembly also states: 'For Saint Paul the prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf I Cor 11, 7; Gen 2, 18-24); it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.' Can this enormous doctrinal weight so ascribed to the verse be deduced from the theological reason attached to the prohibition? And what about the fact that Paul attaches the same reason to the wearing of the veil? The same consideration, namely that Adam was created before Eve is adduced by Paul to prove that women should wear a veil (I Cor 11, 8-10) and that she should not speak in the assembly (1 Tim 2, 12-13). Should not the same judgment be applied to both?

There is no reason to doubt the historical fact that Paul did not allow women to teach in the church assemblies. Many of these early christians were either Jews or proselytes, so allowing women to teach was neither opportune nor, perhaps, possible. As in the question of wearing a veil, so here too Paul adds a theological rationalisation to the custom. And again it is a typically Jewish one. He refers to Mosaic Law: 'As the law itself says.' He refers to the creation account according to which Adam was created before Eve. However such a rationalisation has no teaching value and cannot carry the weight of a full doctrinal statement. The Law of Moses had been abolished with Christ as St Paul himself frequently affirms. Who came first and who last at creation was a favourite topic of discussion among Jewish theologians, which led Paul in other texts to compare Christ to Adam (see I Cor 15, 45-49). When the Roman document says that for Paul the prohibition was 'bound up with the divine plan of creation', it over values the weight of the text. Instead of proclaiming the enormous doctrine ascribed to it ('woman cannot exercise authority in the Church because that is the way God created her'), it contains the rationalisation of a great apostle who could, at times, not refrain from indulging in the theological pastimes he had been used to as a rabbi.

Go to Chapter 7?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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