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Should Women be Silent in the Church?

Should Women be Silent in the Church?

by Josefa Theresia Münch, M.Th. (Diplomtheologin)
Der Christliche Sonntag, 15th Aug 1965.

A passage in the first Letter to the Corinthians by the apostle Paul runs: “Women should be silent in the church because it is not permitted for them to speak, but to be subject as also the law saith. But if they would learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Cor 14, 34.35)

Nevertheless, today, many Churches of the Reformation allow their women theologians to mount the pulpits and give them the full ministry of the parish. A number of Lutheran pastors consider this as an offence against God’s will and revelation. In the Roman Catholic Church the idea of women preachers and women priests is almost taboo. By referring to this passage of St. Paul earlier it was thought to mean that women may not sing in church choirs. They should not teach religion and if they do so, only by way of substitute, in cases of emergency. In the “directions” which the German Catholic bishops gave out “for the celebration of the Holy Mass in public”, as late as 1961, it was said that “women, girls and children should not ordinarily exercise the ministry of reader in the divine service of the parish. In masses where only women, girls and children were present, or at least were in the majority, they would be allowed to read the epistle and gospel if no suitable man were present. In so doing, women, girls and children are instructed not to face the public.” Here women are put on the same level with children and are tolerated only as a stopgap, - once again, these “directions” are considered to be based on the words of St. Paul - or on what else? In the Greek Orthodox Church they go so far as to say that in community prayers women are neither permitted to pray nor to sing loudly together with the public. Why? A Greek theologian explained: “St. Paul has prescribed in his Epistle to the Corinthians that women should be silent in the church.”

There are well-known commentators who say that this anti-feminist passage in the Epistle to the Corinthians was not written by St. Paul, but that it has been interpolated by a later transcriber or editor. St. Paul could not have written that women should ask their husbands at home, because the first female Christians were often married to pagan or Jewish husbands whom they could not have consulted on Christian doctrine. On the contrary, the women often won over their husbands for Christ. The critics of these biblical commentators argue that no matter whether this passage in the Corinthians is genuine or not, the quotation occurs in other epistles of St. Paul’s, too (1 Tim 2, 12); whether these other passages are genuinely Pauline is also a problem of biblical commentary. However, they argue, this forbidding of speech is present in Holy Scripture.

Putting aside this question let us assume - in order to have a basis for our further discussion - that this passage is authentically from the Apostle of the Gentiles: and so let us ask, why St. Paul could come to this opinion?

Did St. Paul Get this as an Order from God? Or did he Defend it as a well-accepted Jewish Custom within the Social Order?

At the time of the apostle, the Jewish woman did not possess legal capacity, and was nearly without rights. She was not accepted as having the right of self determination, nor as being fully adult. She was under the guardianship of her father, her husband or one of her male relations. The veil about her face was as a fence enclosing property. Over this property the man had the right of disposal, but not she herself. Due to this sovereignty of the male over his wife, it was considered right for him to dismiss his wife for any reason (Dt. 24,11). The woman had no right to divorce. She could not dismiss her husband, even if he were the worst of monsters. Christ preached against this injustice of divorce. The apostles felt this to be so great an encroachment on the privileges of the male that they said, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.” (Mt 19,10). In public the husband did not speak even with his own wife. That would have been against his dignity. It was not surprising that the disciples wondered when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob.

Women were so completely without rights and were considered so inferior that at the time of Christ the Jews used to pray, “O God, I thank you for making me a man and not a woman.” This prayer is still said by the Orthodox today.

The disregard of women was also evident in the Jewish cult. Women were put on the same level as slaves and children and treated as such. Women, slaves and children were not allowed to say together with the community the important prayer: “Hear Israel”, and also they were excluded from many other parts of worship.

At the time of her monthly period a woman was considered unclean and was not allowed to partake in divine service. The Jewish religion was a religion for men. Girls were not allowed to study the Torah, that is to say they were excluded from religious instruction. The Synagogue regulations laid down that “A woman shall not read aloud from the Torah because the dignity of the community.” Note - for the sake of the dignity of the community, not for the sake of the dignity of God. So because of the dignity of the community a priestess would not have been tolerated, because the best woman ranked far below the worst Jewish male.

Those who know about the status of woman in Judaism of that time would realize that our passage of St. Paul has its source in the Jewish Synagogue Regulations and social life.

If this passage in the Epistle to the Corinthians comes from St. Paul himself, then he needed no special illumination and no divine revelation. He could have learnt it from the Rabbi Gamaliel, by whom he was taught according to the strict law of the Fathers (Acts 22,3).

It is suspicious that this commandment of silence has become a familiar saying and that it was spread by oral instruction and by writing and it was brought forward on every occasion where women in the Church were considered undesirable competitors. All the more, because profeminine words in the Pauline Epistles and in Holy Scripture are almost unknown, have been minimized, or have been wilfully concealed. But they do exist!

Pro-feminine Words in the Holy Scripture

Only those who know how the Chosen People despised the Gentiles, slaves and women, can estimate how great a divine illumination was necessary for the Jew Paul to write the following sentence in the Epistle to the Galatians: ‘For as many of you that have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew or Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ.’(Gal 3,27.28),

The women obviously rendered such great a service to the Early Church that Paul could not refuse them his acknowlegement. Those who think that the commandment of silence comes from the Apostle of the Gentiles himself, are only able to explain these conflicting passages by holding that the pupil of Gamaliel was torn between the old Jewish opinion and the new Christian ideal, which conceded human dignity and the freedom of the children of God to women, too.

In the epistle to the Romans (Rom16,1ff) St.Paul publicly praises and greets the couple Prisca and Aquila, “who have for” his “life laid down their own necks.” He honours Mary “who has laboured much for the Roman Church.” He withdraws the veil of women’s concealment from Tryphaena and Tryphosa, “who laboured in the Lord.” In the same letter which was read to the assembled Christians he salutes the “dearly beloved Persis who has much laboured in the Lord.” Also he salutes Julia and the sister of Nereus. He draws public attention to the woman Phoebe, who, at a later period, when the Church promulgated one decree after the other in abolition of deaconesses, would probably have been considered as a dangerous competitor. Whilst here Saint Paul commends her with very warm words. Without the woman merchant Lydia (Acts 16,14) the Apostle of Gentiles surely would not have had such great success. Evodia and Syntyche are admonished to be “of one mind in the Lord.” He entreats his companion to help those women and praises them “for they have laboured with me in the Gospel” (Phil 4,2.3). It is not to be supposed that the activity of these “women co-operators” was reduced to the service of nurses, or of women parish secretaries, who copied, duplicated and distributed the sermons of their presbyter.

If we leave aside the Pauline Epistles and turn to the Four Gospels we may state with joy that there is not the slightest word forbidding women to preach or to evangelize. The fact that Christ called only men to be apostles is mainly due to the Jewish Law by which women were not considered to possess legal capacity. They were unable to function as witnesses officially, they could not be ambassadors nor commissioners.

The Hebrew word for apostle is Shaljach - ambassador, attorney. If the witness of a woman was recognized, it was only in an unofficial way: in the same way as today a minor may be recognized. To this, for Jews, unofficial kind of witness, however, God has given strength and has built it into his plan of redemption. He empowered the prophetess Anna to make known the Child Jesus to all who looked for the redemption of Israel. (Luke 2,36-38) and made her his reporter. Christ accepted the propaganda of the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob, who won the whole town for Him (John 4, 29.30.39.42). Although at that time most of the women could only carry the news about Christ from mouth to mouth, because they were forbidden to speak before a crowded audience just as they were forbidden to read in the synagogue, some women, however, were bold enough to do it. - Probably they felt themselves urged by the commandment of Christ: “Go therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt 28,19.20).

Men and Women Disciples

Why should not the word “disciple” be applied to women as well as to men? Jesus did have women disciples. Let us think of Mary of Magdala and her group. When “disciples” are mentioned in the Gospels we may take it that the term often also meant women disciples. We must surely suppose that not only the Ten Commandments but also the Beatitudes and the order to evangelize the world were addressed to women as well as to men. And women surely believed themselves to be called when Jesus said: “You have to be my witnesses from Jerusalem to the frontiers of the world.” Despite the adverse attitude of their contemporaries, they felt themselves obliged to announce the good tidings. They could not be silent.

From the Acts we know that the daughters of the deacon Philip were gifted with prophecy (Acts 21,9ff ). This was a gift and also a duty. Jesus had warned against the hiding of talents. In the Sermon on the Mount He exhorted his hearers not to hide the light under a bushel but to put it on a candlestick that all might see. This injunction is addressed to all, men and women, and means that they must make the fullest use of their talents. Certainly today, when women possess legal capacity,have the right to vote and are eligible for public service, it should be obvious that they must be allowed to exercise all their talents in ways that transcend the traditional women’s domain of household duties and rearing of children.

The divine services of the first Christians did not take place in churches as today, but in private houses. We may be sure that an assembled community of Christians, an “ecclesia”, listened, when these prophetically gifted daughters of the deacon Philip spoke. In the same Epistle to the Corinthians, which has already been quoted regarding silence, the same apostle Paul does not forbid that women speak in the assembly, he only requests that they wear a veil on their head when they are prophesying.

Therefore we see that women did preach in the church long before Protestant women pastors existed. Anyone whose back is put up at the sight of a woman mounting the pulpit may remember that we in the Catholic Church have not developed the old tradition regarding women in the same way as the male episcopate and the ministry of St. Peter have been developed. This high degree of development of the male ministry is manifested by the “ex-cathedra decisions” and St. Peter’s great Basilica. Whereas the role of woman in the Catholic Church, except in the case of the veneration of Our Lady, has been diminished, and ministries which once existed have been abolished. We have enough passages in the Bible which give us in the Church today not only the right but also the duty to renew women’s functions and ministries of the Early Church and to develop them further.

This is specially evident in the accounts of Christ’s Resurrection. In spite of the contemporary prejudices against women as witnesses, the Risen Christ Himself encouraged women to be His first witnesses. “Fear not. Go and give word to my brethren...” (Mt 28,10). In the Gospel of St. Mark the young man in the white robe orders the women “No need to be dismayed. You have come to look for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified; he has risen again, he is not here. Here is the place where they laid him. Go and tell Peter and the rest of his disciples that he is going before you to Galilee. There you shall have sight of him as he promised you”(Mark 16,6.7).

Having read the pro-feminine passages in the Epistles of St. Paul and in the other books of the New Testament, we have no longer any reason to stare anxiously at the quotation in the Letter to the Corinthians: “Women should be silent in the church.” Indeed, the Church has no solid biblical foundation for repressing public reading by women in the church, nor to accept women only in cases of emergency as teachers of religion and then only to the lower classes and at schools of inferior rank.

On the contrary, it is in conformity with the order of Christ (Mt.28,19) when women read publicly in the church, not only from the pew but also from the sanctuary and the lectern. “When the Vatican Council speaks of the revaluation of laymen, women are also included”, said Auxiliary Bishop Frotz. That applies also to reading from the sanctuary.

“You must go in haste, and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead” (Mt.28,7). This order should not be refused to women by the Church government today. They should be allowed to carry out this order of Christ by teaching religion at every level at schools and colleges and becoming eligible for university Chairs in Theology. We need not be terrified by a woman in the pulpit. And the men among us need not consider it against their dignity to receive the “good tidings” from a woman. The Saviour, two thousand years ago, expected the disciples to accept the evangelistic functions of women, those men whom we in the Catholic Church today regard as the first bishops and the first pope (Mt 28,10). The Man-God did not find it defamatory for the Church, for the brethren, for the disciples and for St. Peter to be told the news of the Resurrection by women.

To God there was no impediment to calling women to be eye and ear witnesses of the Resurrection of Christ, and to giving them the order to speak and not to be silent. God, also today, calls women as his witnesses - for a little or for a large audience.

It is the task of humanity and of the Church no longer to resist this but to accept joyfully their witness.

Return to the duty of speaking out


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